A place to be washed and loved by God.

The Rev. Suzanne Wille, preaching.

Epiphany I: January 8, 2023
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.