Saturday, January 11, 2014

Baptism of our Lord

One of my all-time favourite movies is the film 'Oh brother, where art
thou?' – starring George Clooney. Loosely based on Homer's timeless
Odyssey, the movie 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 in Bible belt country in southern USA. 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 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 compromises 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 chances of real life – we
Anglicans don't do altar calls, we don't really go in for tearful
displays of repentance, and we certainly don't do rebaptisms – we
don't believe in daring God to prove, over and over, that we belong to
him – but we do believe in taking a look at reflection once in a
while, in the water of the baptismal font – if in baptism we really
have died to sin and risen with Christ then once in a while we like 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 - both Delmar
and Jesus receive the same 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 from John's choice of the
River Jordan – the river that the people of Israel had to cross in
order to enter into the land of promise – we can guess that John saw a
connection between the baptism of repentance and the experience of
waiting faithfully for the fulfilment of God's promises. We can also
guess that the waters of John's baptism in the Jordan River
represented for him the watery chaos that God transforms in the
mythological story of creation in the Book of Genesis – 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
across the Asia-Pacific on Boxing Day nine years ago taking over
230,000 lives in the space of a few hours and leaving hundreds of
thousands more homeless and injured — or last year's super-typhoon
that smashed across the Philippines destroying thousands of lives.
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 dangerous and uncontrollable natural forces that can
both sustain life and destroy it? Scripture keeps reminding us that
the God of creation is just as much 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 disasters on such a ghastly scale – or is it
just a sort of confronting logic that the God who creates and sustains
all life must 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 appears
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 or comfortable safety
net. Baptism is certainly God's way of saying, 'you're mine, and I
love you', but on 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, that God doesn't
exist and has abandoned us to muddle through in a universe governed by
nothing more meaningful than the laws of statistics, or else that God
does exist and inexcusably allows this appalling thing to happen.

Baptism hints both at the promise of renewal and at 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 I think maybe we're meant to hear in the whispers a
hint of what 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 us an easy way out, certainly it
doesn't for Jesus, and 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. A free pass, perhaps? I do know what I hope for
whenever I see the baptismal font filled with water: I want to be
reminded of my deep-down connection 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 revealed to us in small human
acts of compassion and faithfulness – the God of solidarity who has
the power to restore us, to renew us, and to draw us from death into
new life.