Baptism of Our Lord

January 10, 2021

Raise your hand if you haven’t slept very well this week.  Raise your hand if you’ve watched more hours of news than you know is healthy.  Raise your hand if you eventually managed to turn off your devices and sleep but still felt – still feel – a constant hum of anxiety moving through your body.

I’m right there with you.  I don’t have a magic pastor blanket that I can wrap around me to keep away those fears and worries.  I’ve had more than one night this week when I woke up in the middle of the night and tossed and turned.  I tried praying, though the prayers mostly came out like fragments of questions that we hear in the psalms:  Why, God?  Why?  How long, O Lord, how long will this go on?  I know God hears what I’m trying to say in those jumbled prayers, but it can still take a while to fall asleep again.

Sometimes I’ll get up in those restless hours for a drink of water.  Something so basic and necessary – water. Water that cleanses, water that nourishes, water that keeps us alive.  It’s why we use water for baptism – because it is at once so ordinary and so vital.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is the very first story we hear about him in the gospel of Mark.  There’s nothing here about Mary and Joseph.  No angels. No shepherds.  No wise men.  Not in these opening verses.  Instead, right out of the gate we meet this strange character of John the Baptist, who has tons of people flocking out to the wilderness.  And for what?  To confess their sins.  To be baptized.  To hear John talk about this more powerful person who is coming soon.  It doesn’t exactly sound like Disney World, but people are coming to the wilderness from throughout the Judean countryside, including from the city of Jerusalem.  What would make people leave the relative safety of the city and head out to the desert?

We learn both in scripture and in our own lives that we can’t always predict what places are safe and what places are dangerous.  You think the solid structures of Jerusalem will be safe, until you realize that by the time the gospel of Mark is written down, the Romans have destroyed the Jewish temple. You think the Capital building in Washington, D.C. will be safe, well-guarded.  Until an armed mob finds its ways inside and wreaks havoc in places you thought were sacred. You assume the wilderness is wild and dangerous.  And it can be.  But it can also be a place where something new happens.  The wilderness can offer a pathway to redemption, an encounter with the living God in the waters of the river.

As promised by John, Jesus shows up out there in the wilderness.  He is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and what happens next is important.  Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus.

The word that the author of Mark’s gospel chooses here is important.  Torn apart.  The gospels of Matthew and Luke say simply that the heavens opened.  But the gospel of Mark describes the heavens being torn apart.  Mark uses the Greek word schizo – from which we get words like schizophrenic or schism.  It suggests something more unsettling, more disruptive to the way things have been before that moment.  It’s not like opening a door and then closing it, which doesn’t really change things all that much.  This is a rending open that says things will not return to their usual state.

What’s happening in this moment is that God does not intend to maintain some kind of careful distance between God and us.  God is about crossing boundaries and borders, saying, “I have come to love you up close.  And I refuse to let you stay mired in a life of sin.  I’m offering you a new way to be, a new way to live, a new way to love.”

I needed that reminder this week.  I needed to remember that there is a profound difference between human disruptions and God’s holy disruptions.  We saw this week that human disruptions often lead to destruction – not just of property, but of lives.  People killed, people traumatized, people huddled behind locked doors and calling family members to say “I love you” because they are convinced that they’re about to die. The very fabric of our democratic process threatened.  I will leave it to the historians and the political scientists to provide certain kinds of analysis of what happened on Wednesday.  What I can speak to is what happened theologically.

This week we saw idolatry up close.  Many of the people in that mob call themselves Christian, only they’ve decided to regard politicians as their savior instead of Jesus.  Make no mistake: Putting Jesus’ name on a sign does not make a person a follower of Jesus, especially if that person demeans and endangers Jewish people, black and brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their self-proclaimed ideal.

We don’t have time this morning to untangle all the ways that what happened Wednesday is rooted in those hatreds, but the name for it is Christian nationalism.  In simplistic terms it merges a worship of God with a worship of country, and that’s where the trouble begins.  Because God never tells us to worship a country.  You might recall that the very first commandment is “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s easy to look at the participants in Wednesday’s mob and say, “I would never do something so terrible.”  And you probably wouldn’t.  It’s also easy to look at what happened and feel helpless.  What can I do about it?

We have seen so clearly this week that human disruptions are destructive and dangerous.  So where, then, do God’s holy disruptions lead us?  What happens when the heavens are torn open and God meets us in this mess of our own making?  Where does God lead us?  Not to safety, necessarily. 

After his own baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and tormented by Satan for 40 days.  Baptism leads to a direct confrontation with evil.

In baptism God gives us the gift of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.  Which in turn gives us freedom…

The freedom to confront the sin that we find, both within ourselves and in the world around us.

The freedom to reject some cheap version of unity and to pursue instead the hard work of addressing what divides us and why.

The freedom to stand with and for all of the people that Wednesday’s mob would rather harm or kill.

The freedom to follow Jesus over those boundaries that he is always crossing, trusting that he alone is our source of life and hope.

You may recall that in our Lutheran baptism service, right before we say the Creed together, we go through three questions one after the other that are often called the renunciations.  This week seems like a good time to repeat them.  We ask the person about to be baptized – or the parents, if it’s a baby:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

The person responds: I renounce them.

People of God, I’m going to ask you to make those renunciations again this morning.  After each question I invite you to say “I renounce them” and, in doing so, to renew your commitment to living your baptismal promises in a world that wants you to worship many other things besides God.

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?  I renounce them.

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?  I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?  I renounce them.

Children of God, may you know God’s presence every day, our God who tears open the heavens to be with us.  May you be emboldened by the courage that comes with trusting that Christ sets us free from sin and death.  May you be sent out by the Spirit to speak and act in the name of all that is holy.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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:


[ii]Thank you to Debie Thomas for her essay for Journey with Jesus this week:


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