Genesis 1:1- 9
Chilmark Community Church
January 22, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Rev. Mahlon H. Smith poured a little water on my head and baptized me in the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church in Haledon, NJ, on June 21, 1942. “Hazel Victoria Clark, child of Raymond Victor Clark and his wife, Helen Doris Holland” is the way it was recorded on my baptism certificate 35 days after my arrival on this planet. The story handed down to me is that I spit up on the minister’s robe before he handed me back to my mom! At this point in my life I am not sure whether that was an auspicious, or perhaps, a prophetic beginning. Be that as it may, by bringing me to the church to be baptized into the community of Christians called the Cedar Cliff Methodist Church, my mom and dad set my life on a path. In my behalf, the community promised, with my parents, to lead exemplary lives, to resist evil, to seek and pursue justice, to teach me the way of righteousness according to the scriptures and the life of Jesus.
The symbolic act of baptism opens the way for future relationship with the Holiness that pervades all of life – – and at crucial times in my life, remembering my baptism has had a life sustaining influence that has encouraged me on my journey.
It is a long way from the baptism that we often witness and experience in the church to the baptism of Jesus in a muddy river 2000 years ago.
A wild, rangy guy who dressed in camel skins and who ate bugs and honey came roaring out of the desert to the edge of civilization preaching a message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God. The story raises a few questions: “What was going on?” “What was so compelling about his message that people would flock to him to be dunked in that river?” “If John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sins, what were the sins that people were repenting?” “Why did Jesus present himself for John’s baptism?” “Why or what was Jesus repenting?”
The baptism we know about is Christian baptism. We do it indoors, mostly. The water is clear and clean. Some traditions practice complete immersion under the water, others pour or sprinkle water on the top of the head. It is usually an occasion for happiness and celebration as a person is welcomed into the community of believers. But that is Christian baptism and John was a Jew. He preached and called out to other Jews. Jesus was a Jew and he came to John along with the rest of the crowds.
Jews had no concept of baptism as we know it. What they DID know was ritual bathing in running water before entering the marriage covenant, or before going to the synagogue for prayer, or following child-birth, or a critical juncture or change of direction in one’s life. Jews bathe in a mikveh, a ritual pool with free flowing water in which Jews can completely immerse themselves in preparation for spiritual rituals of the faith. A “mikveh” can be any body of “living” or moving water – like the ocean – – or a spring – – or a river like the Jordan.
The Hebrew word “mikveh” means “gathering of waters” – – we find it in the Genesis text that we heard earlier when God said “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” The Hebrew language is filled with plays on words – and with a little different emphasis on the Hebrew letters, the word “mikveh” also can be translated to mean “Hope.”
So – we meet John on the banks of the Jordan River – and what is he doing? He is immersing people in a mikveh, in living water, according to Jewish tradition, as he calls them to repentance and hope.
But the questions remain. What was going on? The Jews were an oppressed people – – and their adherence to their religious tradition of being a people in covenant with God made life dangerous for them under Roman rule. As the anti-Jewish pressure on the people increased, there was a temptation for some to simply submit – to knuckle under to the heavy influence of Rome – perhaps to become closet Jews – perhaps to just quietly assimilate and live out life in relative peace. For others, the pressure created a desire for violent rebellion and as futile as it was, armed resistance against Rome seemed the way to go. Still others chose a life of asceticism – of withdrawing into the wilderness to live in as much purity as they could – – trying to maintain Jewish life by avoiding as much contact with Rome as possible – trying to hold on and wait out the Roman occupation.
Each option, though, meant loss of identity. Assimilation – violent response – withdrawing – all represent a relinquishment of the high calling to the Jews to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation” – – a people called to bear witness to the power and love and creativity and righteousness of the One True God.
Into this complex and painful milieu comes John – – preaching repentance. In Hebrew, the word is T’shuva. It means “return” or “turn toward” John’s message to the Jews of his time was the call to do t’shuva – – a call to the people remember who they are and to turn toward God – to return to their identity as a covenant people.
So – the people flock to hear John – to be immersed in the river – – to make an outward and visible sign of their intention to return to their most essential identity as God’s people. In his book “Jews In The Time Of Jesus”, Stephen Wylen reminds us that “John’s immersions were not baptisms into faith in Christ, but Jewish immersions. John might better be called John The Mikveh-Man rather than John The Baptist.” Ritual immersion in a mikveh re-capitulated the entire Jewish saga from the gathering of the waters at the moment of creation, to the cleansing flood and the rainbow, to the midnight wrestling of Jacob at the River Jabbok, to the waters of the Nile and the rise of Moses, to the waters of the Red Sea, to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness. Water shaped the life of Israel at every critical juncture. Immersion in the waters of Jordan became a re-membering – a re-calling – – a re-collecting – – of all that identity shaping history.
