Grace Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord C
Through the Waters
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
Those words from the prophet Isaiah were probably familiar, at least a little bit, to many (not all, necessarily, but many) of those who had made their way out to John in the wilderness to be baptized. All the prophets and their words mattered, of course, but sometimes it seems as if Isaiah’s words mattered a little bit more. And this is a passage of comfort and protection, unlike many of the oracles recorded in the books of the Hebrew prophets, with words of judgment and promises of doom. So it’s not at all unlikely that someone among those being baptized, in being called into the water by John, might have had those very words on their lips:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
We might want to remember that the experiences of the Hebrew or Israelite or Judean peoples with waters was a bit mixed. One of the most ancient stories in their tradition was that of Noah and the great flood, wiping away all those on earth not on Noah’s ark. Also remember that one of the great obstacles to the Exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt was the Red Sea, and only divine intervention got them through that. A similar experience got their descendants across the Jordan River when it came time to enter the Promised Land. There’s some trauma in this history with great waters.
The Israelites were not largely a seafaring people and could sometimes be vulnerable to those peoples who were. Even the seemingly less hazardous business of fishing on what came to be called the Sea of Galilee was still fraught to peril, vulnerable to the intense localized storms that could develop out of nowhere on that body of water. You might remember a story or two in the gospels where Jesus and his disciples encounter such things. And while the Jordan River was not a prime candidate for, say, whitewater rafting, you could still get carried away and drowned if you weren’t careful.
In short, Isaiah’s prophetic oracle here touches a particular nerve for his hearers and readers. To a great degree, “waters” represented peril. To be blessed with that reassurance above – that God would be with them as they passed through the waters, and that rivers would not overwhelm them – was far more than a poetic image; it was direct, earthy, and practical. Indeed, it’s not at all implausible that some of those coming down to be baptized by John had those very words on their lips:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
It’s doubtful, however, that anyone in that crowd that day expected that old prophetic oracle to take quite such a … literal turn.
After all the people had been baptized, some were probably trying to dry off; others might have been making small conversation or possibly watching to see what John would do next or praying. That’s where it happened, to one man, about thirtyish, who was praying. See how carefully Luke has to say it: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” You can imagine somebody getting all flustered trying to describe what happened later.
But there was more:
“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There he was – there he had been along – the only Son of God, being baptized, just like the rest of us. Even waiting in line to be baptized.
Other gospel accounts differ here; Mark’s rendering of Jesus’s baptism suggests that this opening of the heavens and Spirit descending was visible only to Jesus – nobody else saw such a thing. Matthew’s account seems to agree with Mark’s. Luke doesn’t suggest such a qualifier; the way he tells the story that opening of the heavens and descent of the Spirit was there for all to see. How does one possibly describe such an experience in person?
Luke, of course, is writing “from a distance,” so to speak; he is the one gospel writer who admits up front, in the very first verses of his gospel, that he had to “do his research” to write this account for the mysterious Theophilus. It’s a lot easier to be dispassionate in such an account. Sadly, we don’t get to know how all those other folks responded to this dramatic display and epiphany.
Yes, I said “epiphany.”
Every year in the lectionary cycle this Sunday, marking the baptism of the Lord, follows immediately after the cycle that begins with Advent, runs through all of Christmas, and concludes with Epiphany, which happened this past Thursday. One of the results of this placement is that it becomes clearer just how much this event, Jesus’s baptism, resounds and echoes with themes we hear in those seasons and observances.
Clearly we can say that as Luke tells the story, Jesus’s baptism is itself a kind of epiphany. Out of nowhere, one person out of many, praying, probably still dripping, is descended upon by the Holy Spirit and called the only Son – the Beloved – of God. If that’s not a revelation of Christ, I don’t know what is.
But also, remember words like “Emmanuel” and “incarnation,” words from Advent and Christmas. “Emmanuel” – God with us; incarnation – God as one of us, remember? And indeed this is revealed to the surprise of those still drying off from the waters of the river. God – right here with us! Waiting in line to be baptized with us! Not far off in heaven somewhere, but right here with us! It is Advent and Christmas and Epiphany all in one. God among us, one of us, baptized among us as one of us.
Perhaps the challenge for us, then, in this time after Epiphany, is to ask ourselves what we do with this. What does this mean for us? How do we respond to this unveiling, this revelation, this pointing toward Jesus? And even more significantly, how do we become part of it?
What does it mean for us to show forth Jesus? What do our lives look like, individually yes but especially together as a congregation, as this one small outpost of the body of Christ on earth, if we are to show Jesus to the world?
The challenge becomes all the greater in a time like ours, when “Jesus” gets appropriated in all sorts of ways that would probably make the actual Jesus puke. The rank displays of racism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and other un-Christlike behaviors being passed off as “Christian” in our society and imbibed by large numbers of people as “what the church is”; all of these make a clear and faithful witness to Christ all the more challenging, and all the more needed.
This is what we’ll explore in the next few weeks, in the unofficial “season of Epiphany.” What does it look like when the church, the body of Christ, is truly being the body of Christ? What does it look like to be a witness to Christ in not just words, but actions? What does it look like to be faithful in a time when faithlessness is rampant both inside and outside the church?
This event, Jesus’s baptism and the revealing that followed, is our starting point. Let’s explore what it means to be part of an epiphany.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #163, Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice; #840, When Peace Like a River