The Cover and the Book

SJF • Baptism of Our Lord • Tobias S Haller BSG

John the Baptist said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
There is an old saying that things are not always what they seem. This is a true saying, and as the Scripture puts it “worthy to be received.” Certainly there are many things in the world that seem to be designed by nature to deceive and conceal their true identity. Watch any of the nature shows on TV and you’ll see the examples: the amazing stick insect that disguises itself as a twig; the chameleon that can change its color to blend into the background; or the eggs of that interloping bird who lays them in the nest of another species, eggs that look just like those of the unwilling host, deceiving that bird into keeping them warm. Once the chicks are hatched — which happens before the duped bird’s own eggs hatch — the invading chicks push the host’s eggs out of the nest, and the poor host is forced to feed the invaders. And of course, you can also see plenty of other TV shows that show similar behavior among the higher animals — by which I mean people — deception as a willful act, upon which depend the careers of every con man or woman, every trickster and fraud.

But sometimes the misapprehension of a thing is not the fault or the intent of the thing itself, but rests with the perception of the one who sees it. Things are, after all, what they are: and it is often our perceptions that create the confusion or misidentification. Our emotional or psychological state of mind has a powerful influence on what we see: on that lonely walk home late at night along a country road, armed only with a flashlight, it is no wonder that a strangely shaped tree should take on the appearance of a hobgoblin: but it is after all only a tree.

I spoke a few weeks ago about how the limitations of human language can create such confusion: how words or gestures can mean different things in different cultures — my point being that the gesture or the word is just what it is, but the meaning conveyed by it may be entirely different depending upon the person who sees the gesture or hears the word.

Years ago business people tried to address some of the problems caused by this reality by developing symbols and icons that they hoped would be understood everywhere in the world. One of the most obviously necessary ones was the symbol to indicate that the contents of the shipping box were fragile. So to indicate this breakability, someone came up with the idea of using a picture of a broken wine glass in a circle. This seemed to work fine until one company discovered that their shipments of radios to South Asia were not getting through to the intended dealers. On investigation the shipping company discovered that the stevedores unloading the shipments in that remote port thought that the broken wine glass symbol meant that the contents were damaged goods, and they were simply chucking all the boxes into the rubbish. So the international symbol for “fragile” eventually was changed into an unbroken wine glass!

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The reason I mention all of this is the important role that symbols play in the church, most especially in the form of the sacraments. I’m sure all of you remember from your confirmation classes the definition of a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The sacrament is first a sign: something you can see or touch or hold; but it is more. It actually and always delivers on the promise. It is, in short, a book that you can judge by its cover. It is what it appears to be, without deception or pretense, and it makes good on that appearance by a sure and certain delivery — this is a shipment that always gets through to the intended addressee, clearly labeled as what it is, understood and welcomed and received as such.

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The sacraments represent a kind of ultimate truth in advertising. Baptism truly washes away our sins and makes us members of the Body of Christ, the priestly fellowship of all faithful people. The Eucharist truly feeds us with the body and blood of Christ, giving us strength and food for the journey, and reminding us that just as the fragments of broken bread once formed part of a single loaf, so too we in our separate lives share a common life through this Holy Communion in the body and the blood of Christ. The sacraments are exactly what they promise to be — means of grace to the glory of God.

I mention all of this today because we’re observing the feast of the baptism of Jesus: when Jesus himself came to the Jordan River and allowed John to baptize him. Jesus did not, of course, need to be baptized: the sinless one had no need to be cleansed of sin. Rather, what we see in the baptism of Jesus is the revelation of the true nature of the Christ: certified by the sign of the voice from heaven that speaks not only to Jesus himself but to all those who are ready to hear, whose ears are open to hear that good news, that this is the beloved son of God.

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I noted in the weeks leading up to Christmas that John the Baptist is the original advance man, the patron Saint of “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” And in today’s gospel we see that he is also the patron saint of truth in advertising, of symbols being what they are, and the honesty to clarify what they are not. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is clear about this because he knows that the people are looking for a Messiah. Under the heel of an occupying power in league with a corrupt local government, the people are ready and set to perceive a savior in anyone who looks even remotely like one. So John makes the extra effort tosay, essentially, “I am just the signpost.”

Think about signposts for a moment. What use would a signpost be if it was in the wrong place, or said the wrong thing, or pointed the wrong way? A signpost separated from the road to which it points is useless or worse; it gains its only value from being at the right place, accurately naming the road by which it stands or towards which it points.

Well, John the Baptist is the signpost — but Jesus is the road; as he will later say, “I am the Way.” John the Baptist is the cover of the book, but Jesus is the Book of Life itself, the Word of God made flesh and come among us, full of grace and truth. And John the Baptist is the promise but Jesus is the Truth and fulfillment. John is the wineglass symbol on the box but Jesus is the unbroken chalice within: the one who comes to us in fragile human flesh to redeem and restore that fallible flesh, the one who truly communicates his saving blood to all of humankind.

We are not in the world of deception here, the world of deceit and falsehood, not even the world of mistaken identity and confusion of purpose. We are not here lost in the maze of confusing signs and symbols, or walking along the lonely country roads where our own fears make goblins of the forest. No, here we stand by the riverside, and we hear John’s disclaimer that he is not the one the people seek, and we hear God’s proclamation that Jesus is that very one — the one who will baptize not with water alone but with the Holy Spirit. John is the signpost, the cover of the book, and the promise; but Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is God’s beloved son, the only-begotten and firstborn, to whom we are united in our own baptism, and whose body and blood we share in the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to celebrate.

May we so always hear his voice and follow his commands, walking in his way, proclaiming his truth, and celebrating his life.+