So from this little bit of biblical history, we get a glimpse of why people might have been drawn to the banks of Jordan. John struck a chord in the very heart of Jewish spirituality – the call to return to all that identified a Jew as a person in covenant with God.
And then there is Jesus. Why did he come to John? As a Jew, what was his t’shuva? We can’t know for sure – but we might speculate. Matthew’s gospel gives us a vivid story of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew draws us in to witness the identifying moment in Jesus life – the moment that indeed sets his face forever toward God. Jesus joins his fellow Jews in responding to John’s call to turn – – to return – – to the Source of his identity – – to say “Yes” to living out his divinity in human form. He receives the ritual immersion of John and rises out of the water to hear his identity proclaimed “You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased with you.”
Our Christian tradition of baptism is drawn out of the River Jordan with Jesus. Many of us were brought to baptism as infants by our parents. Some of us were a little older when we were able to make a choice for ourselves. Others of us entered into the sacrament as adults – – and still others of us may still be thinking about whether to be baptized or not. Wherever we are on the spectrum relative to Christian baptism, one thing remains certain. Baptism, even in Christian tradition, invites turning and returning. Both infant and adult baptism bestows identity. And not just any identity. Our baptism marks us as beloved of God. It marks us as members of a community that affirms the righteousness of God, a community that supports and assists us to do the continual work of t’shuva – of turning and returning over and over again to the highest expressions of our God given identity.
Baptism comes with responsibilities attached. Jesus is the model for a life lived forward from baptism. When we rise, wringing wet, from the waters with Jesus, we are called to life characterized by nonviolent resistance to the powers and principalities and systems that dehumanize the children of God. We rise, called to life characterized by healing attention given to the sick, the elderly, the disabled; we rise called to life characterized by doing our part to subvert the political and economic systems that lead to hunger and poverty and disenfranchisement; we rise from the baptismal waters called to resist the forces that lead us into forgetting who we are. A simple thing like remembering our baptism, our essential identity as beloved of God will be critical as the new year unfolds and we come to terms with the politics of fear and suspicion and disrespect that have been foreshadowed by the 2016 electoral campaign.
John’s immersion of the Jews in the Jordan has been called a form of passive, subversive resistance to the tyranny of Rome. At its best, perhaps our own baptism, regardless of when it happens, is one of the most subversive acts of our lives if it leads us into giving expression to the life of Jesus as we live in the world today. We are called to remember our baptism – – but perhaps even more, we are called to allow our baptism to RE-member us – to let our baptism pull us back together – – to re-join and re-collect us from the forces of fragmentation that threaten our claim on our highest identity.
When we remember – – and allow ourselves to be Re-membered, we then participate in the hope implied in the mikveh – – and we rise from the waters of blessing to live into our identity as beloved children of God.
Immediately following his baptism, Jesus heads out into the wilderness to battle his own demons. Baptism did not make him immune, nor does it make us immune, to the spiritual and moral and ethical challenges and struggles that life presents us – – but it does give us a fundamental sense of who we are and how we are to live as we navigate our own wilderness. In his baptism Jesus aligned himself with the purposes of God and with the holy community God had designated to be God’s people.
In church language, the sacrament of baptism is referred to as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” I like that language. To me it implies that the grace is already there within us – – it is a given – – with or without the application of water and words. But when a baptism does occur, a certain public statement is made either by an adult individual or by parents in an infant’s behalf, that the inward and spiritual grace is claimed and owned, that a particular identity is embraced. Whatever is disconnected or fractured or broken is made whole and life moves on in powerful and unpredictable ways.
So – today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we celebrate our connections with each other, with our history as the people of God, with the ancient ritual itself. But even more, we allow our baptism to re-member us – to pull us back into wholeness. And even more than that, our baptism is always a call to remember who we are – – Beloved sons and daughters with whom God is pleased – – with all the privilege and responsibility that comes with owning our baptismal identity.
Re-membering – – it has never been more critical than it is today. May God grant us strong and vibrant memories that will both sustain us and draw us into the future. AMEN