Isaiah 49:1-7 ; John 1:19-42
Before you go through the whole shebang of installing me, there’s something you should know about me: I’m good for a sharp word. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being a source of encouragement and comfort; I do very much. I love pastoral visits, which is where I can focus on doing just that. But as a minister and theologian I have a gift for sharp, incisive insight. There’s a little bit of prophet in me. I don’t predict the future; but Isaiah does much more than that. I have a knack for uncovering what people are trying to hide. Especially people in power. I love this verse from Luke: “Nothing that is covered up will not be uncovered…. Therefore what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the rooftops.” I feel compelled to call out people in power; I point out when they are doing or allowing injustice. I can’t say that I enjoy doing it. It really isn’t an ego trip for me, although I can take a good ego trip. It’s just what I do. Jeremiah says, “The words are a fire in my belly, a burning in my bones.”
Before I came here I had a year stint as president of the faculty at the small college where Jessica and I taught. We had a difficult president, and ultimate power rested with a board of trustees made up of mostly old-boy businessmen that the president had picked. I called the president out, and did it in front of the board too, when they were expecting a bland, “everything is fine” report. I didn’t do the calling out in an aggressive, angry, or shrill way. I was just persistent, and undaunted, and I stuck to principle. And I was not afraid, although it created a lot of stress for me, a lot of restless nights. I also on occasion called out my friends, the faculty, who had a tendency to gossip and spin conspiracy theories rather than constructively deal with problems. / I’m not sure in the end that I did much good. The faculty president who followed me had a much more politic approach, one less insistent on principles; and she was careful to seeks ways for the powerful people—the president and board members– to “save face.” Maybe that is what you have to do with presidents, CEOs, big shots. It’s not my way. (And as I see it, it’s not Jesus’ way either.) It seemed to me that people working together to run an institution of higher education should all be able to listen to honest and well-founded demands for truthfulness. (I realize that I am revealing myself here, perhaps even giving grist for the mill of some of you who have concerns about me. This spirit in me could be seen as a fault. I am aware of this.) /
So this fire in my belly resonates when I hear Isaiah 49, thrills to it even, but I wonder how much of that is my own vanity. It may be vanity when I feel a kinship with Isaiah, as he proclaims: “The Lord made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” With less vanity I identify with Isaiah when he says: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”—when I look at my life it does feel that way sometimes. Be all that as it may, I can affirm with him, “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with God.”
I cannot with sincerity, and without irony, think of myself as a prophet—even while many in the church today talk up “prophetic preaching,” and the United Church of Christ offers what it calls “Prophetic Vision and Social Policy.” I am sympathetic to much of this, but for the most part there is nothing quite like an Isaiah in our time; and there will never be another Jesus—this I believe, so long as we remember that Jesus isn’t gone but indeed lives in us as a church (more on that later). The age of prophesy mostly came to a close, as the early church concluded. Well, surely God continues to speak in some sense, as the UCC slogan has it; and there can still be prophetic speech inspired by God. But there may have been something special about the historical epoch of the Bible that we can never surpass. In any event, I agree with the tradition of the church, that takes Isaiah 49 to be foretelling of Jesus—and not predicting me, I’m sorry to say. God was speaking about Jesus in Isaiah’s words: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
John the Baptist looks like a prophetic figure. He quotes Isaiah, taking the mantle upon himself of one crying out in the wilderness. It’s an evocative phrase for us, but even more so for the Jews of John’s day. The wilderness lay on the other side of the Jordan river, where people were going out to meet John. We can hardly appreciate the symbolism of the Jordan River, but if we look at our own American experience, we see the enormous symbolism played by crossing various bodies of water, whether it is Washington crossing the Delaware, the romantic crossing of the Atlantic by European immigrants, or the horrific crossing of the same ocean by slaves on the Middle Passage. Whether it is the crossing of the Mississippi into the wild expanse of the frontier, or the controversial symbolism of crossing the Rio Grand. Even in our secular American history, crossing water is about much more than getting wet. It is a rite of passage, a change of state.
Now the Jordan river was the border between today’s Israel and its past, its wild and young days. You’ll remember that God formed Israel as a people by delivering her from slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea into the wilderness. Then God revealed himself to Israel on Mt. Sinai—which is another of the great epiphanies in the Bible—and taught her how to be a people of God. Then Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness in a kind of adolescence, testing God and being tested, often acting wild and unruly, but even so living close to God, because they lived life on the edge and in total dependence on God. Then God delivered them into the Promised Land, and in the Book of Joshua the Jordan river is miraculously parted so that the whole people can cross into the promised land. So the Jordan River bookends the story of Israel’s formation as a people. Deliverance comes by crossing the Red Sea; fulfillment and maturity come by crossing the Jordan River. We might see by analogy baptism as our liberation from life without God, and confirmation as the completion of our journey to become God’s people.
Now, 1200 years later, John is calling the people back to the Jordan. He is calling them to come away from Jerusalem, which had once been the symbol for the perfect accord between God and Israel, where the Dividic King and the Temple marked the holy center of the world. But in John’s day, Jerusalem had become a byword for corruption, division, and collaboration with Rome. So when the people leave Jerusalem and seek John in repentance—remember that repentance means turning from the wrong way and turning to God’s way—and wade halfway across the Jordan river to meet Wilderness John and are submerged in that water, it is like they are recreating the people Israel all over again. Baptism is a do-over, a reset of Israel, for each individual who goes through it. (And the symbolism even goes back to creation; remember creation in Genesis 1 emerges by separating the land from the water. So coming out of the water is like a do-over of creation too.)
