... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Epiphany 1 – Year B, Message Jan 08th, 2012

Jesus’ Baptism – It’s Meaning for Us

Text: Mark 1:4-11

On CBC this week there was an interview with a psychologist who has just published a book entitled, “You’re not as smart as you think”. In it he discusses various misperceptions and false presumptions by which we all live and which often govern our daily lives, actions, choices and impressions we have of ourselves. Part of his conclusions explains why so many of the reality TV shows have such a following and why so many of the participants on these shows become devastated at finding out how poor their talents really are. Among the various topics he deals with include personalities, prejudices, assumptions and rituals each of us make and do each and every day. Some examples of his experiments had volunteers answer questions of job identities. Each was given the description of a person: mild mannered, soft spoken, ordinary-looking and wearing glasses. Asked if this person were more likely to be a teacher, a librarian an athlete or a professional, fully 95% stated the person would be a librarian. This comes as a false presumption as an ingrained mental picture of what a librarian looks like wrought from novels, movies and TV shows. Another experiment had volunteers write a story concerning their worst mistakes of the past. Once the stories were written and read the group was broken into 2 subgroups and given 15 minutes rest. One sub-group members were to wash their hands during this time frame and the other not. Then they were asked about rewriting. Of the group who had not washed, 98% were willing to rewrite, but only 30% of those who had washed their hands were willing to do so. The authors’ conclusion was that those who had washed their hands had by that ritual absolved themselves from having to retell their stories. It was as if there had been an absolving of their wrongs by the act of washing.

Very interesting since this Sunday concerns the baptism of Jesus and what that has meant for humanity!

All four of the readings today are linked by the elements of wind and water which demonstrate the surprising and omnipotence of God. Water is both the primal surging chaos of all things from which God brings forth order creation and life, and the cleansing element which has the power to absolve sin and evil. Wind is equated with the Spirit of God coming forth in both whisper and gale to coax or overpower that which is destructive.

In the creation story from Genesis water is the imagery of chaos roiling bubbling and stormy. Over the surface of this chaos God’s Spirit in the form of a mighty gale quells the waves, calms the chaos and brings forth creation and life.

The Psalm echoes the power and control God exerts over creation and the benevolence that that power has for both heaven and earth as well as for their entitlements. The response to this power from its beneficiaries must of necessity be praise and thanksgiving.

In the Gospel and Epistle readings water no longer has the image of chaos but in its place the image and symbolism of cleanliness. Water, the universal solvent is able to remove the encrustations of dirt and grime, sin and falsehood. Yet in deeper contemplation we see in the story of Jesus’ baptism a continued symbolism of God’s power to create and re-create.

While Jesus’ baptism has to be seen as unique and distant from ours, the symbolism of water spirit or wind and God’s power is as true for us as it was for the people of Jesus’ time. With water as both the imagery of primal matter and the universal cleansing agent, baptism can be seen as both the return to the primal matter from which we all come and the cleansing agent which washes away all our grime. Thus by immersion we return to the original state and on coming out have been re-created anew, fresh and cleansed from all former sins.

When John appears in the wilderness calling for a baptism of repentance he is opening up an avenue for God’s power to re-create each repentant. Water is the medium of return to the original human state prior to birth. It takes away the grime of sin and evil and allows for a re-birth in cleanness wholeness and newness. As each person is baptized there is a re-orientation of the whole self so that through God’s mercy and spirit each one is able to start anew in faith and response to God’s love. Walter Brueggemann goes a step further and notes that it is Jesus’ baptism which opened the way for God’s spirit to be realized in this act and which permits a restitution of humanity by being baptized into a community called into being by God’s Holy Spirit.

To help us understand and appreciate the theology behind this view we need to ask ourselves what was it that Jesus’ baptism meant and how is it different from that experienced by the rest of humanity? First of all we must realize that Jesus did not require baptism. As John mentioned he himself was unworthy to be even allowed to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. John in fact was recorded as being unwilling to baptize Jesus for the very reason that he (John) was so far below Jesus’’ authority. But there was a reason for Jesus’ need to be baptized and that need had to do with the creation of God’s new community of faith. In this sense Jesus’ baptism was a moment of decision, a moment of identification, a moment of approval and a moment of equipment.

With his baptism Jesus’ ministry was openly and publically commenced. It was a moment of decision that marked the 30 years of his anonymity and the commencement of His vocation to preach the news of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Having made that decision Jesus’ baptism became a moment of identification. Unlike Luke’s Gospel, Mark does not tell us of Jesus’ prior knowledge of his own identity until this particular moment. Arising from the Jordan, having accepted the baptism by John, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God by the personal encounter with the Holy Spirit and God’s voice declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We are not told if the witnesses that day heard or saw anything different. However, the readers of Marks’ Gospel are now informed and know who Jesus is. Thus the moment of identification has come for both Jesus and Mark’s audience. At the same instant as his baptism marked his identification it also marked the confirmation of his approval by the Father. Jesus had come of age, had passed the test or rite of passage and had received the blessing of God and the commission of his ministry. The final aspect was his being equipped for this ministry and as the dove of the Spirit descended upon him. This power of God infused him breathing into Him the breath of new life and giving him strength for what was to lie ahead.

Seen in this light Jesus’ baptism scarcely seems appropriate as a prototype for Christian Baptism. However, combined with John’s baptism of repentance and his assertion that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit there is a sense of interconnection by which the Christian practice embodies a return to the primal forces of creation, a cleansing and preparation for re-creation and the infusion of new life by the Holy Spirit so as to arise out of the waters reborn into a faith community. In consequence of this we are each now called to follow Jesus’ teachings and live in a new relationship with our Creator by the mercy shown us in and through Jesus Himself. May we continue in this ministry ever being faithful to it to one another and to those whom we serve.