Grounding in the Spirit

Luke 3:15-16,21-22

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.”

This passage we just read from Luke appears in the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark as well – presenting almost the same picture of the people wondering if John the Baptist might be the Messiah, of John’s prophecy that one was coming more powerful than he, of Jesus’ baptism, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. However, the story as it’s told in Luke, is a little different, especially, in the verses leading up to today’s gospel reading. If you read Matthew and Mark, you might be led to the conclusion that John the Baptizers appeal, his charisma, was based on his striking appearance – the fashion statement he made when emerging from the wilderness with his camel hair cloak and course grained leather belt, munching on locust and wild honey. But in Luke, there is described a conversation between John the Baptist and the crowd to whom he was preaching. After John calls his gathered listeners a “brood of vipers”, and manages to get away with it, (something I’m not sure a newly ordained Episcopal priest could pull off) the people ask, “What then should we do?” John tells them that if they have two coats they should share with anyone who has none. And that if they have more food than they need, they need to give the rest away. Tax collectors ask what they should do and John tells them not to collect more taxes than the law requires. Soldiers ask what they should do and he tells them to not to extort money from others. This is sound advice. And it is advice not so different than we hear Jesus offer in his teachings and preaching throughout his ministry. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”. Or “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The social messages of Jesus and his precursor John the Baptist were much the same. But something was different – a difference that enabled John to recognize that he was “not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.”

John the Baptist’s expression of humility reminds me of the story told among Hassidic Jews of a visitor to the famed Dov Baer of Mezritch, a Ukranian rabbi known as the “Great Preacher”. The visitor proclaimed, “I didn’t travel to Mezritch to hear him teach, but to see how he tied his shoelaces.”

This same Dov Baer of Mezritch teaches that there is a place, an order of being, called Ayin. He describes a nothingness, through which anyone must pass before they can become something new. For a split second you are no longer what you were before and not yet what you would become. Rabbi Baer says that, “This is a place of great terror. When you enter the Nothingness, there can be no guarantees. All bets are off. You could become anything – or remain nothing, forever. Such a place contains both a sea and its opposite. Sea and dry ground. Life and death. Good and evil. Slavery and freedom.”

The story of the parting of the Red Sea wasn’t included in the Old Testament readings for this Sunday, but I think it should be. The parting of waters for the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land seems too ripe with liquid imagery not be coupled with a gospel reading about baptism and new birth.

In Exodus it is described how the Israelites followed Moses and his God only to wind up between the approaching Egyptian chariots and the abyss of the Red Sea. There is no turning back, no moving forward.

A contemporary Rabbi, Laurence Kushner writes,”You want to know what happened at the sea? I’ll tell you. The waters didn’t literally split. The people all walked into the sea and drowned. Then they all walked up onto the opposite shore, reborn into free men and women. Into the Ayin….”

I’m suggesting that you think of Jesus’ baptism, and of your own, in this same way. Jesus’ baptism involved an anointing of the Holy Spirit and so did yours. But it was also a passage across a stormy sea, a dangerous passage involving death and rebirth. This anointing of the spirit equips and empowered Jesus for his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. This anointing of Jesus, with a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s son, came at the beginning of his real work on earth. Just as our anointing in baptism “as Christ’s own” equips us for the ministry that lies ahead. It is a mystical moment, but a moment of grounding as well.

As many of you know, I was ordained to the priesthood just over a month ago. Some of you were there. It was one of those times when the presence of the Holy Spirit was palatable. There is a moment in the ordination service when all clergy present are asked to come forward and place their hands on the ordinand. The ritual is part of the tradition of apostolic succession – the notion that there is a continual link between St. Peter and all the priests that have succeeded him. In my naiveté, before the ordination, I thought this laying on of hands sounded like a nice idea, a beautiful gesture, a ceremonial linking together of my brother and sister priests. How foolish I was. Let me clue you in on a secret that I don’t think this sacred order of priests would mind me disclosing: They don’t simply lay on their hands. At the consecration, while I knelt in front of Bishop Maze and listened to him say, “Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ you Son, give your Holy Spirit to Roger…” at that moment I became aware of the heaviness of the hands pressing, pressing down hard on my head and shoulders. It was as if, at that brief moment, I was bearing the heaviness of 2000 years of Christianity. The hands of generation upon generation of priests – making me a priest. My breath, quite literally, went out of my body. And all those hands, pushing down, grounded me – pushed me toward the earth – the ground, the place where ministry happens.

