This Sunday we mark the Baptism of the Lord. To many of us, it’s one of the more obscure Christian festivals. But it’s one that has, from the earliest days, been central to the church’s tradition. Eastern Orthodox churches remember this episode from Jesus’ life on the day of Epiphany, and Roman Catholic and Protestant churches typically do so on the first Sunday after.
Jesus’ baptism is a suitable place for the church to begin recounting the story of His life and ministry. It’s such an important story that all four gospels tell it in one way or another (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23; John 1:29–33). Before Jesus does anything as a teacher and healer, He hikes up His robe, scrambles down the muddy riverbank and wades into the Jordan to be baptized by John.
Why does He do it? Theologians have long debated that question. Why must the sinless son of God receive this potent symbol of repentance and new life? Is He not Himself the very wellspring of new life promised in the baptismal waters?
Some theologians are quick to explain that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, but He lets His cousin push Him down under the muddy water purely for our sake. According to that way of thinking, Jesus is like a swimming teacher, standing high and dry by the side of the pool, modeling the breaststroke for the shivering gaggle of kids standing chest-deep in the water. He’s modeling repentance, not actually doing it.
Such explanations miss the point. In other words, you’re over-thinking it, theologians! What Jesus received from John that day was not a Christian baptism, but a Jewish one. In many first-century Jewish sects – including the one led by John – the pathway into any life of serious religious discipline leads through water. As the Israelites of old passed through the Red Sea, so any serious believer must do the same.
If you were to make a list of the world’s great maritime traditions, the Jewish people would be far from the top. The Vikings would be up there, in their dragon-ships. So would the ancient Irish, braving the Hebridean Sea in their sealskin coracles. Portuguese merchants fought wind and waves as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope, returning with costly nutmeg and clove from the Indies to revolutionize European cooking. And the British? To this day, their patriots proudly sing: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Nobody ever accused the Jews of trying to rule the waves. They had a seacoast, but no great desire to venture out onto the Mediterranean (that was the specialty of the Phoenicians, sometimes called the Philistines). Apart from the miserable experience of the benighted Jonah, the only Jewish seafaring we read about in the Bible is fishing boats bobbing on the Sea of Galilee, always in sight of land.
The ancient Jews were a desert people: in the earliest days, nomadic herders of sheep and goats. Water, frankly, terrified them. When the writer of Psalm 139 is casting around for an image to depict existential despair, he chooses an ocean voyage out of sight of land: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (vv. 9-10).
Kids in our culture run laughing down the diving board, executing a perfect cannonball, but John the Baptist’s converts waded into the Jordan with trepidation. To lose your footing and go under the water was to flirt with death itself.
Maybe this is why so many Christians have come to view the sacrament of baptism as a spiritual insurance policy. That little dose of fear of death functions like an inoculation. Even though most Christian traditions now teach that baptism is never an emergency, plenty of new parents instinctually think otherwise. The sooner Junior gets “done,” the better. You never know what could happen. You just don’t.
It’s sometimes said that baptism conveys an “indelible mark” – that those who pass through the waters are marked forever as children of God. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t it make sense to assume that the Lord keeps a special eye out for those displaying such a mark?
Yes, it does. But that doesn’t mean that we who are baptized – and who have later confirmed the baptismal vows our parents made for us – are promised an easier road than other human beings. Baptism does convey a promise of eternal life, by the grace of Christ, but it doesn’t mean the baptized receive a special certificate of protection from earthly perils.
Responding to the horrors of World War I, a Canadian poet and army surgeon, Lt. Col. John McCrae, wrote these famous words:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.”
“We are the dead,” writes the poet. The “crosses, row on row” that mark these heroes’ final resting-place signify that here lie thousands of baptized Christians. Their baptism was no insurance policy. It didn’t protect them from bullets, grenades or mustard gas. Some of the baptized believers who went “over there” returned home after the Armistice, to marry and raise families. Others rest in Flanders fields. Joining them in death, rather prophetically, was the poet McCrae himself. He succumbed to pneumonia in 1918 and is buried in France.
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us what baptism does promise during our life on this earth. It doesn’t mention the Christian sacrament, of course — how could it? — but it does speak about the experience of passing through the waters, and where God may be trusted to be as we do so:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (vv. 1-2).
A little later, the prophet supplies the reason why the Lord would say such a thing: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (v. 4).
