The Baptism of Jesus

Sermon for The Baptism of Jesus, Sunday, January 07 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 1:1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

Although we in the Western church call this the feast of the baptism of Jesus, it is not that baptism as such which is the core of the story. It is what happens when Jesus rises out of the water and “the dove descending breaks the air,” in Eliot’s lovely phrase. The Orthodox Church remembers this moment on January 6, at the same time as we remember the visit of the Magi, as the Epiphany, the Appearing—for it is in this moment after the baptism that we see the Trinity revealed, that the full three-personed nature of God shines forth—in the human person rising from the water, the spirit which falls dove-like as he rises, and the voice which proclaims him the beloved.

“Oh, that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down,” we read in Isaiah during Advent. But when God acts on this, when the air is broken, it is not the great cosmic act the prophet had imagined, it is not fire and thunder and drama, but the descent of something like a dove towards a vulnerable human person in the waters, and a voice which speaks of love.

And if we go into the moment, and more deeply into the images of that moment, we may perhaps come to some further understandings of what is going on here. The lectionary gives us one parallel—the division of the waters of chaos at the moment of creation, the word moving on the waters of creation as the Word rises from the waters of the Jordan. But the fourth century Greek theologian John Chrysostom also reminds us, in a sermon he preached on on this observance, that this is not the first story in the Bible which features water and a dove, and that we are being deliberately recalled to the narrative of the flood, and the reconciliation of God and humankind which is imagined in the dove’s return to the ark with a sprig of olive, the sign that the earth had returned, that the long death of water was ending. And that ark, in this new story, is that human body rising from the water, the body of Christ through which all our bodies are made new.

And yet—the story of the flood is a also disturbing one; because, after all, the God of that story wipes out nearly the entirety of the human race in a fit of temper before reconciling with Noah and promising that he won’t do that thing again, at least not that exact thing. And it is not the only troubling story involving water. At the Easter Vigil every year, we retell the story of the escape of the children of Israel through the Red Sea, and, not incidentally, the drowning of Pharaoh’s soldiers. Water is an ambigous symbol, it is both life and death, and there is a great deal of death lurking within the imagery of this story. When Eliot wrote “the dove descending breaks the air,” he was thinking of the descent of the Holy Spirit, yes. But he was also thinking of the firebombs of the Blitz, which were falling as he wrote his great poem. This water, this dove-like falling spirit, this human body within the water, this is a moment when reality breaks, and we are at the hinge of life and death.

It is also a moment which contains an important reversal both of the flood narrative, and the narrative of the escape through the Red Sea. These are stories in which a few of God’s chosen are saved from water, and all the unchosen are drowned, and we are to understand that God is on the side of the saved, and that God is responsible for the drowning. But in this story, it is all undone, stunningly undone, as God goes down into the water. As God becomes one of the drowned, one of the dead, one of the lost and the unchosen. And all our understandings of power are forever overturned. God in a human body goes down into the water, at the mercy of the human hands of John; as God in a human body will go down into the earth, into the darkness of death, at the hands of powerful men, far more ruthless and desperate than John could ever be. No longer a game of winners and losers and who is the strongest, but the entire offering of divine love. The love that will go as far into the depth and the darkness as it is possible to go, the love that will be entirely drowned in the waters of death—and will fill that death with life, with light, will reclaim every last lost soul among us.

For this is what it is to be the beloved Son of God, to be the expression of God’s being in a human body, a human life. It is to make that offering. It is to identify entirely with human weakness, human pain, even our human sin, to offer the ritual of sorrow and repentance for that sin and, even more, to bear its consequences. To accept that when ultimate love enters this world, the immediate response of our broken humanity is not answering love, but murder; and that even this murder can be turned to good, for love is stronger than death, and many waters cannot drown it.

And it is this, in retrospect, which gives meaning to the story we hear today. This first moment in which the three-personed God is revealed is also the moment in which we are shown what God really means, what God really does. The Word of God, incarnate in the human person of Jesus Christ, makes himself vulnerable to human hands and goes down into the water, and from this baptism comes the meaning which creates all our baptisms. Water becomes, not the instrument of chaos and final destruction, not even primarily, any more, the symbol of the destruction of our sins as John had seen it; but the instrument of blessing, for God has entered the water, and all water is filled with God—and there are lovely Orthodox hymns on this subject, the rejoicing of the water as it receives the divine life into itself. Water is made a blessing and a pathway into life, as death will be made a pathway into greater life at Easter.

And so in our baptism we put on, in our small and broken and human ways, that death and that risen life. We pledge ourselves to be a part of that body which we take as our food at the altar, the body which renews our bodies. We pledge ourselves to try, as lies within our own limited and dependent capacities, to model ourselves upon the servant God whom Isaiah describes. We pledge ourselves to be ministers of justice in an unjust world, instruments of love and gentleness, of equity and truth.

We pledge ourselves to the humility, the surrender, with which Jesus came to John—the humility which acknowledged that even the Son of God needed the gifts and actions and care of others, needed John to play his part in the unfolding, that the reality of God’s being is revealed in this world through the flawed, uncertain, essential actions of human persons. The humility which acknowledges that we ourselves, little struggling creatures, must receive from the hands of others so many things we cannot provide for ourselves, must surrender ourselves to the encounter with another, that the reality of our own being can only be revealed to us in that encounter.

We promise as we can, and we receive the troubling and profound blessing of the water. And we come forward to take the body of Christ, the body of which we are made part, to be fed and to receive the duty of feeding, to enter into that constant relationship of love which is the one God in three persons. For God has broken the heavens and come down.