Baptism of the Lord

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Sunday, January 10 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 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, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot again, “the dove descending breaks the air.”

“Oh, that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down,” we read in Isaiah during Advent. It is the imagination, seen also in today’s psalm, of decisive, dramatic, apocalypse, a divine intervention which breaks trees and strips forests bare, which will absolutely seize and change our broken time; and it is something we may well long for, in the midst of our collective traumas now—pandemic, poverty, blatant and violent white supremacy — as the Isaiah writer longed for God to turn his troubled people around. A God who will compel human beings to be good, save us from our own and our society’s deadly failures, who will come swift as fire. But when God acts on this cry, 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.

The first reading gives us one parallel to that moment—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 small and fragile sign that the earth had, all out of human sight, returned, that the long death of water was going to have an 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.

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. That we are these broken creatures, stumbling through pandemics and political violence, making terrible decisions frequently, and God will not take us and make us good by force. But love will be greater than violence, love is stronger than death, and many waters cannot drown it. The beloved abides with us, and we show forth that love as we can, and in all the pain, we persist. It is this, not a solution, but the fierce persistence of the grass which breaks the pavement.

I do not wish to make a particular idol of the peculiar political institutions of the United States. But still, I celebrate those women who, last Wednesday, in the midst of chaos, moved to secure the electoral college records while everyone else was running for cover. Even if the electoral college is a nonsensical institution, it was also a statement that plain fact does not bend to power’s worst desires, and plain fact is worth protecting.

And as the pandemic here continues to spiral, and the provincial government refuses to bring in the measures, like paid sick leave, which would genuinely enable more people to stay home and be safe, we still have all those who are carrying out essential work as carefully as they can, those who are caring for sick relatives or strangers, delivering food, or simply making the choice to stay physically isolated for the greater safety of others; we have those who are delivering vaccines, and those lobbying to ensure that the most vulnerable are seen and treated as priorities.

We have, all of us, our small moments of choice, and for those of us who have been baptized into the name and life of Jesus, we are pledged in our deepest being to those choices, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being, to protect the integrity of the earth; to know our own entanglement with the forces of death, and to keep turning away, and returning to those practices which can form us as a new community.

In our baptism we put on, in our small and broken and human ways, Christ’s death and risen life. 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, enter into that constant relationship of love which is the one God in three persons. For God has broken the heavens and come down.