In the Muck and the Murk: A Baptism Sermon

*Originally preached at the jazz service of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on January 11, 2015.

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

————- 

It’s hard to read this story about Jesus’ baptism and not have questions. In fact, scholars have been debating the questions provoked in this text for about as long as the church has been around. They’ve asked why Jesus, the Son of God, needed to be baptized if he was without sin. They’ve asked what the significance of this John guy was. They question what it means that God doesn’t refer to Jesus as “beloved Son” until the end of the passage—was he not the “beloved Son” before the baptism? And what is the Holy Spirit’s role in all of this?

These are all important questions, but I’ll admit that they’re not quite the questions I found myself ruminating on as I wrestled with this story. I kept thinking about John. And how he felt as he baptized the Son of God. I found myself wondering if he was nervous… surely he was! I wondered if he worried he might drop Jesus in the water. Or if the water would be too cold. Or if he’d get tripped up on Jesus’ robe. I wondered what he was thinking when the heavens tore open and the Holy Spirit descended on the newly baptized Christ. My guess is that he wasn’t thinking, “oh, well this is totally normal.” I don’t know if a guy known for eating locusts and dressing in camel hair would have been terribly concerned about appearances, but I just can’t help but wonder how he handled the baptism of Christ. I can’t help but wonder, “How did he dare?”

Maybe these seem like silly questions to you – especially compared to the heavy and significant theological queries I referenced before. A month ago, I don’t think I would have been asking these questions about John’s experience at all. They would have seemed like a distraction from the point.

But here’s the thing: two weeks ago, I performed my first baptisms at this very Jazz service. I have witnessed dozens of baptisms in my life—if not many more—and I have stood as a congregation member and pledged to care for the newly baptized child and help raise them in faithful community. I have been awed by the experience time and time again. But, as a newly ordained reverend, my first chance to perform baptisms on two beautiful children was a different experience entirely.

It’s true that I was filled with awe and wonder and humility at the honor of participating in such a sacred and faith-filled ritual. Alone in my office at one point that Sunday, I thought about the significance of what I was doing and my eyes welled up with tears and I prayed to God in thanks for this calling and this faith. But what is also true, is that at 9:00 am on that Sunday morning—I texted my fellow pastor Hardy Kim (who was on vacation) and said “Help me! How do I hold a baby?!”

I know how to hold a baby, of course. With two baby nieces and a nephew I’ve had plenty of practice, but Hardy must have understood my anxiety because without hesitation he wrote me back with a detailed explanation of exactly what to do. “Have the head resting in the crook of your elbow, hold said elbow away from you at a 45 degree angle… and so on.” He patiently offered suggestions about how much water to use and how to stave off crying. He assured me that it would be fine and I tried to believe him. And then, hours later I walked through the Commons and smiled somewhat distractedly at a well-dressed family and a beautiful child in an all white baptism outfit. A child who was absolutely not an infant. Definitely a toddler. And in a moment of panic, I almost pulled out my phone to text Hardy again and ask how you hold a toddler. But I took a deep breath, and said a quick prayer, and told myself I would just figure it out.

I wish I could tell you that in the moment of baptism, all of my questions and anxieties vanished and that I had absolute pastoral and theological clarity—a direct line to God and what it all means, but that’s not quite true. In the moment, ringing out amidst the ongoing cacophony of my nerves, what I thought was, “look at this amazing life in my arms. Look at this family. And this church full of people. Look at this love! Look at it! And look at me, right in the middle of it. How do I dare?”

And so maybe it seems like all my worries and questions are a failure in my pastoral duty. A distraction. And maybe it sounds like in the moment I missed the point. But looking again at this story in Mark – I don’t think so. I don’t believe that the human questions and doubts and concerns and even wonder that John must have experienced in his moment, or that I experienced, or that the parents and families of the two children so recently baptized here undoubtedly experienced—all these human human things—I don’t think that they’re beside the point. I think they are the point.

Because Jesus Christ begins his miraculous life and death and resurrection with a very human birth—the circumstances of which were dictated by human questions and concerns like “What shall I do with my pregnant fiancé?” and “Where can we stay to have this baby?”

And Jesus begins his miraculous, world-transforming ministry not with a display of his own divine power (that comes…shortly after), but with his willing submission to a human ritual at human hands. It matters that this is how he chooses to begin. With us in all our humanness.

