Here are my thoughts for January 7th, The Baptism of the Lord Sunday. I know that they are late but we were preoccupied with the birth of our latest granddaughter, Casey.
A question that I used several years ago in my science methods classes was, “What are the two most important liquids in west Texas?” Generally, my students (being from west Texas) understood that the answer which I was looking for was “water and oil.” For without the one, the other was not possible. I have thought about this question in the context of other localities and I think that one could easily argue that water is the most important liquid in our lives.
From a personal standpoint, without water, we would not live very long. From an historical standpoint, it was the waterways of this country that helped the economic development of this country. And for a long time in our country’s history, it was the fact that our eastern and western boundaries were large oceans that offered some degree of security. Of course, it might be pointed out that these two oceans also lead to a degree of close-mindedness in our country. Having these natural barriers lead us to believe that we were cut off from the rest of the world and that we could use the oceans to cut off the rest of the world from us.
Water has always played a major role in our lives. Abram, before he became Abraham and the father of many nations, lived in the part of the world that we have come to call the “Fertile Crescent”. We do so because it was a crescent shaped land bound by two major rivers of ancient civilizations, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The silt carried by the waters of the rivers led to an abundance of food.
And when individuals such as Abram or later Jacob, Joseph, and the Israelites, would begin their travels to and from the Promised Land, it was the location of the wells that would define their journey. Before the people of Israel cried out for food, they cried out for fresh water. It would be the barrier of the Red Sea that would demonstrate God’s power to liberate people and it would be the Red Sea that would protect the Israelites as they began their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land from the Pharaoh’s armies.
The Old Testament reading for today (1) tells of God’s children returning. God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (2) We may fear the power of the water, remembering how the Israelites felt when they first approached the Red Sea and when they watched the Egyptian armies drown in the turbulent waters. But we are told that God will be with us and that we need not fear the power of the water.
It is the power of the water that allows John the Baptist to baptize people and call for their repentance. (3) Those that heard John’s call of baptism knew that Gentile proselytes who wished to convert to Judaism needed to be baptized. But some were having problems understanding the need for baptism as a way of renouncing their old way of life and as a preparation of the coming of the Messiah.
The people of John’s time would have heard a message that said that salvation came only through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding of common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously would be allowed to enjoy salvation.
Now, Jesus did not need to either prepare His heart or renounce His sins before being baptized by John. But by doing so, He joined those who had been baptized. He showed His support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. And it was seen by all that Jesus’ baptism was a fulfillment of His Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
There is probably no doubt that Jesus could have accomplished what He was going to do on this earth without this baptism but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do are not leaders for very long. In His baptism, those who followed Jesus understood that Jesus was true to the Word and that His words were backed by His actions.
Jesus sought common ground with us. He might have impressed more people if He had dressed more like a king than a peasant or perhaps dressed in armor and prepared for battle. He might have made more of an impression if he hurled thunderbolts at those who argued against Him; His disciples often wanted Him to do just that. He certainly would have been more like the leaders of the time if He had pointed out the numerous and obvious flaws, sins, and inadequacies of the people around Him.
But then people would have followed Him more out of fear and awe, not because of the love that exists between the Father and His children. By ignoring the trappings and glory that many wished that He would have, Jesus was better able to reach those around Him. He came to them, not the other way around.
In Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded that His message was all the people, not just some of the people. The leadership of the time would repeatedly complain because Jesus preached a message of openness and inclusion. They preached a message of strict adherence to the law. The message of hope and promise contained in the Gospel was totally out of the question.
It is important for us today to remember what Jesus’ baptism represents. The church fails today because it often holds to the old way, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way they, the leaders, describe and not by letting Christ into one’s heart. The Epistle reading for today (4) reminds us what happens when one group of people exclude another group.
The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem because they were not considered by the leaders in Jerusalem to be pure enough. There was also a disagreement about where the Temple should have been located. As a result, generation after generation had been taught to view the other as incapable of receiving God’s grace.
Peter and John, as we read in the Epistle reading, were sent by the early church in Jerusalem to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from Jesus and that the salvation that Jesus offered was open to all, not just a select few. In sending Peter and John, God was saying that Jews and Samaritans alike could and should be united in one church.
Isaiah’s words today tell us that we are not forgotten by God. Even when everything seems hopeless and the obstacles of life are too great to overcome, God is right here t o help you. By sending His son to pay the ultimate price of His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to bring us home.
In a world that seems to focus more on exclusion and close-mindedness, Christ offers an acceptance. In a world that denies individuals dignity and self-respect, it can be found through Christ. In being baptised by John in the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus showed to us the power of water that allows us to begin anew.
Throughout the ages, communities have been founded on the shores of rivers, lakes, and streams. People came because of the power of water. So too is it the power of water that allows our community to open up and welcome people in, not shut them out.
(1) Isaiah 43: 1 – 7
(2) Adapted from “Naming names” by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003
(3) Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
(4) Acts 8: 14 – 17