The words of today’s readings declare the mystery of God, and the creating and saving power of God. Both Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of creation are depicted in poetic and powerful images, with chaotic water, the splitting of the heavens, and a spirit who hurls Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. The picture is one of great restlessness, chaos and turmoil.
The image of the wild-eyed, wildly clothed John pronouncing salvation through the pouring of water, along with the picture of the heavens being torn apart and the divine reaching out to touch the earth, are powerful images. The voice of God, the presence of God, the power of the divine to reform and transform, is deeply evocative and deeply disturbing.
From the chaos and darkness of Genesis, to the story of the stilling of a raging storm on the lake, we get a picture of a God whose power is awesome, who exists in the midst of turbulence, whose word can bring order to watery chaos, and whose light can penetrate the darkness.
Water has always served as a powerful symbol for humanity. With a beauty all of its own, anyone who has seen a waterfall, or light shining through waves or a flowing river cannot help but be struck by its presence. Water is also dangerous and tangling with water can involve high risk. And, for living creatures, water is essential to life – thirst is more compelling than hunger, as we can last much longer without food than water. We are seeing right now in Australia how much lack of water can damage our environment.
The wells and springs of the bible have a deep significance because of this – think of the Samaritan woman at the well; Jacob and his need for water at the same well in earlier times; or King David’s longing for the water of the well of Bethlehem. In the texts of the Hebrew Bible, water revived the desert, refreshed the traveller, and caused the crops to grow. Water was also present in the birthing process; it was, and is, a gift from God.
No wonder then, this powerful spiritual symbol is an indispensable part of the dramatic, memorable stories involving creation and humanity. In the beginning, the waters of chaos threaten the earth until tamed by God; all humankind (except for Noah’s family) are wiped from the earth in a flood, the chariots of Pharaoh are drowned by the Red Sea. Water is both a potent life force and a force for destruction.
Compared with the stories of the Hebrew bible, the baptism of Jesus probably seems tame, but don’t be fooled. Banish images of calm rivers and doves and the quiet hovering of the spirit. Think not about the relatively calm and joyful baptisms of babies, baptisms without much risk or danger or drama.
Jesus’ baptism “splits the heavens” (think of lightning), and this is followed by an announcement with God’s voice thundering from the heavens. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the one chosen by God reflects the power of the living God, power that hurls Jesus into the desert to be tempted whether he likes it or not. Water, spirit, Jesus, and God merge to become a force that can change humanity at the point of baptism.
The baptism of Jesus is also crucial here in the fulfilment of scripture, a theme beloved by Matthew. Jesus is not so much announcing himself here, rather he is being announced by God. In the statement “fulfilling all righteousness” Matthew links the Hebrew Bible with the destiny of Jesus. If John’s conduct of baptism was about cleansing the sinful and washing away the past to bring in a purer more faithful future, then Jesus surely did not need such cleansing. For Jesus, then, the baptism was not a cleansing so much as it was an announcing. Baptised and announced as Messiah, Jesus is the living proclamation that God’s promise is now being fulfilled.
These texts all make it clear just how powerful and risky baptism is. It is both a symbol and promise of the power of God’s spirit. Living water, it immerses us, flows freely for all of us, streams from God’s saving power and justice, and brings hope to all who thirst for righteousness. Water, that refreshes life, nurtures growth, and offers new birth. Water, coupled with the spirit, is the thing that initiates us into becoming followers of Jesus, something that should be seen as risky rather than sedate.
It seems appropriate then, that water is the dominant symbol in the sacrament of baptism. Pregnant with the promises of God, potent in its symbolism, baptism should remind us what it truly means to immerse ourselves in the divine. It should not be seen as safe, or comfortable, or ordinary.
Baptism certainly wasn’t easy, nice or comfortable for Jesus, as he discovered afterwards in the wilderness, when he faced with multiple temptations to his faith. And it didn’t stop there for Jesus. He went on to argue with convention, restore brokenness and thus live dangerously and take risks. From the point of his baptism, Jesus was part of a renewal movement whose primary concern was to transform and to challenge blind authority and social injustice. Jesus’ mission begins with his baptism, and the outpouring of water and spirit.
The baptism of Jesus had more to it than just confirming his own private spiritual experience. In declaring his faith, we know that Jesus was also declaring he was signing up to a life within community, a life of protest, reform and renewal, a life that would be lived out with others and for the sake of others.
How should each of us here at Tuggeranong live out our baptism and faith commitments, with each other and for the sake of others?
We need to recognize that like Jesus, we are being pushed by the spirit, and that we too will need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Through our baptism, all of us together form the one body of Christ. We each bring our different gifts to make a well-rounded whole.
The baptismal covenant that we enter or reaffirm as Christians is a declaration of our status as God’s children and God’s love for us. It calls us to enter into and experience anew all the richness and diversity that God offers us, to enable us to live out the risky and adventurous vocation we have as disciples. That’s the invitation, to each us, in our own baptisms.
The renewal of baptismal vows invites us to remember our initiation into the mysteries of the faith. Christian Baptism also simulates death, as it symbolises going down into the water to drown, to die to our ordinary selves. Coming up out of the water represents birth, from the semi-darkness and muted sounds of the water-filled womb, to the harsh (at first) brightness of new life, the struggle to breathe air, to live in a completely new medium in a new way.
In the busyness of life, the living stream that should be running through us as a result of our baptisms lives most of the time as a dormant, still pool at the bottom of a deep well buried underneath all the daily, familial and other things that take up our time. We forget that discipleship is risky, faith can be dangerous and ministry chaotic and challenging.
Baptism is deeper than what we see on the surface. We need to re-image water around us and in, swirling and churning, so we can feel the risk and danger, and hopefully also the exhilaration of the experience of new birth and transformation. We need to grasp for ourselves the symbolism of the water for the living, inspiring, spirit; the spirit that hurls us into new challenges of faith.
Baptism symbolises a new identity, and that
prepares us to see the world in a new way. It calls us to become part of the
body of Christ, a diverse yet unified grouping of people who commit to work
together for the greater good. It invites us on a journey with Jesus, moving
forward in faith and trust to a new future.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine