Year B Baptism of Our Lord Mark 1
Back To Basics: The Three R's of Baptism
You perhaps at one time or another have seen on TV the old black and white video footage of the civil rights marches in the sixties. Martin Luther King often at the front received his share of stinging high-pressured water hoses. Rev. King once remarked that he and the other marchers had a common strength. He put it this way, as "we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were a Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed.
If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water." You and I know the water. All of God's children know the water. We share by our faith this common symbol, this initiation, this rite, this power of God over the deep and often raging chaos of life. We know water! All over the world Baptism unites us.
It also brings us back to the basics. Perhaps in our lifetime the most public statement of repentance was that of President Bill Clinton's. The one he made before a Prayer Breakfast on September 10, 1998. He summed up the task perfectly when he said, "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned." Then he quoted from a book given him by a Jewish friend in Florida. The book is called "Gates of Repentance."
Clinton read this passage from the book: "Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again. And this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday's ways."
Clinton's quote ended with this prayer: "Lord help us to turn, from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, O Lord, and bring us back toward you. Revive our lives as at the beginning and turn us toward each other, Lord, for in isolation there is no life."
What ever you might think of Clinton and his sincerity, he understood that he needed to do something very basic before the nation. He needed to repent. It's amazing isn't it? Not even a president can escape the basic truths of life. It's like in elementary school. Our parents and teachers understand the importance of building a strong foundation for a child's future. So, we were taught the basics, the three R's: Reading, writing, and arithmetic. Ever notice that only one of those begins with an R. I always thought the fellow that came up with that one needed to go back to school.
As parents and teachers and leaders today we would do well to remember that life is still composed of basics. That is why, when Mark chose to open his Gospel, he did so with the Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan. Baptism reminds us of the three R's of the soul: Repentance, righteousness, and revelation. So, don't be amazed when a president of the United States repents before the nation for even Christ himself, as we have just read, began his ministry identifying with the basics: repentance, righteousness, and revelation. Christ submitted himself to the basics. You ask me, Pastor, why should I be baptized? My answer is, Christ himself was baptized, so should you. Baptism begins the most basic elements of the Christian walk: Repentance from sin, a life of righteousness, and an understanding that God has reveled himself in Christ.
Let's take a look at our Lord's Baptism and what it tells us about the three spiritual R's:
- The first R is Repentance.
- The second R is Righteousness.
- The third R is Revelation.
Remember Your Baptism
A new way of measuring the body's "health" is being touted as the next "big thing." It's still not in use yet. But they tell us it's coming soon to your home. Instead of taking your body's temperature, the doctor or pretend-doctor "takes your breath away"- and then analyzes it. You exhale deeply into a device that measures every component of your breath, and that one breath reveals the health of your whole body. "The breath is a window into the blood," says Joachim D. Pleill. Pretty soon we'll be able to smell how people are doing by their breath.
Breath is more than 99% water, but roughly 3000 other compounds have been detected in human breath. An average sample contains at least 200 other components, including bits of DNA, proteins, bacteria and fats floating in the mist. The air-borne elements and compounds such as carbon dioxide, steroids, prostaglandins, even interleukins, make up the rest of one exhalation - the "stuff" we generically call "air."
In other words what we exhale, our breath - the tell-tale trademark of our very existence is water and wind.
We humans are wind and water people.
Charles Kingsley wrote a Victorian-era children's classic called The Water Babies (Oxford University Press, 1995). This book tells the story of London's poor, abused children whose only escape from the cruelty and grime of servitude is death. But these poor children are "reborn" as "water babies." And as "water babies" they are free, clean, have plenty to eat, and lots of free time. There is only one problem: they have lost their humanity. They are now strictly water-beings, without air, and so without that uniquely human combination of water and wind.
Wind is key to humanity, because wind is air-borne Spirit. You and I were a crusty clump of clay until God "breathed" that air-borne Spirit, and made of us a "living thing." Jewish scripture spoke of the Spirit, the "ruach" of God, the creative, active, energizing wind of Yahweh. There are even specific Old Testament references to God's "Holy Spirit" (see Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Joel 2:28-32; and most Isaiah 63:10-11).
Water is key to humanity as well. That's why water-rites for purification and initiation were familiar practices in many ancient near eastern religions.
But it was in John the Baptist's mission that the experience of baptism with water and with the Spirit was described, predicted, and promised. Of course, John himself only provided the water bath and re-birth. As Paul reminds these "sort-of" disciples in today's epistle text, John's baptism only brought water, and "repentance," to each person he baptized. John's mission was to be a "voice crying in the wilderness." John was to "prepare" the world for the One who was to come. John's water-only baptism was part of that prep work. And John's baptism of repentance reached deep into each individual's heart, stirring the soul, making fertile, watered soil for the baptismal seeds of the Spirit...