A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord/A • January 8, 2017
Click on the ling below to hear the sermon preached
We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
We are making a passage that is straight and true
[Bill Staines, “Crossing the Water”]
Those lines from a folk song by Bill Staines remind us about the long arc of our lives, how we live on a passage often mysterious in detail but whose destination is our home with God. We are crossing the water indeed: water flows through our stories and our lives like a cascading stream that never stops. Most of our bodies and most of our world is water. From the water we drink and wash with in the morning, to the water for coffee or tea, we are part of a stream with a passing flow that never ceases. Like waves on the water, we rise at times and then fall back but we are always part of a larger ocean. So it isn’t surprising that when we come here today, to learn what God was doing in bringing Jesus to the world, in taking on the form of a person just like us, the story starts with water.
Water and Spirit
Right from the beginning, water is central to the Bible story. Genesis says,
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the 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. [Genesis 1:1f]
This is the beginning; this is what it looks like. I know this scene, do you? I have stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, on a boat in the Chesapeake, on the sands of a beach and watched the sky darken and the winds move the water and the pleasant playful water turn dark and threatening. Surely this is what the storytellers of Genesis imagined at the beginning: creation like a thunderstorm over a great water, light splitting the sky, and separating the waters, organizing them, so that a place could be made for a garden where we might live and praise our God.
Crossing the Water to Salvation
Water is also the scene at two of the most important events in salvation history. When the people of God came out from slavery and were threatened by their oppressors with violence, their backs were to the sea and God opened the sea, and they crossed over. Again, when they came to the land God promised, the waters, this time the River Jordan, were opened so they could safely cross. These waters—ocean, Reed Sea, River Jordan—are not just geography, they are theology as well.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that water played a part in the rituals of ancient Judaism. A great many things could keep a person from being what we call “ritually pure”. This is simply a term for someone who is not allowed to come into the presence of God. But if there was a careful description of who must be excluded, there was also a gateway back and the gateway included a special sort of washing, called a mikvah. Centuries before Christ, the mikvah was described in Leviticus and washing rituals played an important part in the life of some religious communities. It was a ritual of restoration.
John the Baptist and Jesus
Perhaps this is why John chose water as the symbol and sign of repentance. His message is simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Like a walled city with a gate, heaven’s door is opening and it’s time to wash up and get ready. Certainly the place he chose was not an accident. Gathering people by the River Jordan, the border of the promised land, the water whose crossing marked a fulfillment of God’s promise, is a powerful sermon itself. Matthew is clear: Jesus doesn’t just happen on John, he sets out on a passage that takes him to John first and once there on the shores of the waters of the River Jordan, he seeks baptism. It is not an accident, it is not arbitrary, it is an intentional act. Jesus chooses to go to John, to seek baptism there on the banks of the River Jordan.
Later, the church would be embarrassed by this act. Why would the sinless Son of God come to be baptized? Surely he does not need forgiveness, surely he does not need to repent. We hear the echo of this in the conversation Matthew records.
John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ [Matthew 3:14-17]
The cryptic phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”, means first to be in perfect accord with God’s hope. Like a music student playing perfectly at their first recital, like an athlete doing exactly what the coach taught, Jesus seeks baptism because it is the pattern of God.
What is this pattern? It is first a choice to identify with the outsider, the sinner, the stranger. Jesus lives in a religious culture that sets a stark boundary between the good people and the bad and like a wall forbids any crossing. In his baptism, Jesus demolishes the wall, invites everyone in, opens heaven to those outside. To fulfill all righteousness is to break down the walls that separate the children of God from each other and gather them into one family. Over and over again he will live this identification with the lost and it is one of the reasons he will die. God is coming to us, to all of us, and Jesus opens the door. With his life, through the symbol of this baptism, he opens the door to all and gives all a taste of God’s future. For in the final victory of God, all are known as God’s children, Gentile and Jew alike, men, women, everyone.
Fulfill All Righteousness
In the moment of fulfilling all righteousness, as the baptism concludes, Matthew tells us that creation itself mirrors the event. Heaven opens, the text says, and the Holy Spirit, imagined as a dove, comes to Jesus to ordain him for his ministry. The message is clear and unequivocal: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is literally the Word of the Lord, the same Word by which the waters were divided and creation took place. This is the child of God who stands for all us and invites us to remember we are children of God.
From his baptism, Jesus’ passage goes on into the wilderness and we’ll meet him again there at the beginning of Lent. John is arrested; when Jesus hears about it, he takes up the same message John preached. It’s striking that as he begins the part of his passage that includes preaching and teaching and healing, he begins by saying, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In him, through him, there is always this amazing, wonderful possibility, that heaven will open, that we will be invited in.
Jesus’ baptism invites us to think about our own passages and our own baptism. Long ago, some church bureaucrats set up a stall at the door of heaven and began to charge admission. Baptism, they said, would save you from hell. This is not God’s Word; this is not God’s intention or hope. But it’s comforting in a way. Some people would rather buy a ticket than trust there will be a place for them. Our destination, however, is not something we can purchase; it is the gift of God. Like a parent driving the car on a trip, God controls, God assures our destination. So let me be clear: I do not believe, we do not believe, Congregationalists do not believe that anyone has ever been saved by the ordinance of baptism. There is nothing we can do, no act, no water that can save a single soul. Saving souls is the act of God, not clergy or churches. Heaven is God’s home and only the housekeeper can open the door.
Instead, baptism for us is a symbol that remembers our identification with Jesus. We come to the waters of baptism to be reminded that we are children, whatever our age. Over the years, I’m sometimes asked if it wouldn’t be better to let children grow up to the age of understanding before they are baptized. Usually, this means 12 or 13 or so. Obviously, such people have never taught a confirmation class full of kids this age. I have been honored over the years to hold many infants and small children as they were baptized; I have never thought for one instant that they understood less than I did, with my seminary degree, about the love of God. There, at the baptismal fount, we have always been equals, equally children of the one loving God.
Jesus begins his passage with baptism and we have a passage to make as well. A passage is not an errand, a quick trip somewhere, always with the return in mind. A passage takes you somewhere and changes you. Passages take preparation. When I was small, our family lived near Trenton, New Jersey; each summer, my father would spend an entire day packing the car for the passage to Wildwood, to the ocean shore, where we’d spend a week. Have you prepared a passage: packed a car, loaded a back pack, set out for some other place distant not only in time but in spirit? Baptism is preparation for our passage, a passage whose arc must be the recovery of that child of God within us that lives without fear and embraces God’s other children.
If he lives in us, his baptism is our as well, and the ringing affirmation of that moment is for us as well. Bernard Eppard, a Congregational minister in Connecticut, says,
Today, the divine affirmation – you are my beloved – pertains to each and all of us. The ethic of baptism is aspirational and inclusive, inviting us to see all creation, including the non-human world as God’s beloved.
There is in each of us, a child of God that seeks to be known. When my grandmother would correct me, pointing out some obvious flaw, she often began by saying, “Heaven knows….” Heaven knows you: heaven knows that child in you. And heaven invites that child home: “the kingdom of heaven is near”. In baptism, Jesus crosses the water on his passage as the Son of God, seeking to save the lost. We also have a passage to make:
We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
.We are making a passage that is straight and true