by Daniel Harrell
Our survey of water in the Bible this fall has finally landed us on the most important water event of them all: the baptism of Jesus. It’s distinct from the other water events we’ve looked at thus far, because baptism is actually one we get to dive into ourselves. Along with communion which we celebrate this morning, baptism is a central practice of our faith; it is our initiation into Christian community. Though unlike communion, baptism is a once in a lifetime experience. Baptism comes with gallons of theological significance, most of which we tend to take for granted. As Congregationalists living in Luther-land where infant baptism is the norm, most of us can’t even remember our own baptisms. The baptisms of children, while beautiful, are still treated more as ceremonial than momentous. Maybe that’s because there’s no heaven tearing open or thunderous voice booming at our baptisms—no spirit descending like a dove. Or maybe it’s because we use water instead of fire. We do take water for granted. As recently as 1955, rural Americans without running water in their homes used ten gallons a day per person to live (as compared to cows which used twenty gallons per day per cow). Today, with running water, a normal American uses a hundred gallons, and much of that, twenty gallons a day, is just for flushing the toilet.
Whenever a family brings their baby to be baptized, their major concern is not what baptism signifies, as much as whether their baby will cry. Parents go to great lengths to guard against this: plugging his mouth with a pacifier, sedating her with milk and rocking her into a sacramental stupor. Most of the times this works, but when it doesn’t, the ensuing shriek of terror at the unexpected splash can be enough to set an entire congregation on edge. It’s definitely enough to embarrass some parents into never returning to church again.
But I say let those babies scream! Screaming babies are onto something about baptism that most of us forget. More than a bath, baptism is a drowning. It’s is not so much about having your sinful self washed clean as it is about having your sinful self killed off. Jesus called his cross a baptism and the apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, asserted that to be baptized is to be crucified and buried with Christ, so that with Christ, you might be raised from the dead into newness of life.
Early Christians were very serious about their baptisms. According to the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, a presbyter and bishop in third century Rome, getting baptized required much more than professing faith and getting wet. You first underwent a severe examination of intent, which included being grilled as to the nature of your occupation. For instance, you could not join the church if you were a pimp (for obvious reasons), a sculptor or a painter (unless you swore never to create idols), a politician (again, for obvious reasons), someone who teaches children worldly knowledge, a gladiator, an actor, a soldier, an astrologer or anyone who, according to Hippolytus, “does that which may not be mentioned.”
Once your vocation passed theological muster, you’d be allowed to hear the gospel, followed by a three-year period of instruction during which you were expected to lead a virtuous life. At the end of this period, should you prove worthy, you underwent daily exorcisms to ensure purity and cleanliness from any evil spirit, leading up to a three-day fast on the Thursday before Easter. The night before Easter was spent in prayerful vigil. On Easter morning, as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon, you were led naked into the baptismal water (typically held in a pool shaped like a coffin and always filled with cold water) where you would confess your faith and be pushed underneath. You would be held down long enough to “feel the death” after which you would emerge gasping for the air of new life. A fresh, official Christian, you were then clothed with a new white garment, anointed with oil and escorted into to the midst of the congregation where the bishop would bless you and offer you for the first time the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. Some of this we saw last week at Confirmation, which was tied more directly to baptism early on.
How does this apply to babies? Depending on your view of original sin, Christians haven’t always held that babies get a free pass. Sin has a sinister power all its own. On the other hand, infant baptism serves as the New Testament successor to Old Testament circumcision—expanded to include female and Gentile children. Baptism, like circumcision, is the signature of a community’s pledge to raise a child to be faithful to God. And because baptism is done with water that can drown you (just as circumcision was with a knife that can kill you), it’s a pledge made under the penalty of death. Jesus himself said that whoever causes a child to fall into sin would be better off having a millstone tied around his neck and thrown into the sea. So yeah, there should be crying at baptisms.
Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism has an definite Old Testament look and feel. He starts his gospel with a citation from Isaiah that points to John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s own fashion statement—his camel’s hair clothing and leather belt, not to mention his diet of locusts and honey—brought to mind the great prophet Elijah who dressed and ate the same way. God’s last words in the Old Testament promised that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the LORD.” Though he looked like Elijah, John sounded a lot like Jeremiah, warning of God’s justice and calling the people a brood of vipers. His baptizing paralleled a Jewish practice called “proselyte baptism” whereby an idol-loving Gentile pagan converting to Judaism first had to have his idol-loving paganism ceremonially rinsed off. Only here John baptizes chosen people instead of Gentiles, implying that the descendents of Abraham were no better than anybody else. They were sinners too.
In addition to the Old Testament language, Mark paints an Old Testament picture too. Here’s a rendition of Jesus’ baptism from the nineteenth century printmaker Currier and Ives, better known for nostalgic images associated with the holidays. Looking at this print, you’ll notice elements of all the water events we’ve gone over this fall. Let’s do a little review. In Genesis and the creation account, you’ll recall that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but already present was water over which swept a wind, or spirit, from God. In ancient creation myths, water was feared as the abode of chaos and evil. God the Father redeems peace and beauty out of the chaos and evil for the sake of creation; just as God the Son redeems life and righteousness out of death and sin for the sake of new creation.
