Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
September 27, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:9-12
What happened at your baptism? If you were an adult, was there a feeling of warmth in your heart, a special sense of God’s presence, or did you just get uncomfortably wet and couldn’t wait for some dry clothes? If you were baptized as an infant, it’s unlikely you remember anything, so how does your baptism matter to you? Does something happen beyond your conscious awareness in baptism? Does the Holy Spirit literally descend and be present at the sacramental moment, entering you, infusing you with love and wisdom, doing some kind of mystical work? Or is the sacrament a symbolic act, where we as a community affirm that you belong, and we love you on God’s behalf.
I was baptized at age 14, on Easter Sunday and my birthday. It felt like a real rite of passage into adulthood, and my Baptist Church treated it as such, making me an Usher and later a Deacon, and emphasizing that I could now vote at congregational meeting. I was so pumped about that! I had passed the Baptism classes, so I had a sense of my beliefs. So baptism was about making a decision about my beliefs and belonging. There was language about being lead by the Holy Spirit on this path, and if that was true, it happen outside of my conscious awareness. I later discover that I was baptized in the Methodist Church as an infant. Did that mean anything? At my ecclesiastical council, (in the UCC which performs infant baptism) I was rigorously questioned on this point. Which baptism “worked?” (Probably the first one, but maybe neither one! More on that later.) I was asked if I was counseling a 40 year old man who was depressed, and baptized as infant, how I might use the doctrine of baptism to counsel him? I was totally stumped on that one, so the questioner rephrased, “Do you see any power in infant baptism?”
I want to revisit these questions after exploring Jesus’s baptism by John. However we are baptized, we all believe it is a ritual of belonging, and it is connected to an act of faith and belief, whether it is our faith or our parent’s faith, which we later claim as our own after confirmation. Rituals are valuable, and can help us understand and feel connection. Rituals are a way we make meaning of things. But do we perceive an actual role for the Holy Spirit? Does something happen to us, in us, something God-breathed? Are we in any way changed or renewed as something God does through this sacrament of baptism?
John the Baptist clearly believed baptism to be a core act of faith. John distinguishes between his baptism of repentance, and says the messiah is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s mission, according to the Gospels was to call people to live by the ways of God, obey scriptures and lead an ethical life. He claimed the words of Isaiah, “Prepare the way of God, make the path straight. Every valley shall be raised and every mountain lowered.” In Luke’s Gospel, people cry out and ask “What shall we do?” John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise….Tax collectors should collect no more than the amount proscribed…” In other words, be moral, bear good fruit.
Last week I preached about the meaning of metanoia, the Greek word translated “repent.” It means to turn around and face the other direction. Baptism as John practiced it, was a ritual to affirm turning around and embracing a Godly life. It is a ritual washing, a cleansing of the old self, to make way for the new. It is also a ritual drowning, a waterboarding, a symbolic death and resurrection (Paul mentions this three times.)
Why would Jesus need this? If he is truly the messiah, does he need to repent? Mark isn’t interested in this theological question, he will let the other Gospels answer it. His goal is to show God’s favor upon Jesus. To make sure we get the message, Mark gives us three symbols so we get the point.
First, as Jesus is coming out the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. It’s not just a cloud break, or a gentle breeze, or a rainbow, but the heavens torn apart. The only other time this Greek verb is used is at the end of Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus dies, Mark says the veil of the Temple that separated people from the holy of the holies where God was said to dwell, was torn apart, ripped in two. Later I remembered, Isaiah 62, the prophet pleads with God, “Tear open the heavens and make your mighty name known…”
This is a robust action verb. That which normally separates us from perceiving God’s presence is torn, at baptism and at the cross, the heavens opened. This is how ancient people saw the barrier between humans and God, the limits of the sky or the temple veil keep us at a distance. We have gone beyond the skies and the atmosphere, so what veils us now? Perhaps it is our hearts that are protected from feeling, and God shows up and we are suddenly opened to deep compassion, that is both joyful and frightening. Perhaps it is our limited thinking about who God is, on how God works. God arrives and tears apart our old ideas, like an old wine skin being ripped open, and we will need a new one to hold our understanding. Our God was too small. Tear it up and get a better one!
Through the tatters of heaven comes a dove, a messenger of the Holy Spirit. Doves are known for their homing instincts. Noah sent the dove to find land after the flood, as sailors did even in the 19thcentury. Doves are early radar to help navigation, and Jesus is on God’s radar. Doves are often signs of messages from the gods in ancient religion, usually from feminine deities. Using the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit is a way of incorporating the feminine side of God, and in many churches they had doves rather than crosses.
Then comes the voice, the God who speaks and creates, the word who is the source of life itself says, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.” This is the main point. Why are the heavens torn open? Why does the divine messenger flutter down? Because God want to speak-to communicate love and favor and blessing.
I wish my baptism was like that-a series of signs that God is real, breaks in and says, “Hey, you are alright.” (That is a more Midwestern God.) You are awesome! (A little over the top, like a helicopter parent!) Actually, I’m good with “You are my beloved child.” Unfortunately we cannot conjure up God with our ritual. I could rip some cloth, release a dove and have someone shout from the choir loft, but God will speak when ready.
So back to our beginning question. Is the Holy Spirit actually present at baptism or our baby dedications, doing something, acting in some way? Do we get more than wet? Part of the ritual is we, as a community, stand in for God and welcome a child. You are loved. We are God’s body here on earth and we want you to always know you are loved.
In the UCC liturgy for baptism, it reads, “The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God.” It is a visible sign of an invisible event. We don’t control the timing but in faith we trust that God’s spirit is always present working within us.
Let me trace back to my ordination inquisitors. Which baptism worked? I think I said the first one. Here is what I wish I had said. Baptism does not simply work. It is not a magic incantation. It is a sign, a deep and powerful reminder and ritual that it is God always doing the work, even if we are not comprehending it right now, even if we are still an infant. I wish I had asked them, “Did Jesus baptism work?” You might say, “Of course, there was the dove and the voice, and…well, he is the Christ. It must of worked.” But how do you really know it worked?
Look at what happens to Jesus after baptism. Mark says the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he will spend 40 days being tempted. Is it possible that the sudden experience of God leaves Jesus with more questions than answers? I am beloved? So much that God showed up? Why me? What do I do now? Just because you see the heavens torn open does not mean you suddenly understand life, the universe and everything. So Jesus must spend 40 days in the wilderness to wrestle with what happened at his baptism.
40 days later he walks out of the wilderness with a sense of mission and purpose to make God’s love known to the world, saying “Good news, the kingdom, the beloved community, has drawn near.” And then he calls disciples – Peter, James and John, and ultimately you and me. Hey beloved, you are called too. You are baptized in the Holy Spirit, keep it wet, keep it real. Every time you wash your face, wash your hands, remember and be mindful that God’s spirit is always near.