One of my all-time favourite movies is the film ‘Oh brother, where art thou?’ – starring George Clooney – the story which is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey revolves around the fortunes of three escaped convicts on a quest for hidden treasure who eventually discover where their real treasure lies. In the story, the three prisoners are on the run after slipping away from a work gang when they come across a bizarre scene in the woods. It is a mass baptism – long lines of white-robed figures are converging on the river singing over and over, ‘o sinners let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down, o sinners let’s go down, down to the river to pray’. Delmar, who is easily the dumbest of the three, gets caught up in the beauty and the emotion of it all and jumps the queue – running headlong into the river, yelling at the preacher that he wants to be baptised – he throws himself backwards into the river just trusting that the preacher will be able to catch him, simply expecting that he is going to come up out of the water into a new life - saved and forgiven. When the preacher finally lets him up for air he roars up out of the water spluttering ‘boys, I’m saved! The preacher said my sins done been washed away! Come on in, boys, the water’s fine!’. And at first it seems the dunk in the river has done the trick – convinced that the baptism has worked like some sort of magic he sits in the back of the getaway car with a happy but dazed sort of expression, assuring the others that all the wrong things he has ever done don’t count any more – of course, before he knows it, Delmar is unwittingly dragged back into the chaos and chances of life on the run.
Which, of course, is the story of each of us as well – whether we were baptised as babies or as adults, whether or not we have any memory of our baptism at all – whether we were baptised because it was what we chose for ourselves or because our parents chose it for us - no sooner do we emerge from the water of renewal, regeneration, new birth and new life, than we find ourselves right back where we started. No sooner does the water dry than we find ourselves bang smack in the middle of the murky moral choices and compromises of real life – we Anglicans don’t do altar calls, and we don’t really go in for tearful displays of repentance, and certainly we don’t do rebaptisms – we don’t believe that God needs to prove, over and over, that we belong to him – but we do believe in taking a look at ourselves once in a while, in the water of the baptismal font – if in baptism we have really died to sin and risen with Christ then once in a while we do need to remind ourselves of that.
The story of Delmar sounds like it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read in Matthew’s gospel, and yet they’ve got something in common. Jesus comes to John to receive the baptism of repentance – however hard to explain that seems to have been for early generations of Christians - Jesus receives a baptism specifically targeted at the forgiveness of sins – and for Jesus just as much as for Delmar that baptism is no guarantee that for ever after he will be immune from the effects of human sinfulness, from the full range of human experience or from the moral choices and the pain of human relationships. The question of why Jesus chooses to submit to the baptism of repentance is one that continues to exercise the minds of modern theologians – surely Jesus was without sin? – say some – but did Jesus really see himself as sinless, say others? Because if Jesus is really human – if in Jesus God is really sharing the whole range of our human experience – well, part of being human is knowing ourselves to be flawed – being human, like being in love, always means having to say you’re sorry. Leaving aside such imponderable theological questions I think the point that really matters is this – that Jesus chooses to stand in line with sinners – here in his baptism, as always, Jesus chooses to act in solidarity with those who are labelled as sinful, and that, thankfully, includes us.
We don’t know, quite, where the sacrament of baptism in water comes from. There’s no really clear precedent for it in Jewish tradition, but scholars think the Essene sect that John the Baptist may have belonged to practiced some form of ritual washing. So we’re not really sure what the symbolism may have meant for John, but we know he was expecting the coming of the Messiah. John understood that the time was right for God to act decisively to free God’s people from oppression and tyranny. And we can guess that John’s choice of the River Jordan – the river that the people of Israel had to cross when they entered into the land of promise – we can guess that for John there is a connection between the baptism of repentance and a sense of waiting faithfully for the new promise to be fulfilled. We can also guess that the waters of John’s baptism in the Jordan represent the watery chaos that God transforms in the mythological story of creation – so baptism is somehow connected both with creation and with re-creation.
But it’s just about here I always find my own inner voice objecting that water isn’t always refreshing and life-giving, it can also be terrifying and dangerous – as for example the tsunami that struck on Boxing Day three years ago taking over 150,000 lives in the space of a few hours and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless and injured. Have you ever noticed that the exact same images the Bible uses to represent the power and presence of God - water, wind, and fire – that these are the very images that can destroy life just as quickly as they can create it? Scripture keeps reminding us that the God of creation is also present in chaos and destruction, that there are aspects of God we can’t control or understand. This is where the psalm we read this morning seems to be headed, that God is in the chaos and the flood – it’s an image that seems a bit disturbing when we are confronted by a disaster on such a ghastly scale – or is it perhaps nothing but the sober truth that the God who creates and sustains all life can be also be seen in the chaos and the destruction that is a natural part of that creation? As the great 5th century preacher, Peter Chrysologus, suggested, maybe the image of the dove that seems to descend on Jesus as he comes up from the waters of baptism is meant to remind us of the dove that signals the re-creation after the great flood in Genesis, the dove that signifies God’s ability to bring new life and beauty out of the deep waters of despair.
All of which means that baptism isn’t a simple safety net. Baptism is certainly God’s way of saying, ‘you’re mine, and I love you’, but this side of salvation, at least, in the real world where the unforeseeable and the chaotic and the morally murky are ever-present facts of life, the assurance of God’s love doesn’t stop bad stuff happening. Remember how God got a pretty bad rap for a while there, after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004? I remember letters to the editor complaining, almost in the same breath, either that God doesn’t exist and allows us just to muddle through in a universe governed by nothing more meaningful than the laws of statistics, or else that God does exist and allows this appalling thing to happen.
The promise of renewal and the grown-up realism of experiencing God in the context of a universe of chaos and suffering. Both extremes of human experience are whispering in the background as the dove comes down on Jesus’ head, and as readers of Matthew’s gospel maybe we’re meant to hear in the whispers a hint of lies ahead for Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross. Finding ourselves adopted as God’s beloved daughters and sons, as we are in baptism, doesn’t offer an easy way out, certainly not for Jesus, not for Delmar, and not for us, either. Looking at our reflection in the water of baptism does however reveal something very powerful indeed, which is that in our lives God is most present and most known to us exactly at the times when the boundaries of our individual lives aren’t strong enough to contain our experience – at the times of great suffering as well as at the times of great joy and renewal.
I don't know what Delmar hoped for when he jumped the queue to be baptised in the river. I do know what I hope for whenever I see the baptismal font filled with water: I want to be reconnected with the God who continually creates and recreates us, the God who day by day is continually revealed in the beauty and in the chaos of my life, in the suffering and the joy of human existence; the God who is revealed to us in compassion and in faithfulness – the God of solidarity who has the power to restore us, to renew us, and to draw us from death into new life.