Throw an ark in the water and you’re reminded of Noah, the floodwaters serving the sentence of God’s justice, the due consequence of taking God’s grace for granted. The New Testament writers all understood the flood to prefigure the baptismal waters. Later prophets, like Jeremiah, in whose stead John the Baptist follows, cautioned the people again. But because they insisted on doing God wrong, disasters came and practically wiped them out. But God’s anger against their sin and infidelity never rained down for the sake of destruction alone. His fury refines for the sake of redemption. Peter referred to Noah’s flood as water that destroyed the world in order to save it; the same water, he wrote, that now saves us. St. Augustine understood the wooden ark to foreshadow the wooden cross. God saves us through the waters of his justice by the cross of Jesus, which is our ark of grace. A dove gave the all clear sign to Noah, showing it was safe to disembark. At Jesus’ baptism, the dove signals that in Christ everybody’s safe.
Now there is no floating ax head at Jesus’ baptism, if you remember that sermon from 2 Kings. But there are parallels between Jesus and Elisha. The Bible refers to Elisha as not just any man, but as the man of God. Floating iron verified Elisha’s true identity. Elisha means “God is salvation,” and through Elisha God saved his people from a whole host of self-inflicted disasters. Jesus also means “God saves,” and through Christ God saves us too. Elijah anointed Elisha with a double portion of his spirit. John the Baptist—the New Testament Elijah—did the same for Jesus, anointing him with the fullness of the Holy Spirit and verified Jesus’ true identity. Elisha was the Man of God, Jesus is the beloved Son of God with whom the Father was well pleased.
Baptism’s ultimate trajectory is new life in God’s presence. In Ezekiel, which we looked at last Sunday, God’s presence was symbolized by a glorious new Temple out of which flowed a miracle river symbolizing new life. The Temple and the river turn out to be previews of heaven. The river shows up in the book of Revelation as the river of life, but by then it’s clear that the Temple is no longer a building but “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” himself. God becomes so present to us that buildings are no longer necessary. His people are his dwelling place.
Jesus goes through the water of baptism and is confirmed to be God’s beloved son. He is anointed with the Spirit of power. He will make way a path to new life. But the first order of business for the Spirit is to lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. So much for being God’s beloved Son. At our Wednesday night sermon group, someone pulled out that verse from Hebrews that reminds how Jesus needed to be temped like us in order to sympathize with us, and that he “learned obedience from what he suffered so that once made perfect, he could become the source of eternal salvation.” What? Was Jesus not perfect already? What did have to learn? It turns out that while the word “obedience” derives from the Hebrew verb “to hear,” it always comes tied to the verb “to do.” Jesus knew that obedience to God was a whole body proposition, but he didn’tlearn it until he did it.
This holds true for us too. Bob from our Wednesday night group told us about the birth of his daughter and how there were problems with her heart. She was rushed to the NICU where a chaplain soon showed up and asked if he’d like to have his daughter baptized. Far from a ceremonial gesture, this was every parent’s nightmare. Bob knew he believed in Jesus, but did he have faith enough to trust Jesus with his daughter? He didn’t learn it until he did it. Baptism demands all that we are. Bob gave his daughter to God. And God gave her back. This past Wednesday she started Confirmation.
Jesus went through the waters of God’s justice and into the desert of temptation just as Israel did with Moses. God saved his people and did his justice to Pharaoh’s army. God blessed his people with his spirit, who accompanied them day and night. And that led Israel into the desert where they had a chance to learn obedience too. And yet they failed over and over again. But where they failed, Jesus succeeded and became “the perfect source of eternal salvation” for all who follow him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Our ancestors all passed through the sea, and were baptized in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
If you remember that sermon from Exodus, you’ll remember that though God led his people out into the desert to test them, they ended up testing him. They people ran out of water and complained to God, though the word used for complain was more like the verb to sue. It meant “to legally challenging somebody’s authority.” The people sued the Lord over their water rights! Moses responded, “Why do you test the Lord?” He then turned to God and asked, “What am I supposed to do?” What came next was truly remarkable. The Lord let his people take him to court. A rock served as the courtroom dock where the defendant stands. Moses staff was the executioner. And then God said to Moses, “I will be standing on the rock. I will be the defendant. Smite the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” So Moses’ smote the rock, in effect condemning God, and sprung forth water for the people. The Almighty Lord, Yahweh himself, pled guilty!
This is how Paul interpreted the rock in the desert as Christ. It was another foreshadow of the cross. In John’s gospel, as Jesus hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and water came out. The cross smote Christ, condemned God, and sprung forth living water for all people. As Paul would later explain, “God made him who knew no sin to be our sin, so that in him we might gain his righteousness.”
To be baptized into Christ makes his cross your cross. “To be baptized into Christ Jesus is to be baptized into his death.” But to be baptized into Christ’s death also makes his resurrection your resurrection. His life is now your life. So much so that God’s words to Jesus now apply to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter. My beloved. With you I am well pleased.”