As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When Jesus goes to the River Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptizer, he was joining the many others who had come out to participate in an old Jewish ritual that was very different from what we call baptism today. John invited people to symbolically wash themselves of the past and prepare for the new working of God in their midst, a call to turn away from their sins. But when Jesus is baptized (a Greek word meaning washed), it is not for the forgiving of sins….it was for the revealing of God. Jesus sees the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and hears a voice saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” What does John the Baptizer see? He sees simply a man he thinks should be baptizing HIM! He sees a man whom he tells others is so powerful that John does not feel worthy even to untie his sandals. The others see an encounter of two intriguing people, whom some say are prophets sent by God. Each of those ways of seeing is an epiphany, a revealing, of God at work in their midst.
When we talk about baptism at Mount Calvary, it is not John’s baptism that we are patterned after but Jesus’. Baptism is not about gathering at the river seeking to turn our life or our faith around, it is to reveal what God is doing in the moving of the Holy Spirit. It is to stand before God inviting, celebrating, believing that gift of the Holy Spirit is for any and for all…. dependent on God’s choosing, not ours; celebrating God’s promises and commitment to love and embrace through the community of believers and beyond. The community, parents and sponsors all promising to BE epiphanies of grace, wisdom and faith for this child in our midst.
Over the years, I have participated in thousands of baptisms….and as yet I have not seen the heavens opened, I have not seen Holy Spirit doves, or heard a voice resonating from the chambers of heaven. I have held multitudes of the tiniest of infants and splashed the heads of many adults…..I have been the receiver of angelic smiles and spine-tingling cries of fear; I have been splashed, and soiled and urped upon; I have had tiny feet tangled in my microphone and been kicked; I have accidentally used the wrong name and mispronounced legions of them. For years, I kept a cassette tape of the baptism of twin two-year olds where they both screamed until they turned purple and mom and dad turned ghostly white and it seemed more like a scene from The Exorcist than a moment of grace. I have baptized in sanctuaries, hospital rooms, backyards and homes; in robes, suits, jeans and even shorts. I have reached into bowls and lakes and cups and found water colder than a Polar Plunge, warm enough for tea and a couple times no water at all! That is one way of looking at and experiencing baptisms.
But what did I see? I will repeat one of my favorite quotes: “The question is NOT what you look at, but what you see,” said Henry David Thoreau. I see Jesus. I see Jesus in ordinary water, working through the hands and hearts of very ordinary people, embracing one more child of God. I see Jesus, who showed us how silly it was for us to try to figure out how we were going to open the gates of heaven, opening them for us. I see the Spirit of God moving once more in the order and chaos of the moment to say “Life! Light! Love!” for this one. Gift of grace, not reward for righteousness. Gift of grace, voice of God saying, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
I see heaven opening up for the youngest of babies…unaware, unknowing and unworthy…and I see a reflection of me. It would be sheer arrogance to claim that I am any more aware, knowledgeable, or worthy of this mystery than this one before me. I see heaven opening up and I offer an echo of God’s voice when I say, “Child of God, marked with the Cross of Christ forever” in the same way those words were spoken for me. I see the frequent tears emerging from the eyes of parents and family members descending like Holy Spirit doves out of love and awe for this one. I see the congregation, rejoicing, adoring, marveling in the miracle of new babies and new life. “The question, my friends, is NOT what you look at but what you see.