We tend to believe that Baptism is this powerfully divine moment shrouded with mystery—a moment set apart from the realities and mundanities of this world. But, in fact, our baptism is a testimony to the belief that Christ finds us exactly where we are and embraces us in the midst of our questions and doubts and concerns and distractions.

Look at this story.

This is not such an auspicious beginning for the ministry of the Son of God. He finds himself in a long line of dusty people, waiting to be baptized in murky, muddy water by a man who eats bugs.

John the Baptist has been working to prepare the people for the miraculous coming of the Lord. He has been washing people clean from sin so that they might be ready for the coming kingdom. But Jesus doesn’t wait until we’re clean and perfect. He doesn’t wait until we’re ready. He hops in that baptism line right alongside us. He breaks right into the middle of our human lives to claim us in love. Does the Son of God himself need to be cleansed and baptized? Maybe not. But he chooses to enter in to that place where all of us humans find ourselves—that place of brokenness and murkiness and desperate need for cleansing and healing. Jesus isn’t interested in waiting for us on some pristine holy lakeshore. He meets us in our muck and the muddy water and says “Even here—especially here, I am with you. This is where I love you. This is where something new begins.”

In response to the question, “Why does Jesus need to get baptized if he’s the Son of God?” some scholars suggest that in his case, it’s not so much about what baptism does to him as it is what he does to baptism. Jesus makes it something new. John even says as much when he proclaims that he baptizes with water, but the one who comes after will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Water cleanses away, but the Spirit does more than that. The Spirit enters in, stays with us, and transforms us even as it calls us into relationship with one another and with Christ. Through baptism Christ enters into our lives and into our very selves in a real way. In baptism we are called to be a part of God’s kingdom—a kingdom that is not somewhere far off but is breaking into our human lives this very moment. We see this as the heavens are ripped open and God speaks and the Spirit descends. Right where we are, Jesus tears down the walls between God and us.

In baptism, Christ meets us where we are – in our humanity – and claims us as a part of his body, his community. From his birth, Jesus breaks in to the darkest corners of our world and promises that nothing will ever be the same. In baptism, he promises that we will never be the same.

But Jesus makes it clear that baptism isn’t just something that happens to us and to others around us. It is not just work that Christ does through the Spirit and leaves us to observe. No! In choosing to be baptized by John—this locust-eating prophet who stands in both the margins and the great lineage of his tradition—Jesus invites John and all people into one community, his body – he invites human participation in the miraculous transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

And so every time we witness a baptism, we too are a part of it. Even as we smile and coo at the child and think “look at this amazing life, look at this family and this community, look at this love!” and wonder, “How do we dare?”—We vow as a community to embody the love of Christ in the life of that child of God and we vow to be a part of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in this church and in this world. We participate in the kingdom that breaks in to the oh so human present.

A few years ago, a professor at my seminary led a three-week travel seminar to the Holy Land. Those of us who stayed back home looked for new photos and updates every day from our friends on the trip. On one day in particular, a group from that trip posted a series of photos in which they were all robed in white and standing together in a muddy river. They took turns carefully dunking one another. It was the Jordan and they were helping each other to reaffirm their baptisms in the place where John once bathed Jesus in the waters. As they told me the story weeks later, they waffled between outright wonder at the experience and mild embarrassment because it was, after all, just an ordinary muddy river and they were just ordinary seminary tourists on a trip in cheap borrowed robes. Except long ago, Jesus had entered in and made it all extraordinary forever.

It is Jesus Christ entering into the ordinary that makes it extraordinary. Christ gets right in the muck and the murky water and makes it new and makes us new and calls us to be a part of making the world new.

So right in the middle of our petty concerns and our deep anxieties and the unholy brokenness of this world. Right in the middle of this ordinary, troubled, human existence that so often feels an eternity away from the goodness of God—right here we dare. We dare to have faith. We dare to hope. We dare to covenant together and vow to one another to be Christ’s body in this world and for each other and we dare to let the Spirit enter into us and among us and through us to transform us and this world into the incredible new thing that God is creating.

How do we dare? We dare because Christ dares. Dares to meet us here and dares us to meet him—right here, in the murky waters of life—right here, is where something new begins and nothing is ever the same. Amen.

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