I’m reminded of how Luke was careful to note that the Holy Spirit did not come upon the baptized until the full community was present, reporting in Acts that “Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

I wish that we had a baptism today. This is the First Sunday after Epiphany and in the tradition of the church it is one of the days deemed especially appropriate for Holy Baptism. On the first Sunday after Epiphany, you kind of want the Holy Spirit to show up. And a Baptism is an event in the Church where the Holy Spirit is scheduled to make an appearance. But that’s the trouble with the Holy Spirit, she doesn’t show up according to our schedule. And the message she brings isn’t always the one we want to hear.

But it also would have been nice to have had a baptism today, because I haven’t done one yet. I’ve married and buried, but not baptized. In our emerging congregation at All Saints’ Bentonville, we have babies waiting patiently to be baptized, and God willing, this Easter that will happen. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say that I haven’t presided at a baptism. I just haven’t baptized a baby in a church, and not a live baby. The last time I poured baptismal water over the head of child, she lay lifeless in my arms. As part of my seminary training, I worked for a time as a chaplain in a hospital in South Austin, Texas. It might surprise you to learn, as it did me, that a chaplain might be called on to baptize a dead baby. The theological foundation for such an act may be a little shaky. The pastoral justification, the response to human need, however, is quite clear. Young mothers who have lost their children in childbirth vitally need to connect with the lost child, to establish the child’s identity in their own hearts, to provide them with something tangible to grieve – to ground them in their grief. So it’s important for the mother and father to name the child, hold her, capture her footprint in ink, maybe even take pictures.

I was on call one evening when I was awakened from my sleep at 3 in the morning by a call from the maternity ward requesting my presence with a family whose child arrived stillborn. When I sleepily entered the hospital a half hour later, the charge nurse warned me, “This family is a tough one Roger.” Entering the room I found a large extended family, anxiously milling about the room, unsettled, uncertain what to do, no one speaking to anyone else – everyone with their backs to the wall. After talking with the very young parents, I learned that they had not yet looked at the child, but would indeed like to have their baby baptized. The attending nurse carefully swaddled the very premature and ill-formed body of the infant in a thin, pink hospital blanket. Despite the attentive cocoon wrapping of the child, when I held her in my hands I feared that her gelatin-like body might spill out of the blanket. Nonetheless, I poured holy water over her tiny head, we named her Katalina, and, with the chrism I marked her as one of Christ’s own – forever. Seeing that it was alright to hold the child, the reluctant mother took her in her arms and finally began to cry. After a time the entire family wept together and passed the lifeless body from one set of outstretched palms to another, and the child received another baptism, a baptism of tears from her parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And the room changed. The presence of this newly baptized creature – hardly even a baby – transformed a room of disconnected family members into a sacred place with a sense of the Holy Spirit breathing life, where before there had only been death.

As Jim Forest wrote in his book, New Life in Dry Bones, “There is no way to ‘use’ the Holy Spirit; that would be a dead formula. But when you are aware that the Holy Spirit really means that God is present and gives flesh and blood to God’s purpose in even the most desperate circumstance, then you are talking about something which you can see around you.”

This passage we read today from Luke is not just a text about baptism, it’s really about Christology – the nature of Christ. But it’s also about our own nature and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It’s about our awakening to the realization that out of death comes life, that if we are to be reborn as free men and free women, we might have to drown in the waters of the Red Sea, before we too can walk on dry land.

The First Sunday after Epiphany
Grace Episcopal Church
Siloam Springs

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