Jesus Baptism

We gathered, pastors all of us, on Tuesday to talk about life in God's hands. And we spoke about the devastating images that have come to us in these last two weeks, wondering what sense we can make of the tragedy that followed the tumultuous upheaval of our earth.

One said he could not escape thinking about the Biblical story of the flood…not in the sense of divine retribution but in the unimaginable horror that must have plagued the dreams of Noah and his family for decades as they watched the waters submerge all that they had known and heard the cries of friends and neighbors as they struggled to stay afloat? What must have remained as ghostly reminders once the waters had receded and they stepped again on dry land? A voice was heard weeping and wailing for her children. I thought about the utter agony and helplessness I felt years ago as I watched my little son caught up in the whirlpool at the base of a waterfall bobbing up and down until finally he drifted out of its current. Life is so fragile. And my voice was barely heard screaming above the roar of the water.

Since the very beginning of creation, our world has struggled under the power that set it into motion. It's evolving and shifting, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, and extreme weather are nothing compared to the amazing display as God took the stuff of this earth and formed it into a place where we might live. In those moments when he separated the waters into sea and clouds then gathered the dry lands and oceans, the storms that must have swirled across the face of this planet could not have been described. The lava from the earth's core, hissing as it cooled in the red sea, pushing up and up to form mountains and shores.

Water. One element with so much power. A simple glass full digests nutrients and carries them to our every cell. A 10-gallon aquarium can become a home for tropical fish. A rushing river can turn a millstone or generate electricity. Rain can nourish plants or cause a mudslide. The ocean yields food for a hungry world, plays with tourists or destroys hundreds of thousands of innocents in its rush onto land.

Water bequeaths life and death. It receded long enough for the Israelites to walk across on dry land to their freedom from slavery in Egypt, but collapsed on the pursuing soldiers. No doubt the Israelites paused to pick up the fish that lay wiggling and suffocating on the sand and Moses stood with his staff held high urging the people to hurry and cross over before it was too late. While voices were heard across the desert weeping and wailing for their children, their first born sons.

Such is the hypocrisy of human existence. Though we know the potential power for life and death of this planet, we continue to give birth to new generations that are forced into taking their chances with whatever future awaits them. Years can go by in relative tranquility until we are lulled into a false sense of security…and then tragedy occurs too deep for human understanding - Noah's flood, Egyptian plagues, volcanic eruptions like in Pompeii, hurricanes, tsunami's, earthquakes, laying claim to lives by the thousands.

But so too is the hypocrisy of humanity. Men and women have a great capacity for love, compassion, and generosity. We have seen it over and over again, such as in the last two weeks as millions upon millions of dollars are pouring in to aid in relief efforts and to halt further deaths due to hunger, thirst, and disease. And yet hand in hand with love come those with other intent. Political maneuvers make charges about how much a country is giving and why. Agencies with ulterior motives lay claim to huge percentages of donations. Some recipients whose name is greed steal from those who are starving right beside them. Looters take necessary items and sell them on the black market, not to mention trafficking orphans into unspeakable conditions. And while generous loving hearts are racked by this natural tragedy, others continue to plot and carry out war that will take thousands more in just one attack. And such has been the tale of human history since its first baby cried as a flood of water brought it forth into existence somewhere outside the Garden of Eden, long, long ago.

And into this sea of contradictions and hypocrisy, Jesus walked to be baptized by John. Washed in this rich symbol of life and death, Jesus came to speak his solidarity with humankind. He came to lift people up from the tragedy of human existence into a new realm. What was John's baptism? What aspect of water spoke clearly that day? John had been baptizing for repentance. Water was a symbol of washing one clean. But John had also spoken of a different baptism that was coming, one like fire, one of the spirit, one that would change a person's life forever. And it came in the person of Jesus.

In our baptismal service, we speak of the stories I just mentioned…creation, the flood, the flight out of Egypt, and Jesus' own baptism. We speak not only of repentance, but also of the kingdom and being reborn. But to be reborn, one must die. Martin Luther spoke of the power and effect of baptism. He says in the Large Catechism, "It is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever belongs to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth. Now, when we enter Christ's kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy and pride."

To hear Luther speak, the effect of baptism is not a one-time deal. Rather with the gift of the Holy Spirit it is an entry into a process of change that may be imperceptible at first. But it becomes clearer as life unfolds. Once you meet Jesus Christ, the old person begins to die and a new person emerges and you start to see Jesus everywhere, especially in the wake of tragedies such as December 26. For we humans are fragile creatures that live on the surface of an amazing living, globe of energy whose dynamics we have barely begun to understand. But Christ is there, teaching us daily how to discover the wonders of this creation, seeking daily to help us discover God in all things.

We are in the season of Epiphany, a time when we begin to discover that Jesus is not just another child born in a far away land, but the Son of God. We hear it proclaimed at his baptism. He is the king of the earth and all created things. We see it proclaimed through the journey of the magi, people who traveled far from distant realms to honor him. There is a poem you should have received with your bulletin. It was written by T. S. Elliot. It speaks of what the journey might have been like for these magi, as they traveled from all that was familiar, encountering the best and worst of humanity, and finally arriving where the child was.

What is so important about this poem is the last few lines, where the one question asked:, were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly. We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.

Meeting the infant Jesus was certainly an epiphany for them…and even a baptism into a new reality. No longer was home a comfortable place. No longer did they view the world in the same way. No longer did their old gods suffice.

Birth and death in the same breath, in the same child.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan