A New Creation

Baptism of our Lord, Year A (1/8/2017)

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

 

Too often, we take our baptism for granted. The daily renewal at the heart of baptismal life can get lost amid the demands of our routine, and we overlook the ways that God refreshes us for new life. In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we witness a brilliant sign of this renewal, as the image of the Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus in the Jordan recalls the image of the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation. At Jesus’ baptism, God brings about a new creation. And buried with him in our own baptism, we are also revived with him and anointed with the same Spirit for our mission of mercy and justice as members of his living body.

 

In the 1950s, my grandfather built a small log cabin along the south shore of Lake Chelan. Carved out by an ancient glacier, the lake’s basin is filled with cold, deep blue water. Eugene is only a day’s ride from the lake, so every summer during my childhood my family packed our station wagon and wound our way north-northeast through the Columbia River Gorge, the Yakima Valley, and over the mountain passes of north-central Washington to reach our favorite place. We would stay about two weeks, relishing the sunshine, the evening walks, a good book, my parents’ cooking, and not least of all, the water. Midsummer nights were hot and we never had air conditioning, so on more than one occasion my sister and I lay awake in our bunks, squirming in our sheets, until our parents got us up and sent us out to jump in the lake. The relief that swept over me upon emerging from the water was complete, and I’ll never forget the satisfaction of slipping back under my covers cool and refreshed.

If only all our experiences with water were that memorable. We regularly take water for granted, letting it slip away unnoticed down our drains, undervaluing its singular power to cleanse and to sustain life. So, too, with baptismal water. We regularly fail to appreciate the value of the gift God gives us in baptism. Each and every day, we are buried with Christ in baptism only to rise again with him. Each and every day, God rinses away our decay and creates a new and right spirit within us. But the daily renewal at the heart of baptismal life can get lost amid the demands of our routine, and we overlook the ways that God refreshes us for new life.

The story of Jesus’ baptism in our Gospel from Matthew today brings to our attention again the significance of baptism for all of us. In his voluntary submission to John’s baptism at the River Jordan and in the remarkable scene that unfolds after he emerges from the water, we witness a brilliant sign of God’s promise to bring new life out of the waters of the Earth. And, we recognize the same Spirit with which we are anointed in baptism for life in the body of the living Christ.

The record of Jesus’ childhood and young adult life is mostly absent from the Gospels, so the event that takes place at the Jordan in our story today marks his definitive arrival on the scene. The Christmas story proclaims God’s promise in Jesus’ birth, but Jesus’ baptism initiates the fulfillment of that promise. Matthew is careful to point out that Jesus does not need a baptism of repentance, to which John the Baptizer had called the people of Israel: “I need to be baptized by you,” John insists, “and do you come to me?” Nevertheless, Jesus willingly submits to John’s baptism in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” So, if it has nothing to do with sin or forgiveness, then how does Jesus’ baptism “fulfill righteousness,” or enact the righteous purpose of God?

Like his birth and his death, Jesus’ baptism is a function of the incarnation. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and so he is baptized in righteous solidarity with the multitudes to whom and for whom he has come.[1] He is one of us – fully human – so he enters into the same depths that we do. Anywhere we go Christ also goes, even – and perhaps especially – to the places where we don’t expect him to be. So, when the people are plunged into the River Jordan to remove the debris from their lives, there is Jesus with them.

But as the story unfolds, we also learn that this baptism is unique. Something extraordinary is going on. As soon as Jesus emerges from the water, we witness a true epiphany, a revelation. God rends the heavens and sends the Spirit like a dove upon him, declaring, “This is my [Beloved Son], with whom I am well pleased.” What a magnificent commissioning! Acknowledged as God’s beloved child and anointed with the Holy Spirit, Jesus receives power for his mission to bring healing to those he encounters on his way to the cross and hope to those who bear witness to his resurrection. This is a turning point in history, a transformative event that harkens back to creation: “In the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept [like a bird] over the face of the waters.”[2] The Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus in the waters of the Jordan recalls the image of the Spirit hovering over the waters at the dawn of time.[3] In Jesus’ baptism, in other words, God brings about a new creation.[4]

And indeed, everything has become new! Dear church, Jesus’ baptism prepares the way for each of ours. Buried with Christ in our own baptism we are also revived with him, so we look with hope for signs of new life in spite of the death around us. And we look for the ways that we might become signs of new life for others. In the words of an ancient hymn, “now the Spirit has descended and abides upon all that are born of the water… and as each one after another comes up from the water, they are loved and abide in God.”[5] Acknowledged as God’s beloved children and anointed with the Holy Spirit, we receive power for our mission of mercy and justice as members of Christ’s living body.

So, today we invite anyone who is not baptized to imagine the possibility of baptism into the communion of saints. We wait expectantly with those now preparing for baptism, anticipating that unforgettable plunge into the cool, refreshing waters of new life. We celebrate with all the newly baptized that they have entered the water and emerged children of God. And finally, we remember our own baptism, the moment that each of us was sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Christ, and entrusted with the work of bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

[1] Troy A. Miller, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 239.

[2] Genesis 1:2.

[3] W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, 47.

[4] Davies and Allison.

[5] Ephrem the Syrian, as cited in Dale C. Allison, http://members.newproclamation.com/commentary.php?d8m=1&d8d=12&d8y=2014&atom_id=19683.

1 comment

  1. Sue Casillas says:

    I appreciate being able to read the sermon. Is it possible to create links to the Bible references/readings?
    Water is such a wonderful image, isn’t it? Here’s my random thoughts:
    *The sermon starts out with the comment that we take our baptism for granted and in the sermon’s body you mention taking water for granted. I have an easier time remembering physical water is a daily blessing than I do remembering spiritual water is too. If one doesn’t remember that, how does one benefit? What can I do daily to keep baptism fresh for me?
    *Water has the ability to seep into microscopic voids and to move via capillary action. I’m sure there’s a correlation to spiritual water here but I can’t put my finger on it! I’d like it a lot if spiritual water would/could seep into my molecules without effort on my part. Aha! In order for that to happen, I’d have to find a way to steep in that water for it to seep into me. I’m living in a dry landscape right now.
    *Water evaporates readily but it always leaves a residue. In physical water, residues are impurities. In spiritual water, what residue remains when the water has evaporated?

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