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Creation, Re-Creation, and the Baptism of Christ

Sunday, January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“God of glory,
immerse us in your grace,
mark us with your image,
and raise us to live our baptismal promises,
so that, empowered by the Holy Spirit,
we may follow the example of Christ your beloved
in whose name we pray. Amen.”
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (2002) alt.

We would have preferred a cold, dry winter’s day. Or a normal snowy day. Or an unusually warm day. But this weekend, with the rain and freezing rain, there’s perhaps no more appropriate way to celebrate the Baptism of Christ, which follows the Epiphany in our Church calendar (or is part of Epiphany in the Orthodox Church).

And going beyond Southern Ontario weather this week, we’ll find a lot of talk of water, or lack of it. Venice, we hear, is 70% flooded, with waters the highest they’ve been in over 50 years.

In the recent novel, New York 2140, science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson depicts an underwater Manhattan that is described as a “SuperVenice.” We read that life, before the water, had been so bad for some, that “not a few experienced an uptick in both material circumstances and quality of life” after the flood. There’s nothing more significant than water in effecting change, in society, the author seems to be saying.

Of course, we’ve probably all been following the Australian bushfires, that we’re told, while a yearly occurrence, are particularly devastating this year, due to extreme drought and heat. While New York prepares for a $25 billion storm surge barrier (following 2012’s Superstorm Sandy), Down Under they are talking about the possibility of a “Day Zero,” when home and business taps would be turned off.

Imagine how different our lives would be in such a situation. (Or, just think of how we treat water much more conservatively and preciously when our supply is temporarily cut off due to building or street maintenance.) Think of what it must be like to live in the (somewhere between 50 to 100) Indigenous communities) in our country that have boil water advisories.

Though also think of the joy that water gives us, when safe and plentiful. The biggest religious gathering in the world happens every twelve years in India, the Khumba Mela, where 120 million pilgrims enter the waters to be cleansed of their sins.

When we talk about water, we’re talking about something elementary, fundamental, shared, and indispensable. The planet’s mostly covered in water. Our bodies are mostly water. What would the Bible be without Noah’s flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, or the turning of water into wine, or Jesus walking on the water?

If we look to the first account of creation, in Genesis chapter 1, we read that in the beginning, when God created, God’s spirit — or wind or breath from God (it’s all the same word) — swept over the face of the waters. So God creates, working with the universal solvent, seemingly already there.

And before the birth of Jesus — Immanuel — the Word Made Flesh… God with us — the angel tells Mary that the Spirit, or wind or breath from God has conceived, with and within her, a child.

And before Jesus’s ministry — his mission in the world as God with us — he is baptized. John the Baptizer has been out there on the fringes, with the crowds, shouting — screaming, “repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The writer of the gospel is more subtle: The wind (or spirit, or breath) comes down over the waters once again. These images clue us in to how it’s the time of a new beginning.

And fundamental to our identity, though often occurring in a more subtle manner than the evangelist’s description of the scene, or of the millions of people in the Ganges and other bodies of water of India for the Khumba Mela, is Christian initiation through the waters of baptism.

The theologians can and should point out that Jesus, as perfect image of and response to God, didn’t need to be baptized — to be cleansed of sin — like we do, it seems that as “God with us” he insists (against John’s wishes) on being baptized, with the crowds, with us. Jesus goes out of his way to “fulfill all righteousness.” To be with the people as they strive to live faithfully to God. He will endure what they endure, live like they do. He will commit himself to humanity, even to the point of death… death on a cross. Because that, so often, is so often what it looks like to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others. To be truly open to another we must risk losing our life, or at least our particular conception of it. It’s a loss (though really, a gain); and sometimes it’s a picking up of our cross.

The baptisms we celebrate in our own day, and the baptisms we recall, or renew, or reaffirm, or so often struggle to live up to — this is our commitment to the kingdom of heaven that has come near. We see in the crowds’ flocking to John in the river, and in Jesus’s subsequent mission — his life in the villages, cities, and along the roadways. It’s our commitment to take part in that mission laid out by God who dwelt among us, and to strive to see God still among us, in our neighbour.

It can be daunting to live up to the commitments that are made at baptism. We will all fall short, maybe more often than we live up to them. But what we can learn (and mark and inwardly digest) today from this short story from Matthew is what I mentioned just a moment ago: that before the mission comes the baptism. Before the healings, the forgiveness, the actions of justice is the understanding that he is “the Son, the Beloved of God.”

We, each one of us, can work ourselves, literally, to death. We can be as virtuous as possible, in our deeds, or in the way we project ourselves in the virtual world. But underneath, undergirding all of this is the elementary, fundamental, shared, and indispensable reality that each one of us is a beloved child of God. That is the identity of our true self that I suspect our busyness — even our virtuous busyness — can sometimes obscure. Our actions can can get in the way. The truth we try to create can dull us to the truth that’s already there. Our deeds, I think, can even be a sign of our difficulty accepting or feeling the reality of our true self as beloveds of God. But it’s our acceptance of this elementary reality that ensures the continuous bubbling up of that spring of living water out of which comes our righteous action.

In a few moments we will enter into a time of repentance, and of reaffirmation of our baptism. And it will conclude with this: “Come” say the Spirit and the Bride (the Church). “Come forward, you who are thirsty, receive the water of life, the free gift to all who desire it.”

There is nothing more basic than water, and nothing more true than the assertion that Jesus heard at his baptism. It’s an assertion that we share, having been adopted by grace. God says: ‘you are mine; you are beloved.’

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter