In reading the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ baptism, I thought of a long-time member who lived to be over one hundred years old. She was very active: a golfer, walker and long-time swim teacher. She taught hundreds of kids over decades of instruction how to get into the water without fear and swim with joy. That’s no small feat! My memories of swim lessons as a girl are not particularly positive. I sat on the edge of the pool on cool summer mornings, shivering. I had to jump in before the sun had been up long enough to warm the concrete I sat on or the water I was asked to enter. My final exam was to swim ¾ of the way across the width of the pool to the teacher, who was treading water, swim around him and then return to the edge of the pool. I dog-paddled out to him with some level of calm. But when I got near him I panicked and grabbed onto the surprised teacher. It took me a few years to graduate from Beginners to Intermediate. Patient teachers along the way helped me face my fears and gain life-saving skills.
Isaiah 43 offers reassurance to us that the trials of life will never overtake us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”
Have you ever seen a small child learn to swim? They sputter and cough and gasp and we regret ever entrusting them to a swim coach. But then they learn. They float on their back peacefully, their eyes no longer big with fear but looking up at the sky that seems to envelop them. Befriending the water prepares a child for unexpected moments ahead. Baptism by water and Spirit is our entry into the Church. It was quite tame for most of us—sprinkling on our heads while held securely. But in some traditions it’s by full immersion and the preacher holds the person down a little longer on the third dunk. The message is clear: this is no small commitment. Your baptism is life-changing. This sacrament is a death to self and an acknowledgement of full reliance on God’s protection. It’s a unique entrance exam into club membership! For many organizations you offer words of allegiance and accept a membership pin. Then you sit down for cake and punch served afterwards to celebrate your new sense of belonging. Not in the Church! You get wet, your hair is slicked down and the words of the preacher remind you that you have died to self so that you can rise to new life in Christ.
Wait, what did I just commit to? I thought this was going to make my life easier?
There’s some amazing news in this story that we could easily overlook if we get lost in the details of a very human experience. God loves us so much that God entered our world vulnerably as a human being. The heavens are torn open and love descends in the form of a dove. It lands and stirs up a sense of calling in Jesus, who is anointed for ministry. Jesus’ baptism launches Him on His career in Mark’s gospel where there are no lengthy pauses or picnics. It’s full speed ahead until the heavens open again at the Transfiguration and, later, the crucifixion. In the wilderness the sweet dove is replaced with wild animals. Quite often adults who come to me excited to be baptized fall away from the faith a short time later. While baptism is a beautiful beginning point to a life of faith, there’s nothing easy about what follows. Temptations come our way. Recognizing them must be followed by resisting them. Our baptism doesn’t insulate us from the world’s pain. It gives us the spiritual tools to face that pain and triumph over it.
A picture is painted of John in just a few sentences. His clothing, his diet, and his words brand him as a fringe character. No wonder he is more at home in the wilderness than in the cities. He stands between the wilderness and the land flowing with milk and honey. Ted Smith writes, “John has become an all-purpose container for any kind of radical content.” He stands out and religious authorities show up in his rough neighborhood to check him out. Just three verses after our passage for today ends, we read, “After John was put in prison…” Baptizing his relative, Jesus, is one of the last things he did before he was imprisoned. He was killed as a star witness to this Messiah who was equally disruptive of the status quo. How many detective shows have we seen where the star witness is murdered before they can share what they know at a trial? It’s dangerous to get close to a controversial figure. It cost John his life.
John still calls out to us today as we struggle to embody our baptismal vows in daily living. He asks us to confess our sin, repent of it and enter into each new moment with hopeful expectation. Since God has broken through the heavens to claim us, we dare to have hope even when the world around us is marked by political strife and life-threatening illness. In baptism we reverse the direction of our life. The Greek word is metanoia which translates to mean that we turn around and repent. The whole church makes promises to accompany us on our bold journey of facing each temptation with spiritual strength. Our congregation has accepted the responsibility of accompanying countless parents in raising their children in the faith through the sacrament of baptism. If we think we can do it alone, we’re in trouble!
We speak of bubble-wrapped children in our culture today. Parents try to spare their children from any kind of hardship. Everybody gets a prize and no one is sent home from the party without a goodie bag. In baptism we are reminded that there has to be a balance between abandoning our responsibility to our children (neglect is on one end of the care spectrum) and controlling their every move. Lori Laughlin and her daughters have admitted to making mistakes in that area recently. She was released from prison over the holidays after a very public scandal over paying bribes to get her two girls into prestigious colleges. We do our children a disservice when we overly protect them and do their heavy but necessary lifting. On a rafting trip down the Little Muskegon River years ago one of our members got stuck in an eddy that is particularly strong right at the endpoint of the journey. We couldn’t imagine that the water was as powerful as she suggested until we spilled out of our boats to drag them out of the water. There are moments that seemingly come out of nowhere and we find that we are stuck in a whirlpool that threatens to pull us under. If our parents and other guardians haven’t allowed us to try out our chops on smaller problems, we will not do well. Baptismal love prepares us for the continual moments when we are released to try out our wings. Each time we entrust our children with freedom to make and learn from their own mistakes, they are readied to face bigger challenges.
In Mark’s Gospel there’s a secrecy motif. Jesus repeatedly tells folks who have witnessed a miracle not to tell anyone about it. He knows the danger that comes with being a key witness to controversial news. Jesus receives the Spirit and passes it on as a gift. He knows that His radical acts of mercy will cost Him His life at some point. But He doesn’t want to arrive at the cross until His earthly mission is complete. So He asks folks to keep what they’ve seen to themselves. His baptism is a rare parting of the heavens so that God’s presence can be easily discerned. I wonder if you wish that God would open up the heavens to answer your questions. Is it difficult to see God? Maybe you’ve had some memorable moments of God showing up in your life, bringing peace where there was only chaos? Maybe you had a wilderness period when you felt as if you were being stalked by wild beasts with no help from God? It’s been a rough week for our nation. It’s been a deadly year for our world. Much of the time we slog along, getting the job done without asking for much help. But then God shows up in glory and we realize that we have never been alone: in the water, in the fire, in the wilderness, on the boat. The more we cling to our faith in hard times, the more we will be able to draw on that strength again.
A Lutheran woman wrote, “That’s why I love attending a church with a rich liturgy, a church that has rituals. The thing I love is that even when you don’t feel like being with God, the Church, through liturgy, insists that you talk to God and also put yourself in a situation in which God can talk to you.”
When have you parked yourself in a place where you thought you would encounter God? When have you stuck with devotions, scripture reading, volunteer work you were ready to quit–because you knew it was the right thing to do? When have you offered a holy response to a secular problem? When have the heavens opened and God claimed you with a love that sent you into the next part of your journey refreshed. When have you gone out on a limb to be a witness to your faith in Jesus Christ?
Ted Smith writes, “…for most of the Gospel this love lives out of sight, like a seed growing secretly. Only the demons know who Jesus is. The disciples stumble along, forever forgetting what they have seen and heard. The heavens seem not torn open, but sealed and silent—as they do so much of the time today.” So put on the life preserver we call Jesus. Allow Him to encircle you and the sweet children entrusted to your care. Know that He is always present in the boat with you. And when the waters get rough and you worry that you will capsize, cry out for God who called you by name at your baptism. Watch for the heavens to open and embrace you as a beloved son or daughter. Be a star witness to this Love no matter the cost. It will never fail us no matter what’s going on in the world around us.