Luke 3:15-22 & Psalm 29
The words of this week’s texts declare the mystery, power, and terrible beauty of the saving power of God. In poetic and powerful images, creation is described, and the concepts of spirit and water are explored. We find chaos in mind-blowing proportions, impenetrable darkness, all-conquering light, storms, supernatural winds, floods, trees being uprooted, calm in the midst of the storm as God is depicted enthroned on the flood, the united voice of all in the temple crying out “Glory!,” the image of the wild-eyed, wildly clothed John pronouncing salvation through the pouring of water, the powerful picture of the heavens splitting apart and the divine reaching out to touch the earth. Both the images and the sound scapes of these texts are overwhelming, even terrifying at times. The voice of God, the presence of God, the power of the divine to transform, is not only mysterious, but deeply evocative and deeply disturbing.
From the chaos and darkness of the creation story in Genesis, to the floods, storms, and devastation of Psalm 29, we get a picture of a God whose power is awesome and dangerous, who reigns in the midst of turbulence, whose word can bring order to watery chaos, whose light can penetrate the darkness. These are the characteristics of a God who is powerful, but also full of grace; a God who is light but rides a dark path on thunderclouds of wrath in the midst of a storm.
The powerful creation imagery in the psalm points to God’s direct activity in the world. God is at work through creation, destruction, and re-creation. In particular, the text centres around images of water in the form of storms, floods, and the deep. It is these images which are also lurking behind the scenes of the baptism of Jesus.
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 of the bat kol, God’s voice from the heavens (think of thunder). The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the one chosen by God reflects the power of the living God. Water, spirit, Jesus, and God merge to become a force that can change humanity at the point of baptism.
These texts all make it clear just how powerful and dangerous baptism can be for us. 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 the dangerous life of discipleship into which we have been reborn.
Baptism should remind us what it truly means to immerse ourselves in the divine. It should not be seen as safe, or comfortable, or dare I say it, as middle class. Elton Brown, a leader in the renewal movement of the Episcopal Church in America asks, “Are our baptism rituals sometimes so nice that we neglect to mention the uncomfortable implications of inviting God’s Spirit to invade our lives?”
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.
Jesus and John stood in a long line of prophets, including Isaiah, who had prayed long before them, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…so the nations might tremble at your presence” (64:1). We also hear more distant echoes from the Hebrew scriptures, where water was essential to ritually cleanse the impure or the mundane and to make it holy. God’s visitations to the earth frequently involved ripped open skies, thunderous sound and troubled waters.
And it didn’t stop there for Jesus. He went on to argue with convention, to try and restore brokenness and thus lived dangerously and took 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.
This leads us to the primary purpose of Christian baptism. Baptism is an initiation ritual which symbolises a new identity and prepares us to see the world in a new way. Douglas Hare calls baptism “a sacrament of God’s grace,” writing that “John prepares the people for the Messiah by consecrating or ‘sealing,’ them with baptismal water.” In the same way, we too are prepared to carry out the mission of God and sealed in the covenant of faith by the waters of our baptism.
The meaning of baptism, then, is deeper than what we see on the surface. We need to re-image the waters around us, swirling and churning, so we can feel the risk and danger, and hopefully also the exhilaration of the experience of a new birth. 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. The power of creation, new creation, water, wild prophets, storms, heavenly creatures crying “Glory,” and sky-splitting lay behind the baptism of Jesus. It also lies behind the baptismal covenant we enter or reaffirm as Christians and it is a declaration of our status as God’s children and God’s love for us. We are invited to experience anew all the richness God offers us in baptism, to enable us to live out the dangerous and adventurous vocation we have as disciples. We are invited to embrace the uncertainty and chaos that comes with being ‘a pilgrim people on the way’ and being the emissaries of God’s mission and reign in the name of Jesus.
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