For Jews of Isaiah’s time, the prophet’s words surely called to mind the nation-building experience of their ancestors, when Moses led the Hebrews through the waters of the sea to freedom. The recollection of that experience is all the more poignant here because the people to whom Isaiah is writing are exiles in Babylon. They haven’t voyaged across the waves to the “farthest limits of the sea” — the sum of the psalmist’s fears — but they have traversed oceans of sand, to reside in a miserable ghetto at the beck and call of their foreign overlords. There, in their worst moments, they feel just as abandoned.
If the Lord did lead their ancestors through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to claim the Promised Land, then surely a return to that land is but a distant dream to them now.
But Isaiah won’t abandon that promise. The day will come, he reassures them, when the Lord will lead them back through the fearsome waters once again. But this time, they go in the opposite direction as they return home!
Notice how close the Lord promises to be to them: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you …” The Lord may not promise, in baptism, to shield us from the ordinary sufferings of this life, but God does promise to be with us, close at hand, as we endure them. The Lord never promises we won’t get our feet wet, but God does attest that the waters will never rise up in a tsunami and smash us into eternal oblivion.
God promises to accompany us through this life, and even onward to the life beyond. Isn’t that thought a powerful source of comfort and strength?
There are two meanings to this word “accompany.” The first is the sense of one person walking alongside another. That thrilling story from the end of Luke’s gospel comes to mind: how, on the road to Emmaus, a mysterious man overtakes two of Jesus’ disciples who are sadly trudging their way along. At first, they don’t know it’s their Lord who’s walking with them. But then, as they gather for the evening meal and he breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him, just before he vanishes from their sight (Luke 24:13-35). Isaiah’s promise is that God accompanies us, walking beside us, in just that way.
The second sense of the word “accompany” – with respect to the way God accompanies us – is found within that larger word. We, the baptized, are members of a larger company: the church, the body of Christian believers. Baptism is the sacrament of entry into that company.
This means that, as we encounter rough patches in life, there are other pilgrims around us — Christian friends to catch us when we stumble and fall. In seasons of heartache and loss, there are sisters and brothers pledged to walk alongside us, to share with us some of their own strength.
There’s an old story about a woman who was living through the aching pain of bereavement. She kept coming to church during her time of grief, but she would just stand there with the hymnal in her hands, not singing.
A good friend noticed this and said, “I see you’re not singing, and I also know how much you love to sing. Why don’t you just try to join in? It’ll make you feel better.”
“I’m sorry,” said the bereaved woman, “but I just can’t sing right now. I’m sure I will, eventually. But for now, I know the church is singing the hymns for me, and that’s a great source of comfort.”
Consolation is a beautiful word. It means “to be with” (con-) “the lonely one” (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see. We can and must offer consolation. We can and must console the mother who lost her child, the young person with cancer, the family whose house burned down, the soldier who was wounded, the teenager who contemplates suicide, the old man who wonders why he should stay alive.
To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.
Each week, in worship, we symbolically live out this work of being, together, a company of believers. Individual prayer and meditation are wonderful things – and Christian family life is likewise a wonderful thing – but they’re no substitute for life together in the larger company that is the church. The Lord promises to be with us as we pass through the waters. A significant part of the way the Lord accomplishes that is through each one of us, week after week, as we gather as God’s people in person or online.
We don’t just come to worship for individual inspiration. We don’t just come to receive. We come to give. Our presence in the company of pilgrims is important to others as well.
Our presence in Christian community, week after week – praying, singing, offering up our gifts – is a ministry to others, a witness to faith. It just may be that someone else – sitting beside us, or behind us, or in front of us, or even seeing our name pop up in the online comments feed – is silently in pain, enduring some terrible trouble. Much of the time, we have no way of knowing this. Nor do we have any way of knowing how important it is to that fellow believer who sees us – yes, us! – engaging in worship.
What if such a person comes to church on Sunday, feeling debilitating spiritual pain or doubt, and sees instead an empty sanctuary – or one so nearly empty that prayers ring hollow and the hymn-singing is entirely lacking in joy? Or what if that person logged on and found few others there? We would be failing to perform that Christlike work of accompanying, making it difficult for our neighbors to remember that when they pass through the waters, God is beside them.
How firm a foundation God gives us, in our life together as church, for persevering through hard times:
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee they deepest distress.”
As we sing words like that, we raise our song in the company of others, whose very presence signifies that we worship a God who accompanies us!