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The Baptism of the Lord: Sunday, January 7, 2018

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts of the Apostles 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“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.” People who knew and were enacting a passage from the prophets: “make straight in the desert a highway.” A passage that conjured up in their minds images of their people returning from slavery in Egypt, and from exile in Babylon. The wilderness, or desert, being the place where people learn what it means to depend on God. Because you can’t count on anything else. A place of testing, but also a place where liberation, and of theophany: of God’s manifestation. A place of revelation, or we might say, “epiphany.”

John goes out to the wilderness, with his movement, indicating that he’s part of the Jewish prophetic tradition. Some suspect that John had been part of the Essene community. The group that, one or two hundred years earlier, had left what they saw as corrupt Jewish city culture, founding a settlement in Qumran. It’s this group that creates and preserves the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the great discoveries of the 20th century.

And the desert is where Jesus goes to mark the beginning of his ministry — or maybe ‘movement’ or ‘revolution’ is a bit less churchy and more accurate. Jesus, having some sort of connection, or at least, bearing some similarities to both the Baptizer’s and the Essene movements. In the late 1960s a controversial Anglican bishop, James Pike, went out to the desert, wanting to research these movements and their connections. He and his wife Diane Kennedy flew to Israel. They rented a small car. And they were given a small map — probably more of an advertisement flyer (like the placemats you get when you eat at the Stone Crock in St. Jacobs). They purchased a couple bottles of Coke, and headed out into the desert. Soon after their rental car was stuck in a jagged rut in the ground. Diane, much younger, set off on foot, to find help. Bishop Pike, in the meantime, fell into a canyon and died. A reminder that, while the desert can be the locus of freedom and mystical experience — and the highway for our God (the place where God’s Kingdom starts to break in), it’s not a place to be taken lightly. Not a place to venture to unawares, with nothing but a bottle of Coke. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the Baptism of Christ is associated in a special way with the Crucifixion. I think, in part, because a ministry (or revolution) of love and compassion for sinful humanity, will in large part be greeted with scorn, and violence.

But this is what God does. This is where God goes. And where God wants us to go: to the wilderness to look for the coming of God’s Kingdom. John, and all those who took on his baptism, were repenting — turning away from their old ways. Turning away from the Old Order: the scorn and violence of the world. Confessing their sins; but not just personal laundry lists of sins, like having stolen chocolate bars from the convenience store, and whatever else. The Jewish people, more than us today in our hyper-individualistic culture, understood sin in a communal sense. ‘A state of sin,’ we might say, in how we’re caught up in systems that favour a few, and oppress many; and how, maybe not all the time, but much of the time, or even just sometimes, we give in to selfish desires that lead to the neglect and hurting of others.

And Jesus seeks out this baptism. The Church would say not because of any personal sins; but because, as fully human, he understood that we live in this state of disconnection with each other. Bishop Pike, having put some of his thoughts down before his fateful trip, puts it powerfully: Jesus, in joining in with that group getting baptized in the wilderness is “throwing in his lot with the holy army of liberation which was being gathered in the baptism. [He’s] part of the apocalyptic freedom movement.”*

And, as fully God, Jesus is actually able to embody perfect love, and the freedom to live for others in the way that God intends for all of us. Jesus is the one that John’s been waiting for, who doesn’t just anticipate or point to the coming of the Kingdom, but actually brings it in, and is the Kingdom.

Technically, for us Christians, the baptism we’ve experienced is different from John’s baptism of repentance. But it isn’t totally unrelated. Because in it we do demonstrate our desire to turn away from the Old Order of sin and death. (Or we might say ‘alienation’ from God and each other, to use a more ordinary word.) In our baptism we aren’t just looking for God’s Kingdom, but confessing that God’s Kingdom has come, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Our baptism isn’t a baptism into the Jordan River, but into the death of Christ. Our baptism calls us to die to the Old Order of the world. We’re reassured, strangely, in the stark words that Mark uses: that in the coming of Jesus, “the heavens were torn open,” and so heaven isn’t so distant to us any more.

And we experience the Kingdom when we allow ourselves to be shaped by our common worship and life together. We experience it when we resist the evil that seems to come so naturally to us. We experience it when we live like and point others to Jesus. We experience it when we serve and love others, and actually see others — even strangers and our enemies — as fellow children of God. And we experience it when we live responsibly in the world that God created, called “good,” and entrusted to us. [Hey, you might have noticed that those are basically our baptismal vows!]

What this looks like specifically, day to day, situation to situation, and person to person might differ. But Bishop Pike’s words give us a helpful reference point: as baptized people, having died to the old ways, with Christ, we’re called to throw in our lot with the holy army of liberation. We’re called to be part of the apocalyptic freedom movement. And not just through our own efforts, but empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’s why the vows go: “I will, with God’s help.”

So, solidarity, and freedom. That’s what baptism is about. And that’s what, by no coincidence, Jesus was and is about. Last week we had fire, and this week we have water. Both serving as reminders that the old has passed away, and we are called to be people of new life.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter