Grace Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2021, Epiphany 1B (Baptism of the Lord)
Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11
Psalm 23, the most famous psalm ever, contains a brief phrase which turns out to be illuminating. It’s early in the psalm; verse 2 declares “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters…”
It turns out that in ancient or biblical times, the people of Israel weren’t terribly fond of the water. While ancient peoples such as the Phoenicians proved to be adroit at travel across the seas, the Israelites…didn’t. Aside from the fisherfolk like several of Jesus’s disciples, going out on the water, whether the grand Mediterranean Sea or the smaller inland “Sea” of Galilee, wasn’t a preferred activity or vocation.
It’s hard to argue this was unjustified, to be sure. The sea was a dangerous place. It was easy to die out there, and many sailors lost their lives. (See another psalm reference, Psalm 107:22-32, for a particularly vivid description of the hazards of the deep.) So Psalm 23’s reference to “still waters” is thus revealed as a sign of the utter safety and peacefulness of God’s provision and care for the sheep in that psalm.
The author of Psalm 29 takes a different view of the waters – no safety here. Indeed the psalmist appears to take the kind of storms that would blow in from the Mediterranean across the northern reaches of Palestine, slamming into Lebanon and crossing into Syria, and ratcheting them up, oh, a thousand times or so. (Of course we n Florida are familiar with how the waters that surround us can spin up or intensify storms that then rumble across the Peninsula or into the Panhandle.) The rhetorical coup de grace of the psalm is to place God at the head of the storm.
Verses 3-9 of this psalm are a storm scene, the likes of which would trigger bad flashbacks for many storm victims. The voice of God thunders; the voice of God breaks the mightiest trees of the forest, the cedars of Lebanon and ravages the mountainous regions; the voice of God flashes lightning and triggers fire and sets the oaks to whirling as if caught up in a tornado, shaking the wilderness. All of this time, at the beginning and the end of this psalm, we are reminded that “the voice of the Lord is over the waters” (v. 3) and that “the Lord sits enthroned above the flood” (v. 10). The storm is the dynamic rendering of the voice of God, and (in the psalm at least) all of those in the temple cry “Glory!”
Here’s where I come to doubt the psalmist.
I’m not always so certain that people cry “Glory!” at such a sight, not all of them anyway.
I know darn well, from observation, that people cry, “I want that power.”
We saw that this week, those who want that power. They attacked the Capitol building on Wednesday. People “to whom,” in the words of Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, “being more real than others is so important” peformed an act of terrorism and violence that would have gotten any other class of people in this country shot on the spot, without even a fraction of a second’s hesitation.
They want that power, to exalt themselves and to destroy others.
And they’ll even claim God’s blessing to do it, carrying Bibles and crosses and singing churchy songs and prayers while rioting and breaking things. Mind you, this is a God who bears much more of a resemblance to John Wayne, or maybe Bravehart William Wallace, than to what most Christians would think of God resembling. Certainly not the gray-bearded old God of cartoons and comic strips, or the shining, beneficent light of paintings.
And most emphatically not the God-with-us who comes to the Jordan in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel.
Let’s be clear: Jesus does not need to be baptized. Why does a sinless person need to be baptized for repentace and forgiveness of sin? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John, who has already foreseen him as “the one who is more powerful than I,” and the one who John is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals”?
Water is powerful. History records river baptisms – with their symbolism of dying in Christ – tragically ending in more literal death, as baptizer or baptized or both are swept away by the mighty, uncontrolled waters. Even modern-day baptisms can end that way; a quick Google search reveals deaths during baptism due to drowning, heart attack, and in one case a pastor being struck by lightning. The Jordan River doesn’t necessarily have a lot of raging rapids, but it could still take you under.
And yet Jesus (Emmanuel, God-with-us, remember) submitted to this risky and kinda needless exercise. Jesus stepped into the Jordan and submitted to the baptism for the forgiveness of sins of which he had none, at the hands of one not worthy to untie his sandals. The possessor of all that power as described in the psalm submitted, and was baptized.
Coming up from those waters, Jesus (and only Jesus, as Mark describes it) saw just a flash of those mighty powers – the heavens “torn apart” – and instead of breaking the cedars and ravaging the mountains, the heavenly voice announcing Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved” and saying to Jesus “with you I am well pleased.”
If you’re going to call yourself a follower of Christ, this is your response to the temptation of power. To grab and terrorize and threaten and wreck and break, all because you did not get your way, cannot be reconciled with Christ. Period.
The temptation to indulge in the power of self-importance and domination of others runs rampant these days. Do not be deceived. No matter how many crosses are raised, no matter how many prayers are prayed or praise and worship songs are sung, that grasping of “power” or “strength” or “might” is not of Christ, and pales pathetically in the face of the God who sits enthroned above the flood, who breaks the cedars and causes the oaks to whirl and makes the mountains skip like young cattle or oxen. The One who submits to the lot of humanity in baptism is not the one who demeans or destroys some so that others can live in gratuitous privilege to exploit and abuse and destroy.
The power of the waters of baptism is the power of God, and God alone. To submit to these waters, for once and for always, is the true fellowship of Christ, the powerful One who submitted to weakness for the sake of all of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #259, The God of Heaven; #480, Take Me to the Water