Drowning

Mark 1:1-11

Genesis 1:1-5

Hope Christian Reformed Church, Oak Forest, IL

On New Years Day, I took my five year old daughter for a walk, with the goal that we would be taking our shoes off and dipping our toes into Puget Sound. I figure, when you’re on vacation near the ocean, you ought to stick your feet in at least once.

And what better time than New Years day, to start out new with the cold clarity of water between your toes?

New Years is a holiday with enough “religious-ish” significance that churches take it on (schedule and energy for additional church services permitting) as an additional worship service.

You can hear echoes, in my New Year’s walk with Zora, of baptism, or at very least, renewal of baptismal vows.

A new year, so a time to recommit to health and well being, personal goals, relationships. Turn a new leaf. Another year, another chance to succeed. Get your house in order and your ducks in a row. Start out fresh and clean. The water is a good place to do this.

Behind the New Years resolution language of self improvement, there is a longing to be the person you are meant to be. Perhaps the person you are meant to be in your own estimation; but, then again, resolutions are famous for failure.

Which is where baptism comes in.

Baptism is our primary mark of identity as Christians. It’s not an identity we choose, or give to ourselves. It’s the identity God gives us.

Baptism doesn’t call us to be the person we think we ought to be.

It calls us to be the person God wants us to be, the person God created us to be.

Which is something of a frightening thing. (I wish it were comforting, but…)

There was a time when my now five year old called the baptismal font “the church bath”. I am eternally grateful that she grew up in a church whose baptismal bowl was in fact big enough to dunk a baby into, because it seared that picture of a baby taking a bath into her little brain. Not that I ever dunked a baby…I go for as dramatic a sprinkling as possible.

But, some of you may know that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they dunk even the babies. All the way in three times, in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s kind of horrifying. (Some of you may know the look on the face of a baby who has slipped out of a seated position in the tub. Scary…)

Even if your child is only sprinkled on, when you hand your baby over the officiating pastor at baptism, you let them dangle that little one over the bowl.

Water is the source of life, Water cleanses, water purifies, water quenches thirst.

It’s also where people drown.

Water, in the Bible, is the sign of chaos. The Hebrews were not sailors. And the water was a big, messy, scary place.

In the beginning, then, the Spirit moved, as the Spirit will, over the water, through the void…

And God began to order the chaos…light and dark, water above and water below, sea and earth, day and night…a place for everything and everything in its place.

By God’s Word alone, the water was placed under order and control…but, of course, under God’s order and control.

And it was good. Even after sin entered the world, the creation was still good.

And God was still holding back the chaos and maintaining order.

But here’s the thing: it’s too easy to stop at the idea that God simply maintains the chaos and keeps us safe.

The world is not God’s wind-up toy, left to run on it’s own. God is constantly creating, and calling us to creativity alongside. We believe that God rested on the seventh day..

but then God got back to work.

Mark is another beginning. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

And the scene pulls in to John, crazy, chaotic John, calling people out to the wild places, and asking them to get down in the river and go under the water, into the current, down where it’s not really safe.

And Jesus, too, comes to that place, and goes under the water.

And then, creation starts to come apart at the seams.

The heavens split open. (Just to review: The strangest part of the creation story, for 21st century people who are familiar with NASA and the space program, is this whole thing about separating the waters with a “firmament” or “dome.” The Old Testament version of astronomy held that the sky, the heavens, was a big, huge dome that held back “the waters above,” and kept them from engulfing the earth in chaos.)

So when Jesus sees the heavens split open in Mark, it’s not just a flash of metaphorical light. It’s the creation cracking.

And the Spirit descends like a dove. What if the dove doesn’t glide on soft wings, in loops and whorls. What if the dove dive bombs? Sometimes the Holy Spirit whispers, but sometimes the Spirit comes charging at your head with a sharp beak, just to make sure you get the point.

If the heavens are cracking open, I’m more inclined to go with the dive bombing bird.

Baptism is meant to remind us that God’s identity for us is not a safe place.

One of the reasons theologians say that Jesus had to be baptized was so that we could share in baptism with him.

If Jesus was without sin, there was no reason for a baptism (especially in John’s way of talking about it: a baptism of repentance).

Except that Jesus was meant to share with us in all things, and in baptism, we are joined to Jesus.

And joined to his identity.

Which includes going down into the water

going down into death

and coming back up to life again.

We all drown in our baptism, back into the chaos,

so that we can be re-created.

I wish that was always a completely comforting thought.

My New Year’s resolutions are usually pretty comforting. If I can accomplish them, things will be better. I’ll be more organized. I’ll be in better shape. I’ll be a better person.

Even the more “spiritual” ones (I’ll pray more regularly, I’ll read the Bible more…) are often really about self-improvement. (Because if I do those things, I’ll be a better Christian.)

But living into God’s identity for me in baptism is hard work.

Because it means giving into the chaos, going down into the water,

and coming up, gasping for air, while the world as I thought I knew it looks to be coming apart at the seams.

It’s a new start, but not on my terms.

And as Jesus came up from under the water of the Jordan, and saw that bird dive-bombing at his head, I wonder if he knew that things would never be the same. Because his identity was the very thing that broke open the heavens, God-among-us.

And the only way to tame the chaos was for Jesus to go right through it, clear unto death.

Epiphany is the time after Christmas when the lights go on, and we figure out who Jesus really is. The Kings arrive, and bring gifts to this toddler child of peasant parents. Jesus is baptized and heaven splits open. Jesus begins his ministry and calls his disciples, and heals people, and says the most extraordinary things. And everyone starts to wonder: “What child is THIS?”

And if we have been baptized with Christ, Epiphany is also the time when we figure out who we are. It should be like the shock of cold water on your face. We’re called good, and we’re called God’s beloved. But not so that we can sit comfortably in the order of that. So that we can come alongside God in the places, often chaotic, that need light and redeeming.

Stick to your resolutions, but remember that you have already been called to new life in your baptism. It might be chaotic. It might feel like the person you thought you knew is going under.

But there is ONE who has been baptized with you, who has been from the beginning, has been through the chaos and back, and will be with you.

Amen.

I owe debts for a number of ideas in this sermon. And there are a bunch of resources that in some way shaped my thinking, and that I wish I could share anyway because they are so brilliant.
  • The idea that chaos is not all bad, and even contains a creative element comes from Terence Fretheim’s commentary on the Genesis passage in “Working Preacher“.
  • Buried in this sermon are ideas from two children’s resoucres: the wonderful book Big Momma Makes the World; and the song “In the Beginning” by Butterflyfish, particularly the lines about the Holy Spirit: “And she said, ‘Hey! Let’s pick this pace up, let’s fix this place up…”
  • Debbie Blue’s sermon on Genesis 1, “In the Beginning”, from the book From Stone to Living Word, reminded me that illustrations about one’s children are particularly appropriate in sermons about creation.
  • Elton Brown’s pastoral perspective piece for Baptism of Our Lord, Year B, in Feasting on the Word provided the idea of the dive-bombing Holy Spirit. My friend Jason Carle tweeted his intention to use that image on Saturday afternoon and that tweet reminded me that it was a perfect counterpart to the idea of the heavens being ripped open.

(I love it when preaching is a conversation even before the preacher hits the pulpit!)

One Response to “Drowning”

  1. Susan Says:

    Lovely and powerful! I love the image of water, chaos, and baptism. I also appreciate the context of preaching this sermon about baptism, covenant, fresh starts at Hope CRC. Thank you for preaching and posting this!

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