Not Watered Down

water on its own can do little other than removing stains -- to have power it must be raised to new heights by the sun, or moved by the wind of the Spirit -- a sermon for 1 Epiphany 2012

SJF • Baptism of Jesus • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGJohn said, I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, always observed on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We observe the baptism of Jesus in this way, at the beginning of the year, to start things off — for although Jesus Christ began his life on earth at Christmas, his ministry begins with his baptism as he emerges into our gospel history from that period of obscurity — that time from his childhood through young adulthood — about which we have no record apart from Saint Luke’s short account of the Holy Family’s trip to the Temple when Jesus was about 12 years of age.

But it is with the baptism of Jesus that his public ministry begins, and the first Sunday in the season after the Epiphany — which means, “showing forth” — appropriately commemorates this first public “showing forth” of Jesus.

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Baptism is clearly a time of beginning — a time of starting things off. And you might well say, what better way to start things off than with that short Scripture reading from the Old Testament: the opening words of the book Genesis, the very beginning of absolutely everything.

However, the reason the liturgists who assembled these readings chose the passage from Genesis is not that it is about beginnings. Rather it is the mention of the Holy Spirit — which I’m sorry to say the translation we use unfortunately chooses to designate as “a wind from God.” But this is the spirit of God. What the translators obscured, however, the liturgists sought to clarify and highlight, by coupling this reading from Genesis with the passages from Acts and the Gospel of Mark, which are explicit in highlighting the importance of the Holy Spirit.

And what those two readings demonstrate is that water alone is not enough. John’s baptism was a baptism with water. John was continuing and expanding on the Jewish custom of ritual bathing by which one would figuratively wash away impurity with water. Every Jewish town had a bathing pool — a mikvah — for precisely this purpose. I saw a TV program about the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran a few weeks ago, and the archaeologists excavating that site pointed out that the people in that community — who lived out in the Judean desert — were very careful and concerned and spent to have well-constructed aqueducts, conduits and cisterns to bring water to those ritual bathing pools and an ample supply of water — water used solely for this ritual bathing, even in the middle of a hot, dry desert. They expended a considerable amount of their resources in constructing and maintaining this impractical but ritually vital construction. So we can tell that this ritual bathing was an important feature of their religious life.

John the baptizer — also a voice in the desert — called on people to come to the River Jordan to wash themselves. This was not just a washing from the ritual impurities that would occasion the more-or-less routine trip and dip in the municipal or village bathing pool — but a washing from the deeper and more troublesome faults and wrongs that cling to the human heart: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

But as John himself confessed, his baptism was still only a baptism with water — even if it was the cold and chilly water of that historic Jordan, rather than a domesticated bathing pool. Water is water, but the one who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit was yet to come.

The point in all this, and the reason for including that passage from Genesis along with the one from the Acts of the Apostles, is to show that water by itself is not enough. Water, as we know from that other account in Genesis — the story of the flood — water can destroy a world. But water by itself cannot make a world. Water by itself will just, as we know from our grade-school science class, or from a leaking roof, water on its own will seek its lowest level. It’s true that ingenious human beings have found ways to harness the power of falling or downward-flowing water, with mills and dams and dynamos. But the water itself, once it has reached its lowest point, cannot do anything of itself. It will just lay there in a pool or a puddle.

What is needed is that wind from God — that Holy Spirit of God — to move over the face of the waters and stir them up with waves of energy. And, as we also know from our science class, what is also needed is the heat and light of the sun, shining on the waters and changing the water — evaporating it — into vapor that rises and rises and rises up on high until it condenses into clouds, and falls again as rain to water the mountains and fill the streams that can pour down once more, once again full of power and energy it was given by being raised up, to go through those cascades down to the sea, in the meantime driving the mills and dynamos. But the water itself doesn’t have the power, it only gains the power by being raised up by the heat and light of the sun shining on it, to the point where it can flow down once again. It is the spirit of God, not the water, that is the creative force in Genesis, bringing light and life to the world. And it is the Son — that’s S-O-N — who is the active principle in creation, the one through whom all things were made.

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And it is that same spirit and that same Son of God who makes the baptism in his name — the name of Jesus — different from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was about removing old stains of sin — and water can be a pretty good stain remover! But there is more to Christian baptism than simply washing away one’s sins — even Original Sin — more, not less, since it includes that washing-away as well.

But Christian baptism also imparts light and heat: Sonship in Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit to the one who is baptized. The Spirit of this re-creation is the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the beginning of the first creation, and the Son of God is he through whom all things were made. Christian baptism does not merely wash away the old; it imparts the new — the new life in Christ. It renders those who are baptized new citizens of a different land than the one of their birth; and it admits those baptized into a new family — the family of God’s household, the church. This is what the Son and the Spirit do as only they can do: giving life, a new life that is not simply watered down, but built up, renewed, restored, revived.

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We will very shortly welcome three new members into this household through this wonderful sacrament of baptism into the Son by water and the Holy Spirit. I do not expect them to speak in tongues or prophesy as happened in that account from Acts. They may make a little noise - and that’s alright: it is a joyful sound. But I do know that they will have been well and truly baptized and anointed and marked as Christ’s own forever. And I hope that you in the congregation will speak out loud and strong when at the end of the baptism we come to that part of the liturgy where we welcome the newly baptized. Welcome them as if they were your own long-lost children who had wandered far from home but have found their way back by seeking the light of Christ. Welcome them with the open arms and hearty greeting you would give to a hero returning home from a foreign war. For in this baptism these young children become our brothers and sisters, in this baptism they have returned to the home that God has prepared for them from before the beginning of the world — from before the time the Spirit first hovered over those waters and the light was separated from the darkness. This is the power of God working through the church and its sacraments, committed to the care of the church by its Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is by that Spirit that we are — all of us — children of the Most High.+