Baptism of Our Lord
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16b
Biblical imagery is weird. I’m guessing most of us haven’t wielded a winnowing fork or cleared a threshing floor or separated wheat from chaff.[i] I know I haven’t. If you have, I’d like to know more about it.
Fire and water are at least familiar to us. But they have so many different associations that it’s hard to know how to make sense of them when we encounter them in scripture.
Sometimes we associate fire with destruction. I can’t get out of my mind the awful images from the California fires, especially the almost complete leveling of a town ironically named Paradise. Sometimes we associate fire with judgment – “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Our imagined versions of hell usually involve fire.
But remember that not too long ago we gathered on Christmas eve and sang “Silent Night,” each of us holding a little bit of fire as we remembered that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. We give the newly baptized a flaming candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Ordinary fire can have a divine power.
The same is true of water. We bathe in it and wash our dishes in it. We are soothed by the sounds of a gentle rainfall. But water can also take the form of a tsunami or a rising flood that sweeps away everything in its path.
Fire and water. So ordinary, so powerful.
This morning, in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, we hear John say that it’s one thing for a person like him to baptize with water. Jesus, though – Jesus will be different. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That sounds powerful – and a bit ominous.
What is this baptism that Jesus brings? Let’s start with what it is not.
Baptism is not an opportunity to label different baptismal practices as “correct” or “incorrect.” Christian traditions have many ways of understanding baptism. Some baptize infants; others don’t. Some sprinkle; others dunk. Some believe that one baptism is effective for your whole life; others think that two baptisms are necessary – one involving water, another involving the receiving of the Holy Spirit, often made evident by speaking in tongues. If you have questions about some of those differences, please ask me, and I’ll do my best to share what I know. The differences are meaningful, but our methods do not make God love us any more or any less.
Baptism is not an invitation to judge others. Sometimes when we hear this language about how Jesus is going to save the valuable wheat and burn the useless chaff, we’re tempted to sort people into categories of wheat or chaff. Who do we think is so terrible that they will end up burning as chaff? Who will make the cut and survive as wheat? But as a colleague reminded me this week, it would be more valuable to see that each of us contains both wheat and chaff. Our Lutheran understanding is that we are all both sinners and saints. The good of which we are capable and the bad to which we so often turn – they are both part of us, deep down to our marrow. Only Jesus can do the kind of purifying that untangles one from the other.
Baptism is not a magic spell that keeps us from being hurt. I wish it were. After his own baptism Jesus will head into the wilderness for forty days of hunger and temptation. Later his own neighbors will try to throw him off a cliff. Religious leaders will accuse him of breaking God’s law.
There will be countless people who need to be healed and need to be heard, and Jesus will do that work until he is absolutely wrung out with exhaustion. He will try again and again to slip away from the crowds and have a moment of peace and prayer. He will seldom find that peace.
And of course there’s the cross. For Jesus pain and horror and death lie ahead. Baptism does not keep Jesus from all of that, nor does it keep us from running headlong into suffering.
So what is baptism?
Baptism is a promise that we are never forsaken – in this life or the next. It is the voice of God saying to each of us, “You are my Beloved, and nothing – absolutely nothing – will keep me from loving you always.” In the rite of baptism we promise as a community to support each other in making the world look more like what God wants it to be – a place of peace and justice. And though we know we will fail again and again, we trust in another promise of baptism – the promise of God’s forgiveness. That promise helps us keep going in the face of so much that threatens to discourage or defeat us.
Many of our hearts broke this week when we learned that Chatham fourth-grader Tessa Handerhan died Thursday night. Tessa mysteriously collapsed in early December and never recovered. The magnitude of the grief when a child dies is beyond words. I feel it without having known Tessa or her family. I know many of you do too. A tragedy like this one always brings questions. Why did it happen? Why would God allow it to happen? What possible reason could there be for a nine-year-old to die?
There are no clear answers to those questions. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but logic cannot withstand the mysteries of death and suffering.
All I can tell you is that we are not alone. God is with us in every circumstance, in joy and in grief. The best we can do is to sit beside those who are grieving – with our presence and with our prayers. To do so will seem ordinary and insufficient, but it is what we can offer. God is good at using what seems ordinary.
Last week I mentioned that the name for this season – Epiphany – comes from the Greek word that means “appearing” or “revealing.”[ii] It calls us to look for God’s presence in ordinary places and moments.
I was sitting at Starbucks yesterday doing some work, hunkered down at one of those long tables to finish today’s sermon and to study some of the readings we’ll hear in the coming weeks. I was praying too – for you, for our congregation, for Tessa’s family, for a dear friend of mine who is very sick. One by one, my tablemates left. (I was praying silently, so I don’t think I scared them away.) Eventually there were just two of us– I was there, typing away, as was a young woman who looked to be preparing for some kind of big test. One of the baristas came over and said they had made some extra hot chocolate. Would we like some on the house? Well, of course.
That hot chocolate was like a little epiphany. I didn’t have to pay for it. I didn’t earn it in any way. I just got to enjoy drinking it. The hot chocolate tasted a lot like grace.
As I sipped the hot chocolate, I watched a little girl come in with her parents. She was under two – barely walking – but she caught the rhythms of the music playing overhead – the Hamilton soundtrack, I think. And she started dancing. She held a green straw in each of her toddler hands and she boogied like it was her mission in life. She giggled with total delight. I smiled through tears, thinking of another family without their daughter. That little girl dancing looked a lot like grace. Defying the cold around us with the warmth of her joy.
