January 14, 2012

Baptism of Jesus

Getting the Word

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

Mark 1:4-11

We live in a world awash in words. Always in the background, there is talk radio, 80 gazillion channels on TV, magazines, electronic bill boards, email, text messages, cell phones – a never-ending barrage of words. With words so common and present, is easy to forget how powerful they really are. We say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and forget that words can wound and wound deeply, and that they can also bring healing and joy.

If you doubt the power of words, think about what happens as a result of words like these:

“I love you. Will you marry me?”

“The biopsy was positive. You have cancer.”

“I’m sorry. Your job is being eliminated.”

“Oh look, you’re having twins.”

Just words, but getting words like these has the power to change everything.

Another danger of the overload of words in our world is that we often tune out; we may be hearing but we stop listening, we stop paying attention. And in the midst of all our daily noise, the word we most need to hear is in danger of being drowned out, or we are not in the right place to be able to hear it. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in a much quieter time: “Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” (Ash Wednesday) You know the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? A parallel question for us might be: If God speaks in the world and no one pays attention, does it make any difference?

Well, the Bible has a very clear answer to that, and the answer is yes. Yes, words are powerful; yes, words make a difference, whether we are paying attention or not. The Hebrew term for “word” – dabar -- is also translated as action, thing, or deed. To speak is to act. And that is especially true for God’s Word (the one with a capital W).

Consider this: In the beginning, the world was created not with a gesture or a planning document or a coincidence. The world was created with words. In the first chapter of Genesis, there are 14 times when God speaks. As we read this morning: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God spoke into being and named day and night; the sky; the waters; the dry land; plants; stars, moon, and sun; living creatures of every kind; and finally human beings, us.

Out of the chaos of nothing, when there was only a formless void, wild and waste, God’s Word brought order and life. The Word changed everything.

And that has been the pattern throughout all of holy history. When God’s Word comes to the people, things will be changed. The Word disrupts the status quo. Where there is chaos, the Word brings order. And the reverse is equally true: Where there is complacency, the Word stirs things up. As the psalmist said: “ The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, causes the oaks to whirl, strips the forest bare.” (from Psalm 29) We may have a nice little spiritual routine but then the voice of God thunders in our lives and what was routine is seen as the rut it has become, and our comfort and boredom are stripped away.

I suspect that when we seek a word from God, though, it is not that kind of word! We long for the easy way. It is hard to pray as medieval preacher John Donne once did:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you

As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

But here is the truth: Unless God breaks, blows, and burns within us, we are just the same old stuff. The act of making new, the act of creation -- in the world, in the church, in our hearts – means a break from the old, a powerful blowing of the wind of the Spirit, and flames of fire that destroy all that gets in the way of our holiness. It means change.

And that is what happens in baptism. Baptism is not just about sweet babies, antique christening gowns, and family gatherings. Baptism is not just a nice little ritual of dabbing some water on someone’s head. Baptism is the powerful act of God’s Word, changing everything.

When Jesus came to be baptized, the heavens themselves were torn apart. It was an answer to an ancient prayer from the prophet Isaiah on behalf of the people: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood
 and the fire causes water to boil!” 
 (Isaiah 64:1-2)

In Jesus’ baptism, the barrier between earth and heaven has been torn open. God has spoken. And God’s creating, powerful voice has named a new reality. God has said to and of Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” There is an echo here from “in the beginning,” when God spoke and all was changed, and God saw that it was good.

And we are baptized, that voice descends on us, too. We are created as God’s own children and God is well-pleased; God sees that we are good. Everything is changed. The power of sin is broken. The old life is gone, destroyed, stripped away.

We get God’s word, and it is a word, the word, that became flesh. And getting the Word in baptism means we become part of the Body of Christ; we, too, become the Word. And we may be the only Word of God that some people every get.

The world will not always pay attention to the Word that we speak, to the Word that we are. But that does not lessen our power. It does not diminish our calling to create something new.

God speaks and everything, including us, is changed. God speaks and something new comes into being – in the world, in our church, in our hearts. And God sees that it is good, and God is well-pleased. And in God’s house all say “Glory!”

© Martha C. Highsmith

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