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"Into the Waters"

​We Christians have had 2000 years to get used to the idea of baptism, but what do you suppose it meant to those who flocked out into the wilderness to be baptized by John?

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

​​Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 9, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright ​​We Christians have had 2000 years to get used to the idea of baptism, but what do you suppose it meant to those who flocked out into the wilderness to be baptized by John? Two thoughts: Scholars remind us that John appeared preaching a gospel of repentance. The Greek means a change of mind and of heart! And for a visible sign of this inward work, John uses baptism, a rite of immersion in water, typically reserved for Gentile converts to Judaism. John was the son of a priest, so he knew the ritual, but he was also a bit of a prophet, so he did what Israel’s prophets had always done: he challenged the children of Abraham to examine their hearts and reflect on their actions. He dared them to undergo this same act of baptism. It is as if he is saying, “It’s not just outsiders that require conversion, we all do. A new era is at hand and we all need a fresh start! Get ready, for God is coming near!”[1] But I think John is tapping into something deeper with baptism: the symbol of water. Do you remember how this whole story starts? Rachel Held Evans does. She writes, “In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the water. The water was dark and deep and everywhere, an ancient primordial sea. Then God separated the water, pushing some of it below to make oceans, rivers, dew drops, and springs, and [locking] the rest of the torrents … behind a glassy firmament. In Near Eastern cosmology, all life hung suspended between these waters, vulnerable as a fetus in the womb. For people whose survival depended on the inscrutable moods of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile, water represented both life and death. Oceans churned with monsters, unruly spirits, and giant fish that could swallow a man whole. Rivers brimmed with fickle possibility – of yielding crops, of boosting trade, of drying up.” [2] But our ancestors in the faith believed in a God who was more powerful than the chaotic waters, and so they drunk deeply of God’s promise to Isaiah: “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 … For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”[3] So when John invited people to step into the waters, he was inviting them to stride into a substance that could give life and snatch it away, to submerge themselves in chaos and powerlessness, to embrace this place where the God of Noah and Moses and Jonah would protect them and guide them safely out the other side! In a bit here, Amy will show the pictures you sent in of your own baptisms. They are pictures of your younger selves, surrounded by loved ones, supported by the congregation, grinning at the camera. The water in the font looks calm, peaceful, tame. There is no sign of the residual danger lurking, nor of the protection God is offering. That’s too bad. For the world is no less threatening than it was for the ancients. We should know this. The latest Presbytery newsletter showed pictures of two bridges rebuilt in Randolph County using Presbytery of WV and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance funds, bridges that were destroyed by flooding back in May of 2019. The 30 families those bridges serve know about chaos. Now they also know about the long reach of our baptismal promises to take care of those God claims as children. For them, now, remembering their baptisms is a deeper, richer act. For us too, maybe! But maybe the link of that story to baptism is too tenuous for you. Let me tell another. Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson UMC in Nashville. She lived with mental illness and without a home, but she was welcomed there and joined the new member class. “Baptism — ‘this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,’ as Janet Wolf, the pastor at Hobson puts it — grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, ‘And when I’m baptized, I am…?’ ‘The class,’ Janet writes, ‘learned to respond, ‘Beloved, a precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”[4] Those words “beloved, a precious child of God, and beautiful to behold” were repeated at Fayette’s baptism. But they came a little harder two months later. Janet got a call that Fayette had been beaten and raped and was in the hospital. The chaos of life on the street had risen up and crashed down on her like floodwaters. Blood and tears streaked her face and her dress was torn, dirty, and re-buttoned askew, but as Janet drew near she could hear her whispering, “I am beloved, a precious child of God …” and then her voice would catch. She would take a deep breath and try again. “I am beloved, a precious child of God …” but her image in the mirror was hard to look at. Somehow though, when she saw Janet, the representative of the community that had embraced her, she was able to go on. “I am beloved, a precious child of God, and … if you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful, it’ll take your breath away!” When Luke tells the story, he says Jesus joined everyone else stepping into the waters, with all that implied: braving all the chaos and danger; embracing all the love and protection. May that be true for you too as you celebrate your own baptism. Amen.

[1] I am grateful for this context from [2] from her book Searching for Sunday, pages 3-4 [3] from Isaiah 43:1 b -3 a [4] Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999
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