This symbolism, which we have lost touch with or forgotten, is important to recall, because baptism came to be associated exclusively with forgiveness of sins. It was also this for John the Baptist, but we miss the added layers of symbolism that speak to re-creating Israel as a people. Gradually baptism applied normally to infants rather than adults. And then the Christian tradition came to equate baptism with the removal of Original Sin, that sinfulness into which every human being is born. (Now, most of us have no time for the idea that babies are born sinful anyway. I think the idea can be insightful if drastically reinterpreted, but that’s for another day.) So the idea is you wash the birth sin off the baby, and now you only have to worry about whatever sin that baby will commit on her own. All of that business makes for a very shallow, legalistic, and individualistic idea of baptism. And then we can’t possibly make sense of why Jesus was baptized. Was Jesus a sinner? Was he born with original sin? (And so you need the complicated Catholic solution: no, because Mary was miraculously conceived immaculately, without original sin, so she didn’t pass it on to Jesus.) Even the Bible’s own accounts of Jesus’ baptism seem to be at pains to justify why he was baptized. You will notice that in John’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, Jesus is not baptized by John. Apparently the gospel writer didn’t think that that detail fit into the story.
But if we remember that baptism is a re-creation of Israel, person by person, then Jesus’ baptism makes perfect sense. We don’t have to imagine that young Jesus was a sinner; but neither was he really doing the work of the Christ until that baptism. For 30 or so years he apparently did nothing out of the ordinary, because there are not stories about his youth. So baptism didn’t cleanse him from sin, but it did mark the transition from ordinary life to extraordinary life. From baptism on, he no longer lives for himself. He lives for God, and living for God, he lives the unique vocation of Messiah and savior for all of humanity. And either right away, or soon enough, he realizes that he is living this vocation unto death. So Jesus is being baptized into his death, to become the new bringer of life for all of humanity. He is the New Israel in person, but this new Israel transcends all boundaries of tribe, nation, and race.
So when we are baptized into him, as Paul puts it, we are baptized into the New Israel in Jesus. Within that New Community, we receive forgiveness, of course, but not in a what’s-in-it-for-me kind of way. For we also practice forgiveness as our new way of life. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for God as God’s own people, and because we live for God, we live for each other and love each other. That’s what it looks like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. We may have been citizens and Granbyites before, but now we are one family before God, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, Son of God.
You may have thought you were being baptized just to join another organization, or maybe the traditional among you thought you were being washed clean of original sin. No. You are being united with Jesus, to become the one body of Christ that assembles here but also exists throughout all lands and all times. /
Now, is that really who you are, who we are? Is this the reality that you see before you? Is that even what you are hoping to be and to become when you come to church? Do you come here to live no longer for yourselves, but to be God’s own people, living for each other and united in a love that spills out our doors and into the streets? It wouldn’t surprise me if you did not come here for that. Maybe you have another really good idea about what you come here for; if so, I ask you to share it with me. But to paraphrase John in the other gospels, “Who told you to come here to be baptized into Christ?” What advertising campaign has appealed to you: “What you need is a community where you can live for one another, and for God.” What political speech, Democrat or Republican, has told you to live for one another, let alone for God? What movie or TV show has dramatically depicted such a life? (Call the Midwife is pretty good, actually.) As much as we all say, in the abstract, that we want community, no one but God is telling you to seek the total community in Christ. So it’s easy enough for us to forget that this is why we are here, because we get a lot of other messages about other things we should seek.
Besides forgetting what we are really here for, it is incredibly daunting to realize that you are here to be the people of God, no longer living for ourselves but living for God and for each other. Are you doing that? I’m not doing that, most of the time, and I’m the minister, for Christ’s sake! (I was about to apologize for my language, but I really am a minister for Christ’s sake.) Our constant failure to live up to the ideal of Christ is why we need baptism as our sign. If God didn’t leave us a very clear and tangible way to identify that we have already become God’s own people, we would hardly believe we were that. Looking at ourselves, at our meager accomplishments and many faults, would not bring us much assurance. We’re hardly succeeding at living for each other in the fullest sense. (Sometimes we can barely stand each other!) / But God is gracious, he declares us his people even when we are newborns, and then gives us the rest of our lives to live into it, with lots of room for erring and wandering along the way. And by acknowledging God’s grace and holiness in worship, we can preserve the purity of that ideal of life in Christ and bear witness to it even as we fail to live up to it in practice./
If we, me included, have trouble remembering and believing what it is that God has called us to and baptized us into, then it has got to be the job of one of us to preserve that holy calling, to remind us what we really are. Sometimes that falls to one of you, leading by good example or heartfelt prayer at a meeting. But mostly, I think it’s my job, me, the ironic prophet. It’s not a fun job. I get to be John. (I am the one who does the baptizing around here, after all.) We have our glimmers of being the New Israel, but then there are the times when someone needs to call us out from the wilderness, saying “Leave behind your old corrupt Jerusalem, leave your defunct divine rule over this town, leave your cold temple, and come wade into the waters of your impetuous youth, when you lived on the edge with God.”
So let me be your John. (Excluding the double entendre.) And if, in our confusion and forgetfulness about our real identity, you ask me who I am and why I am baptizing, I will answer like John. I am not the messiah. Not Elijah, nor am I a prophet. But I will quote the reliable prophets of old, I will remind you of their cries: “Make straight the way of the Lord!” (Which is to say, let God come in here.) And I will answer you: “I baptize with water,” it’s just water, nothing magical. But “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” I am not even worthy to remove the shoes of this one among you. “He ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”
That’s you, actually. You, as a body, are Jesus, whenever you live into your baptism, loving God and living for one another and the world that God loves. May we all see the Spirit descend from the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and remain on us.