Thursday, January 15, 2015

Troubling the waters

Genesis 1: 1-5; Mark 1: 4-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 11, 2015

         It didn’t take long for that baby in the manger to grow up, did it?  Christmas was two and a half weeks ago; now he’s a grown man.  The last we heard about Jesus, from Matthew, was that the magi had come to pay him homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and that Jesus and his parents narrowly escaped Herod’s rage.

But according to Mark’s gospel, the story of Jesus begins not with his birth, but with his baptism, with the beginning of his public ministry.  And it begins with its own high drama:  John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus immersed in the waters of the Jordan, clouds and shadows and sky rent open, and a voice from heaven saying “Beloved”.  Beginnings are very important.  They set the tone and the direction of the rest of the story.

The Genesis lesson gives us an account of the beginning of creation, setting the tone and direction of the story of the relationship between God and God’s creation.  Here there is also high drama:  chaos—that formless void, then the Spirit of God moving over the waters like a strong wind, darkness, then light where there was none, and a voice saying “Good”.

            Our own beginnings, our birth into the world—there is no higher drama than the labor to bring a child into the world:  nine long months we grew in darkness, in the waters of the womb and then the struggle of labor, the first breath, light and voices.  Nurse midwives tell us that our beginnings, how we come into the world, affects us as infants and as we grow and develop.  They advise low lighting, warmth, quiet or soft music to ease some of this drama, to ease the infant’s transition into the world.  Parents are also encouraged to give their new baby his or her first bath, as a way of bonding with the child.

            All these beginnings have at least three elements in common:  light, darkness, and water.  And not calm water but moving water—restless oceans, a flowing river, water breaking from the womb.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

            When Jesus came to John for baptism, he was participating in an ancient Jewish religious ritual called a mikvah.  A mikvah is ritual immersion in a bathing facility with a natural source of water, such as a spring or a groundwater well.  According to Orthodox Judaism, a mikvah is necessary to make one spiritually pure in order to worship in the temple.  To facilitate purification, the water has to be living water—water that moves.

The Besalú mikveh, Province of Girona, Spain

     Water that moves is a source of life.  We need water to live. More than 80% of the human body consists of water.  Billions of years ago, the first life forms on this earth evolved in the primordial oceans, and then emerged onto land.  Every life form on this earth has its beginnings in waters of some sort, and then has a need for water in order to live. 

In a hot arid climate, such as the Middle East, water is the antithesis of death. Many of the purity laws in Leviticus relate directly to some form of death.  In Orthodox Judaism women are required to have a mikvah after their monthly period, not because the bodily function is unclean, but because it is considered a loss of a potential life, a form of death.  Death is considered unclean because it is believed to be a consequence of sin.  Death did not enter God’s creation until the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And so John was proclaiming a baptism, a mikvah of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  To repent is to return from exile, to turn from going the way of sin that leads to death, to turn toward the Way that leads to the promised land of God.  The Greek root of the word ‘repent’ means to think differently, to go beyond the mind that you have, beyond conventional understanding.  Einstein is quoted as saying that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind or consciousness that created it.  To think with a sinful mind is to think we are in death.  To repent is to realize that we are forgiven, that God intends us for not only for life but to be loved, beloved, and then to live that truth as a way of life.

But why is John offering this repentance, this forgiveness in the wilderness?  If a Jew who followed the Torah wanted to be cleansed of sin and death, they would go to the temple in Jerusalem and give an offering to be washed in the temple mikvah and proclaimed pure by the temple priests.

Most scholars agree that John was an Essene, a desert sect of the Jewish faith that rejected the temple authorities, believing them to be corrupt, that they had taken too much power and authority for themselves, controlling who was in and who was out.  John prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah.  To prepare to be ready to follow the Messiah, the people must turn from their sin that they may be able to accept the teaching and the Holy Spirit this Messiah would give.  They must be able to think differently about God and their relationship to him.  And desperately wanting to be close to God, they came from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem, away from the seat of religious authority, to participate in this cleansing mikvah that was free to all.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

            So why did Jesus need to be baptized?  After all, he is the one John described as more powerful than himself, whose sandals John was unworthy to tie.  I can think of three reasons why Jesus would begin his ministry in this way.

            First, it was customary (and still is) for one who was entering the rabbinical vocation to be purified in a mikvah, to be immersed in God’s living waters as part of the ordination.

            Second, Jesus may have already had it in mind that he was headed toward his own death.  The experience of being submerged in water and rising with the breath of God filling his lungs may have been to remind him not only of the promise of resurrection, but of God’s promise to sustain him through whatever lay ahead for him.

            And the third and perhaps most important reason was that Jesus was aligning himself not only with John’s anti-establishment agenda but also with the crowds who came for baptism.  These would have been those considered outcasts by the religious authorities, the poor, the sick, the sinners, tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes with which Jesus would be spending most of his time; in essence, the neediest of God’s people, those who acknowledged that they had lost their way and were ready to return to the Way of God. 

By allowing John to plunge him into the sacred waters of the Jordan, Jesus not only troubled the waters of the religious authorities, but declared himself a mikvah, became living water for the neediest of God’s people.  And the heavens tore open, the Spirit came upon him like dove, and voice came from heaven proclaimed, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Even though our experience of baptism is not nearly so dramatic, do we realize what we’re doing when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives?  Remember, beginnings are important: they set the tone and the direction of the rest of the story.  In the United Church of Christ, baptism has been the beginning of our faith story.  The Holy Spirit has been with us from the very beginning, stirring up the waters of our lives, cleansing us of that which we don’t need, healing our brokenness, making us ready for a life of compassion, service, forgiveness, and justice for the neediest of God’s people.

Like creation, baptism is not a once and over event but an invitation to grow.  Jesus calls us from the shores of the Jordan to join him in his baptism, his ministry, yes, even his death but also in his new life.  If we want to have new life, we must be willing to let go of the life that is not working for us.  If we want to renew the church, we must be willing to let go of that which is holding back the church from renewal.  If we’re looking for calm waters, unchanging ways, and a clear horizon, this is not the baptism we were given.  Troubled waters are part of the good news of Jesus.  Troubled waters mean life:  life lived in the presence and in the care of God.

How do we, the New Ark, need to repent, that is, to think differently about our life together?  How does the Holy Spirit make herself known to us?  How often do we personally think about our own baptism?  How is this church living waters and for whom?  How might we practice baptism on a daily basis?

We are beloved children of God, each and every one of us, each and every person on this earth.  In creating humankind, God has declared us good.  And by our baptism we have been made one with Jesus and with his ministry of compassion, healing, and justice.  Our lives will never be the same again.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.


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