I grew up as a Presbyterian. But when I was a teenager, my family joined a baptist church in Arlington Va. It was partially my doing. I wanted to be involved in an active Christian community. I wanted to form relationships with other people of faith my age. And so I found a big, nurturing, and active youth group.
It wasn’t long before my family ended up part of that community. I looked for opportunities to express my faith in practice. And although I had been baptized as a baby, because most Presbyterians believe in infant baptism, I got baptized again. This time, it was a full immersion baptism, because that’s what Baptists do. It was a public profession of faith, and for me, it was indicative of my teenage commitment to Christian formation.
Water baptism is powerfully symbolic. In the gospel we just read, we hear that John’s baptism symbolizes the repentance of the people. It is an act of commitment to the coming Messiah.
But the water in the Jordan, the water that John uses, doesn’t really clean anything. And Anyone who has been in a big baptismal, like the one that 16 year old me was re-baptized in, can tell you that IN THAT water you’re more likely to get dirty than clean.
Jesus’ baptism is different, different from my rebaptism and different even from John’s kind of baptisms. Jesus’s baptism brings a real change.
As the angel told Mary, Immanuel, one of Jesus’s names, means God with us. God with us is the message of Christmas, and it is also the message that Mark leads with. God is with us, in strange and miraculous ways.
So it is in Jesus’ baptism, the Father’s voice and the Spirit descend. God is with us at Jesus’ baptism in plentiful fulness – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
If you’re looking at the image, the icon of Jesus’ baptism, that was included in your bulletin, you can see how the iconographer represents the presence of the triune God. Jesus stands in the Jordan, and immediately above him is a dove, which is the Spirit, and then something else is breaking forth from the sky. This is the voice of the father.
Immanuel. God is with us. God is present In Body, In Spirit, and in Power.
Who is this Spirit?
We read Genesis 1 today. God confronts the chaos, this nothingness that broods. And we are told a wind from God, which is another way of saying his Spirit, approaches this abyss, this nothingness.The spirit forges out into this abyss, almost like it’s surveying the chaos. And suddenly nothing becomes some thing, becomes God’s creation. The presence of God brings change. Real change. God with us.
This spirit alights on Jesus in his Baptism. and as John says, this Spirit marks the baptism of those who follow Jesus. The Spirit alights on us, like it did on Jesus. In baptism, we are drenched with this Spirit, with the creative, transforming, awesome power of this Spirit.
God is generous with his presence. He confronts nothingness and makes everything. He offers his presence to everyone. and he offers it voluminously. He will submerge us in it, it’s like being dunked in water.
And like Jesus, who is the presence of God in body, when we are baptized, we become God’s presence in the world.
Icons, like the one you have in your bulletin, show how important God’s presence is. The Spirit, the Spirit of the Father, brings the power and presence of the Father directly to Jesus.
If you look below Jesus, there in the water you’ll see small figures. They look like miniature men riding on aquatic creatures. They represent the gods of nature, gods that frightened the people, gods that supposedly created and controlled the powers of nature. Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan is the event where we first see his authority over nature and these powers.
Jesus’ baptism begins a ministry that will be difficult for him and his follows. He’ll preform miracles that people deny, he’ll demonstrate power over life and death, and some will argue that he comes from the devil, and he’ll teach wonderful things about Gods love, but many of those who listen will be stubborn. And his ministry will end in betrayal by his closest friends and an unjust trial. And then he’ll be executed.
But amidst all this struggle and disappointment, we see Jesus take refuge in the Spirit. He prays and teaches his disciples to pray. He teaches them that God is with us. He teaches them to rely on God’s presence and power in their own work.
And more than anything, Jesus relies on the love of his Father. In our Gospel, we hear the Father say “this is the one I love, this is the one that makes me happy.” Jesus relies on the Father’s love. because the Father’s love for the Son sends the Spirit. The Spirit which is the presence of the Father.
The Father’s Spirit gives Jesus a mission and power to carry out that mission.
Talk about Baptism often focuses on death to sin, or the new life that Christians experience because they have been cleansed from sin. And that is all correct. But here, in Mark, Jesus wants us to see that Baptism, his baptism, is first and foremost about receiving his Spirit, which is a Spirit of life and power and most of all Gods love. When we receive that baptism we become like Jesus the Father’s beloved. We receive the power to be the Father’s beloved. We receive that same Spirit. We are slowly but really being transformed to be like Christ. Like the nothingness before creation, we are really changed.
Rowan Williams once said that Christians are people who are trying to be Christ in the world. I think this is wonderful way of talking about the baptized. Baptism, the Church believes, marks the first step in a person transformation into being like Christ, a process that takes a lifetime, but begins in baptism.
That lifetime for a Christian is a lifetime of mission, Christ’s mission. Our presence in the world is Christ’s presence. Our mission in the world is Christ’s mission. We don’t always do this perfectly. It’s not always obvious that Christ’s followers are following him.
But despite how poorly we do, we are joined in our mission by the Spirit, who we receive in baptism. The spirit who brings real change and real love. We are empowered not by our own good intentions or abilities, but by God’s presence, the Spirit.
But, we also become something far more important than powerful. We become God’s beloved. We become like Christ.
the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism
St. John’s Parish Mt. Washington, Baltimore, Maryland