The Rev. Suzanne Wille, preaching.
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17 Let all who thirst, let them come to the water. I speak to you in the Name of One God. Amen+ Right before Christmas The news threatened a blizzard and frigid temperatures. There was a rush At every store on Wednesday, December 21st As people sought to lay in food for Christmas feasts And finish last-minute shopping for presents. Thousands of flights were cancelled— Perhaps yours?— As wicked cold headed our way. People rearranged travel plans; Church staff printed bulletins early And wondered if people would come out For Christmas Eve services. In the midst of that, I caught an article about Dan O’Conor, Known as the “Great Lake Jumper” Who has been jumping into Lake Michigan Every day since June 2020. He records himself taking back flips Into the lake, then posts on Instagram. What started as a way To combat pandemic anxiety continued even on Those frigid pre-Christmas days, When temps were recorded at -7 degrees, -25 with windchill. Thankfully, he survived To post about it, But what a mad man! He put me in mind of Polar Bear Clubs, Those brave souls worldwide Taking icy plunges each January. I remembered reading The Outrun a few years ago, a memoir about a woman Who had only found heartache and alcoholism in London, Returning to the Orkney Islands where she grew up, Using daily swims in the bracing waters of the North Sea To help her stay sober, A precursor to the new trend of cold water therapy, Used by people to manage All sorts of things— Anxiety, depression, addiction— By jolting their endorphins into action Through the shock of ice-cold water. A cold slap to shock people into life. An icy shock to clear away cobwebs. A show of courage and toughness, A determined attempt to face Life and nature as they are. ********** Sometimes I think that’s our approach To baptism, too:A shock of cold water, The surprised face of a child, Sometimes, even, crying. And there are theological and historical reasons That I could pull out to justify that approach, Much like the slap that used to be administered By the Bishop at confirmation To remind the confirmand Of their willingness to suffer for the faith. After all, baptism and confirmation Are initiations into the faith; We ought to prepare, Ought to be ready to be tough, right? After all, we strengthen ourselves By renewing our baptismal vows At least four times a year And any time there is a baptism. We make heavy promises To renounce Satan and resist evil. Certainly John the Baptist Offered baptism as an icy slap, A short, sharp shock. Just five weeks ago, on the second Sunday of Advent, we heard John the Baptist Calling people to baptism, To prepare for the coming Messiah Through repentance. People poured forth to be plunged in the River Jordan. John thunders at them, at us, Warning of “the wrath to come,” to “bear fruit worth of repentance,” that the “ax is lying at the root of the tree,” that One more powerful than he is coming with the fire And a winnowing fork to separate wheat from chaff. John knows his prophets, knows all the warnings of a God who will judge us when we’ve gone astray, Failing to put God first, Failing to care for the poor, the widow, the stranger. We’re used to hearing John’s warnings each Advent, But this would have been foreboding, Shocking, in a culture steeped In honor and shame. Publicly confessing one’s sins Would endanger one’s reputation and social standing. This was a kind of madness. To gain God’s approval in this way Meant losing face and social standing. But this was the cold shock John offered so that people Might change their ways And avoid the crushing judgment of God. He baptizes people as fast as he can so that they might be cleansed to face God. And that fits with much Of what we’ve taught about baptism. Baptism as cleansing from sin. Baptism as protection For eternal life. A cold shock To reorder everything and make it right. I’ve taught it myself. ************ But Jesus turns that all upside down. Amidst dire warnings And cold water plunges, Jesus appears, the One whom John has waited for, Warned of, Who will arrive with a winnowing fork to separate, to judge. That One comes to John and asks to be baptized. That One, Jesus, humbles himself, asking to join himself to all those who have come out to be baptized. The One John has said he is not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals has come to allow John to lead him into the Jordan River, place his hands on his back and on his head as he leans him back into the water, plunging him under as a sign of a changed life. This doesn’t fit anything John thinks he knows about the Messiah, About repentance or worthiness or judgement. John seeks to prevent this baptism, protesting: “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Humbly Jesus says He must do this to fulfill all righteousness. But here “righteousness” Isn’t about being morally perfect But about right relationship with God, Which is trusting God. We know that because, long ago, when Abraham trusted God’s Promise that despite his old age he WOULD father children, God credited Abraham’s trust as righteousness. So Jesus comes to the water, As a sign of solidarity with all of us, We who muck things up. But he also comes as a sign of trust in God. And he must have found That plunge into the Jordan Not icy, not shocking, But more like a warm bath, A welcoming, For when John pulls him up out of the water, God’s spirit descends upon him like a dove, God’s voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved, With whom I am well pleased.” Before he does a thing, Before he defeats temptation after 40 days in the desert, Before he performs a miracle, Before he heals, Jesus receives grace, Is called Beloved, pleasing. This is not a cleansing But a declaration of love, A revelation of relationship, As easy to slip into As a warm bath, Not a test of his strength, Nor a stiffening of his spine, But an encouragement, A defining love that Will give him the strength To do all that God calls him to, To withstand all we will do to him. He doesn’t act to gain God’s love. It is God’s love That leads him into action. And, so, this morning When we will baptize three children, When we will recall our own baptisms And renew our baptismal vows, May we approach the water Not as an icy test of our resolve But as a warm bath to slip into, A place to be washed and loved by God, Remembering that even as we make promises, We do so with this caveat: “I will, with God’s help.” When Jesus goes into the water, When we go into the water, It’s not out of our own strength, For it is God who acts— Sending God’s Spirit, Pronouncing Belovedness, Loving us before we do a thing, Loving us into The call God has for us. This is a humble position to be in, To allow God to act on us in this way, To allow ourselves to bathed and loved, But it was the position Jesus was in, So we can follow. We don’t have to prove ourselves, Don’t have stiffen our own spines, Braving icy waters. No Jesus has already warmed the bath for us. So, come on in, The water is fine.