God comes to us in the precious, ordinary things of daily life. In fire. In water. In bread. In wine. In a dancing toddler. In the tears of a neighbor. In a voice that whispers “You are beloved.”
Be alert, people of God. We never know where God will meet us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am indebted to Pastor Joanna Harader for her column in the recent edition of The Christian Century, which can be found here: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/water-and-fire-psalm-29-isaiah-431-7-luke-315-17-21-22
[ii]Thank you to Debie Thomas for her essay for Journey with Jesus this week: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2047
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” Mark 1:10
You probably hear it before you see it. You’re pulling a shirt or a dress over your head – or you’re leaning over in a pair of pants that’s gotten a bit snug – when you hear that sound [tear paper]. Something has torn. A seam has ripped apart – perhaps you can feel cool air against your skin in a place where you shouldn’t be able to feel air at all. Or you stare in dismay at the ragged edges of the hole in the fabric. There’s nothing that can be done, at least not before you have to head out the door. When something is really torn, there’s no quick fix. You’d better find another pair of pants.
The gospel of Mark is pretty spare. It doesn’t include lots of extra details. This gospel doesn’t even give Jesus a birth story. No shepherds. No angels. No “Away in the Manger” pictures of a sleeping baby. The first time we meet Jesus, he’s fully grown and wading into the river to be baptized.
So it’s important to pay attention to the details that are included. For the stories that appear in more than one of the four gospels, it’s often helpful to compare accounts, to notice how the details differ and to imagine what those differences might say to us.
For example, in all three of the gospels that include a story of Jesus’ baptism – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – there is an opening of the heavens and a voice from God that pronounces Jesus beloved.
At that moment Matthew and Luke describe the heavens as just that – being opened. The author of Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, uses a different word. The heavens in Mark are “torn apart.” The verb is a form of “schizo” – to tear, rip, rend.[i] It’s the same root from which we get words like schism or schizophrenic. Mark suggests that some kind of barrier between heaven and earth is being ripped apart. It is not a gentle tearing. It is dramatic and bold and can’t just be sewn back together with some needle and thread.
This small detail highlights that God is breaking into the world in a new way in the person of Jesus. Whatever veil might exist between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly one is there no more. God will not be confined. God is on the loose.[ii]
We even have that image of the Holy Spirit coming down. Our translation this morning describes the Holy Spirit as descending like a dove on to Jesus. We could more accurately translate that to say that the Holy Spirit descends into Jesus. The Spirit will fully inhabit Jesus. It has entered into him and will throughout his life send him to the most unexpected places.
The Holy Spirit that enters into Jesus at his baptism will propel Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation from Satan. It will lead him into confrontations with evil in all its forms. It will send him across the sea of Galilee and into places that no one imagined the messiah would go. It will bring him to people who have been rejected by society because they were too sick, too strange, or – in many cases – merely too different from the people who held power. To borrow that classic movie line, “Nobody puts Jesus in a corner.”
I ventured into our church kitchen earlier this week and had a good laugh when I found the baby Jesus up on the counter by the dish drainer. It was the doll we use in the Christmas pageant, and I’m not sure how he got there, but it was the perfect reminder that Jesus is a Savior on the move. I joked that the spot on our counter was probably a step up from where he was born, and it certainly won’t be the strangest place that he will go in his life. At least here he can get some good coffee.
That’s what the gospels show us in the life and ministry of Jesus. There is no place that Jesus won’t go. There is no border he will not cross, no country he will not enter, no group of people he will not seek out. That includes the darkest corners of our own lives, the places we’d rather let no one see. Jesus is there too, telling us that even the most painful parts of our story can hold something holy.
Sometimes after a tragedy like a school shooting, you’ll hear people – even some prominent pastors – say, “This happened because we took God out of schools.” I take issue with that statement for two reasons. The first is that God is not a petty, vindictive deity looking to settle a score with us. But it’s also true that we couldn’t keep God out of schools if we wanted to. Schools of course must be places where children of all faiths are taught and loved and supported; that’s how it should be. But God is there. We don’t get to relegate God to the spaces that we deem appropriate. God does not consent to stay behind the barriers we try to build or the lines we try to draw in the sand. God certainly isn’t confined to this space where we worship but instead goes with us out into the world, walking with us in the joys and challenges of each day.
The other place where that verb for “torn” gets used in the gospel of Mark is in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Chapter 15, as Jesus is being tormented on the cross, we hear:
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, the centurion said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ [verses 37-39]
At the moment of Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn, ripped apart, split in two. The curtain mentioned here was probably the one that separated the Holy of Holies, the place in the temple where people believed the divine presence lived, from the rest of the building. Nobody but the high priest was allowed there, and he only entered it once a year as part of a ritual to to atone for the sins of the people. So we see that in both his baptism and in his death, Jesus is about making sure that nothing comes between God and God’s people. Boundary-breaking is God’s specialty.
That tearing open of the heavens in Jesus’ baptism – it’s good news. Much better news than a rip in your pants. Because this kind of tearing does not have to be repaired. It opens the way for the repair of the world.
There is no place that Jesus will not go, no part of the world or of our lives that he does not hold in love. For that we can give thanks. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I am grateful for the observations about this language as found in Following God Through Mark: Theological Tension in the Second Gospel by Ira Brent Driggers, Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, and Mark (one of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) by David Schnasa Jacobsen.
[ii] I am influenced here by Donald Juel’s language and interpretation, as quoted in the sources above.