Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and with that celebration we “remember” our own.
This year, you were invited to participate in this remembrance at home instead, and I hope that you and your family were able to do so, by filling a bowl with water, and then at the appropriate moment, dipping your hand and fingers into the water and finally, with hands and fingers wetted, making the sign of the cross on yourself or a loved one nearby.
Whether you actually recall your own baptism or the baptism of a friend or family member, today’s remembrance hardly comes close to any you may have experienced before. After all, in the Lutheran church, Baptism is considered a communal event as the newly baptized are welcomed into the Body of Christ surrounded by the voices of, and receiving the promises of, their family and the congregation.
In the normal scheme of things, Confirmation is the event many of us actually remember much more clearly if we have participated in this rite. Following study and preparation that often stretches out for two years or more, the baptized affirm the promises made by the congregation and our parents at the time of our infant- or early childhood -baptism years before, and we commit ourselves to live in the light and life of Jesus.
Just as today’s remembrance of baptism might differ in form from those we have experienced in the past, so too the Baptism of Jesus that we read about today is a far cry from any we have experienced or known.
Various traditions around baptism are passed down from the church, or influenced by our culture and circumstances, or inherited from our families.
For instance, when my sister, who is three years older than I was baptized, a family friend handmade her beautiful, flowing, gown complete with satin under-dress and coat, and lacy overdress and matching bonnet. That gown became part of our family tradition: all the rest of us kids, all my parents’ godchildren and grandchildren (yes, even the boys!) who subsequently came along, likewise were dressed in this gown. This was part of the tradition of our family.
Our grandson’s mother and her family are of Mexican heritage. For his baptism, we followed many of the cultural traditions of her cultural background, as a large contingent of family and friends gathered in her parents’ back yard, where little Alex arrived wearing his Sunday best. Then, as the baptism was conducted, he was stripped of his clothes and redressed in a pure white baptismal garment provided by his godfather. Other traditions, including wrapping the child and his parents together in a blanket or shawl were important parts of the ritual surrounding his baptism that day.
Perhaps you have your stories, that differ as they were shaped by family, religion, and culture. One thing is most likely true – whether you were baptized at a font where water was carefully sprinkled on your head, or in a baptistry where you were fully immersed in the water or somewhere in between, your baptism was beautiful, and by most standards, probably pretty tame, modest, and controlled.
That is not what we get when we read the account of the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus was baptized in the wilderness by a man dressed so outlandishly that the gospel writer makes a point of mentioning that his tunic was made of camel’s hair gathered at the waist with a leather belt, and that even his diet was strange and counter-cultural, consisting of locusts and wild honey.
He was humble, too. As crowds of people left the relative safety and comfort of the city and made their way out to hear John the Baptist speak and to be baptized by him, he insisted that there was no real power in him.
Rather, one was coming, he told them, to whom he could not hold a candle. The one he predicted would baptize not with this water that they are standing in and near, this Jordan River with its muddy agricultural runoff and meandering way; rather, the one who was coming, who was now very near, would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
It wasn’t long after that that Jesus made his way from Nazareth and went out into the wilderness, all the way to the Jordan River himself, to be baptized by John. There is no polished marble font, nor baptistry carved or formed out of precious metal as befitting religious ritual.
Then, in the wilderness, this thing happens as he is coming up out of the water: he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism takes place in the wilderness – out on the margins. The wilderness of Palestine was and is still gritty, and rocky, dusty and dirty, inhospitable and spare. Jesus was baptized not by a priest or pastor or rabbi wearing fine garments and ritual clothing; his baptizer looks and sounds like a wild man. He is not in a comfortable and beautifully planted back yard, nor a finely appointed sanctuary. He is in the wilderness.
In a sermon a few weeks ago, I likened the wilderness to what so many of us are experiencing today or have experienced in our lives when the well-ordered world we prefer and have tried to create for ourselves has come crumbling, crashing down, resisting all our attempts to contain it.
Jesus knows that wilderness.
As we begin a new year, we are weary of a wilderness imposed almost a year ago, a wilderness that has cost us so dearly and shows little sign today of abating. The pandemic has taken many lives and has changed all our lives, and rather than bringing us together, it has, quite literally, moved us apart. For many in our society, it has further torn us apart, as well. Rather than coming together to fight this thing and make the world a better place for us all, even the pandemic has us fighting, looking out for our own interests, and denying the needs and wants of our neighbors. Things will get better, we know, but do we dare believe it?
The wilderness for some has also come as a family member, friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer or some other devastating disease in the past year or so and has been undergoing treatment with a future uncertain, and about which we can do little but watch and wait. The wilderness for others right now is coming from the struggle and worry over educating our children while also keeping them – and the rest of us safe.
This reality has been a wilderness nightmare for so many working parents, many of whom lack the resources to simply “have mom or dad stay home and take care of them.” What can we do with the children? The wilderness looks like job loss and income loss, the closing of businesses that have fallen victim to the pandemic too.It looks like discord surrounding us and being stirred by those in positions of power who should be comforting, guiding, reassuring, and supporting us.
The wilderness looks like being separated from church, home, school, and most of all family and friends, for fear of spreading or getting the damn virus.
We are living in wilderness.
Jesus knows our wilderness.
And yet, still, Jesus enters the mess, to walk with us and to overcome the death and darkness that surrounds us.
God sent Jesus into the world and the world will never be the same.When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, when he submitted to the waters of repentance (for our sake, not his own).When he entered our human story, Jesus made his first public act one of radical solidarity. Instead of holding himself apart, protecting his own purity, claiming his own power, Jesus stepped into the same wilderness, and the same waters we stand in. Jesus joined his earthly experience, his reputation, and his destiny to ours.
In his baptism, Jesus entered the crazy, violent, dangerous, chaotic, messy wilderness of our human existence.
It is because of his radical solidarity with us, because of the life he lived and the death he died, because of his resurrection, that we dare to pull out the beautiful baptismal gowns and suits with which we dress the newly baptized, as we visually wash away of ravages of this grittiness, dirtiness, and grime of sin that infects our world and our lives. Jesus knows the cost of what he is about to do.Jesus knows how much we need him to wash us and save us.
Jesus, the love of God-incarnate, the light that banishes darkness, our Savior and Redeemer enters the water with us and life is restored, new life is given, fear and anguish are washed away.
My friends, during these hard and cold days, and in this uncertain world in which we live, cherish the waters of your baptism. Cling to the promises God has made to you and the sign of love God has sent to live and die for you. Shine your Christly light on the world, knowing and trusting that in and through the love of Jesus as it reaches out to heal and restore the world, God is well pleased and always present. Amen.