The Terrifying Waters of Baptism: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2012

January, 8, 2012

Water, darkness, light. These are things that are so familiar to us we can’t imagine life without them. In the case of water, we couldn’t exist without it. They are so universal to our experience that humans have made them symbols of other things, filling them with meaning and power. For us, that power is symbolic for the most part, not real. When we visit the ocean, we enjoy its beauty but few of us have experienced the terror of being on a boat in the midst of a raging storm. Similarly, darkness is easily dispelled with the flip of a light switch and the fear of unknown creatures wandering about in the dark is something little children grow out of as they age–unless they are Stephen King, who claims to still look underneath the bed before he gets in every night.Listen again to the first words from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

What comes to mind as you hear those words? What do you think this looks like? The most important thing to note is that God is not creating the universe out of nothing. Instead, there is already something there and it sounds very much like chaos. The Hebrew conveys that sense even more strongly. The word for “formless void” is “tohubohu” and for deep, “tehom.” Both of them are related to Babylonian words, names of Babylonian deities that played a role in their creation myths. Here they are gods no longer, but inanimate stuff from which God creates the universe.

Water of the sort described in Genesis 1, the tempestuous waves of an ocean in the midst of a storm, seems a far cry from the water of baptism, especially the water we use in baptism, a few drops, here and there. It’s hard to imagine be afraid of the waters of baptism, although in South Carolina, I baptized several people who had grown up Southern Baptist, but had never been baptized precisely because they were afraid of being pushed under water by someone during the total immersion practiced by that denomination.

Our baptismal water, the way we perform our sacrament with less than a gallon of water in total and at most a few sprinkles over the forehead, does not convey the rich and powerful imagery of baptism in the New Testament. Paul writes repeatedly that baptism is a means by which we share in Christ’s death: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

The story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the focus of our attention each year on the Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany, is an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of baptism. Mark’s version of this story is especially rich in detail and invites us to explore what he thinks the significance of Jesus’ baptism was and to connect that meaning with our own lives. Baptism is a rite of initiation, it brings us into the community of faith, the body of Christ, and as such, it has a liminal, or boundary quality. That, too, is downplayed in current practice, but in the early church, the dying and rising with Christ was symbolized by the baptizand entering the baptismal water nude, and coming out to be dressed in a new white robe. Stripped of all status, power, and identity, baptism washed away the past, not just one’s sins, but all of existence, and offered a new identity.

Mark symbolizes that transition between old and new by setting the baptism in its context of the wilderness, on the edge of civilization. John is preaching out in the wilderness because his message demands repentance, change of life, that can only take place when one is uprooted from ordinary patterns and structures.

Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism is dramatic and puzzling. The drama, though, surrounds Jesus, who seems to be a passive player as the action swirls around him. He doesn’t speak or in any way assent to his baptism. Instead we see him receiving John’s baptism and coming out of the water, when Mark writes, “The heavens were torn open and a voice came saying, “you are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”

Both of these are of great significance. The word translated as “torn” appears only one other time in the Gospel of Mark, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. There’s more symmetry in these two scenes as well, for it is the centurion who says, upon seeing Jesus die, that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This confession is foreshadowed by the voice from heaven here in chapter 1, who speaks not to the crowd, nor to John the baptizer, but to Jesus. Think about that framework for the Gospel—from beginning to end, we the reader know that Jesus is the Son of God, but within that framework as well as the sense that something new has broken in on the old order—the heavens have been torn apart and the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. The old world is being remade into something new by the coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes out of the water and immediately, a voice from heaven comes to tell him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that little detail. It’s incredibly important and raises all kinds of questions, but let’s just stick with the most obvious one. We don’t know, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking before this event, what he knew about himself. All we know is what Mark tells us, that he hears while coming out of the water, that he is God’s son, the beloved. We might wonder what it would be like to hear such words, what an affirmation, a blessing. But what does Jesus do next? It’s not in our reading today, but the very next verse reports that “Immediately, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”

There are two elements in the drama of Jesus’ baptism in Mark. The first is the powerful affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” It is a statement that confirms God’s choice of Jesus, of their unique relationship, and of Jesus’ unique identity. It is an affirmation we receive in our baptism, in slightly different words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That promise should remind us, each time we hear it, that we are God’s beloved children. It should also remind us that the person next to us in the pew, or the person with whom we have disagreed in the past, is also a beloved child of God

But we can’t stop there. Jesus’ baptism was the first step in his public ministry. He went from there into the wilderness, driven by the Spirit. After his temptation, he would come back, preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. So, too, our baptism is also a commissioning. Baptism commits us to our job description as Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ. At every baptism, we commit ourselves to what is called the baptismal covenant. It’s important enough that each of us should be familiar with it and re-commit ourselves to it regularly. It consists of five questions, and is found beginning at the bottom of p. 304 of the Book of Common Prayer:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?


I will, with God’s help.



Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.


I will, with God’s help.


{p. 305}


Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?


I will, with God’s help.



Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?


I will, with God’s help.



Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?


I will, with God’s help.



Baptism sets us out on a journey. For Jesus, it led through the wilderness and to the cross. Our journeys may or may not be as arduous; we certainly don’t know where they will lead us, but as we go on our way, let us carry with us the assurance that we are beloved of God, and that we are charged with living out the covenant we make at our baptisms, to share the good news, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace for all people.




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