January 7, 2018 – Epiphany 1 B
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I grew up loving the water. I remember a few summers growing up where my parents would rent a cabin with some friends near Brainerd, MN on a lake. We’d spend all week swimming, fishing, and floating. When I went to summer camp, I spent as much time as I could in the water on the slides, floating platforms, and swimming. As I grew up a bit, the youth group would go kayaking and rafting. I learned to associate the sounds, smells, and feel of water with happy memories. When I went to college, I’d walk a handful of blocks to sit by the Cedar River and study. When my wife and I were married, we lived just a block off that same river. When we stood on our front steps, turned our head to the right, we could see it right there. I loved that we were able to find an apartment so close to water.
But that is also where I was forced to recognize that water isn’t always peaceful and happy. We were married for exactly one week before we were evacuated from that apartment – the water was flowing faster, the water was rising, and we’d spend a total of 3 weeks sleeping in guest rooms of friends who weren’t underwater while flood waters swept through most of the small city. While our apartment on the second floor was safe, there wasn’t much in town that wasn’t affected. I spent the rest of that summer helping friends and strangers clean up what that once peaceful river had left behind – muddied roads, shaken foundations, and businesses left to shutter their doors. Water is always safe when it’s viewed at a safe distance. When it gets too big, too fast, or we get too close, it is downright destructive.
This is the understanding the Hebrew people had of water. It was, at the same time, the source of much of their lives and a source of fear. It provided fish, hydration for their bodies and their fields, but it also was a sign of chaos and destruction. So when we read, at the very front of the Bible, that the spirit of God hovered over the water, we can recognize what is happening there. This God, Yahweh, who called light and all creation into being, would first confront and tame the chaos. From that formless void of water, God created order and balance.
And water still holds this sort of balance in our lives. Just enough water, and you’ve got a relaxing bath or a cold cup of water after working in the heat (not something we have to worry too much about right now) or the ability to prepare food. Too much water? We become powerless.
God could have certainly stayed above all this chaos, content to hover over the waters as we read at the beginning of creation. Yet, God did not. God entered into the watery depths and chaos in both figurative and literal ways. With Christmas still a recent memory, we will recall the story of a baby who was born into a messy world in a messy way. No palaces, robes, or crowns – but a feeding trough in a barn. God has entered into this world. And in our gospel text for today, we see Jesus literally entering into the waters. We find that the Son of God, like the Creator, was not content to stay above it all, but enters into it. Water, a sign of chaos, thereby becomes a symbol and witness to God’s saving love, power, and presence in the midst of our chaos.
This is why baptism is so important in our faith. It is not ticket we punch to get to heaven. It is not a work that we do to earn God’s love. It is a witness to the love God already has for you. Jesus had done nothing of note before his baptism – he had spent his 30 year or so learning the way everyone had and took up his father’s trade, carpentry. He had not yet performed miracles, healings, preached, died, or rose from the dead. He had only been submerged and rose to hear a word of blessing – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Just like creation, we hear a refrain – “it is good.”
When we are baptized, we are united with Christ and the grace that he himself received from God. We feel the water on our skin, we hear the words of promise, and we witness the work of God for creation. It is good. Just as baptism for Christ was not an ticket to heaven, neither is it for us. It is, rather, the beginning of a new life, a life made possible by the sacrifice of God’s own self and the victory over sin and death. We are baptized into Christ and Christ’s life is now your life.
Jesus was not stranger to chaos, sin, shame, and doubt. He knew the feeling of being swept away. He knew the pains, suffering, sickness, and brokenness of life and, in his resurrection, he knows them with you now. Through his baptism, he has entered into our brokenness and, through our baptism, we have seen and share in his righteousness. In Romans 6:4, Paul tells his readers that through baptism we share in Christ’s death and, in his rising, we sharing in his life. Through chaos, we find life, order, and balance. We see, in baptism, a new creation, a creation which God loves, calls good, and enters into with us.
And this does not mean that the chaos does not overwhelm us sometimes. It does not mean that we are immune to the work of sin, guilt, shame, and despair. It does not mean your new life will be a life full of harmony and peace. But it does mean that in every experience of your life, God is there. Whether you feel like you’re sinking, swimming, treading water, or floating on top of it all, Christ is there with you.
And, within it all, is this refrain – “You are my daughter, my beloved. You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And that may be the most amazing, hard-to-believe thing may ever try to understand and live out. In baptism, we witness God’s love for us, and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to believe it ourselves.
But whether or not you can understand or believe it, it is true. It is true, even if you’ve already broken your new year’s resolution. It is true, even when the tides seem to be flowing against you. It is true, even when the waters threaten to wash us off our foundation. It may be there, just there, that we can see God’s work most clearly, diving into the waters of the void and making order out of chaos.
Hear this good news – God has entered into the chaos, is still entering into that chaos, and is continuing to create. Through God’s grace and justice, chaos will become ordered, hatred will become love, the tempest will become still, the tomb will give way to life, and those who are drowning will find their footing. And, above it all, we hear this refrain: “You are my beloved.” Amen.