January 12, 2011

Sunday of the Baptism of Christ

“Water, Wind, and Fire”

Psalm 29

Matthew 3:1-17

Baptism is always a special occasion in the church. Some churches prepare those who are being baptized all through Lent and then the baptism itself takes place as soon as Easter morning arrives. Some churches gather on a beach or at a river. Some pour the water into ancient stone fonts where generations of the faithful have been baptized. In churches that baptize infants, as we do, the baptism of a little one is an especially tender moment - usually.

I remember a baptism in a church I attended years ago of a little girl, maybe two years old. She was truly a child of the church – both her parents were elders; her grandfather was a retired minister; she had been in worship almost since the day she was born. Her baptism was a special day for everyone there. She was in a new dress, hair brushed, looking like an angel sitting with mom and dad in the pew. But when it was time for them to gather at the font, she refused to budge. No amount of coaxing could get her out of her seat. In the face of her loud protests - NO, NO – the minister finally cupped the water in her hands and carried it to the little girl in the pew, letting it drip down on that shining hair as she said the ancient words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

We all knew the little girl and knew that she was a head-strong two year old, but I have wondered since then if she had a more primal understanding of what was about to happen than perhaps the rest of us. After all, the traditional baptismal liturgy speaks of our being baptized into the death of Jesus Christ. It reminds us of God almost giving up on humankind and destroying our evil in the waters of the flood. Baptism embraces the suffering of Jesus on the cross when his side was pierced and water and blood flowed out. In baptism we are buried with Christ in his death.

Baptism is rejecting sin, renouncing evil, and repenting of our old ways. It is not sweetness and lace and antique christening gowns but an altogether different and potentially terrifying experience –terrifying because it involves the complete destruction of an old way of life.

This is what John meant when he began to baptize with a call for repentance. We often think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, a kind of holy regret. That is certainly part of it, but the real meaning is much more expansive. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and its literal meaning is to turn around, to do an about face. It means to change your mind, not just in the sense of making a different decision but also in the sense of changing the way you think, the way you live, who you are.

Baptism calls us out of our comfortable place, and it seems to me and perfectly normal reaction to want to stay put, to say NO, NO. That’s human nature, isn’t it? Change is hard. It is hard, and it is painful, because it always involves some form of destruction.

That is probably why we often prefer the status quo, even if we don’t necessarily like the way things are. You know the old saying: better the devil you know than the one you don’t know. But the truth of the matter is that it is often the devil we know instead of the God we are afraid to know.

And into our unknowing, God’s voice enters, clearing the space for something new to happen. This voice of God, as the psalmist wrote, is powerful and majestic, flashing with fire, shaking the wilderness, stripping the forest bare, thundering over mighty waters.

The record of scripture bears witness to the power of God’s voice. Think of the watery chaos at the beginning of time when God’s voice brought life and order out of wild nothingness. And then God’s voice came again, in 40 days of rain and a great flood that destroyed evil from the face of the earth. The Israelites stood on the banks of the sea and watched their Egyptian enemies destroyed and understood themselves transformed from slaves into God’s chosen ones. And Jesus came to the Jordan and God’s voice thundered over the waters again, changing everything.

That same voice, that same God, also speaks to us, with power and might and glory, entering the wilderness of our own lives like a whirlwind, uprooting and shattering all the evil that has taken hold. In the waters of baptism, through the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, we are created anew, changed, transformed into God’s chosen people, God’s own beloved.

This is the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace but it is not a cheap grace. Perhaps the poet/preacher John Donne captured some of the nature of God’s costly grace when he wrote these words:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you as yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

that I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend your force to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

God transforms our lives with a love as powerful as water, wind and fire. That transformation is not always easy. But in the midst of the destruction of the old, the breaking, blowing and burning that clear a space for God’s newness, it is important to claim God’s presence with us and for us, not against us.

It is a tragic truth that every day someone somewhere in the world will suffer from a terrible disaster -- flood, fire, tornado. Sometimes we speak of these as “acts of God” but I think it is more accurate to call them acts of nature. I do not believe that God punishes people by sending tragedies like the floods in Pakistan, hurricane Katrina, fires in California, or the December tornadoes in Missouri. But I do believe that God is at work in those terrible situations in ways we cannot fathom. I have been struck time and time again by television interviews of people standing in the midst of the destruction of everything they have known – houses burnt down, flooded out or blown apart, neighborhoods and livelihoods destroyed, surrounded by damage and injury and loss. And over and over again, they all say the same kind of thing: “We have lost all our stuff but we still have each other. And that is all that matters.” It is as though the destruction around them has given them a new sense of priorities, has shown them what is truly important.

I do not want to minimize or trivialize the awful suffering that accompanies disaster and loss. But it may be that this is a powerful metaphor for how God works in our day-to-day lives – destroying those accumulations that distract us from what is really important, destroying those things that keep us from seeing love.

This is not easy. Change never is. But here is another thing to remember about how God works. God is always with us, no matter what. God has claimed us as God’s own children. We are God’s beloved.

And God’s word to us, God’s voice, coming through the prophet Isaiah, is still trustworthy and true:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God…. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-3a, 4a)

In the chaos of our lives, in the wilderness of our souls, in the midst of destruction and despair and desperation, God is with us. Through the water, wind and fire of baptism, God’s voice descends on us like a blessing, and everything is changed. Nothing will ever be the same, except God’s eternal love.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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