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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
January 7, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The thing about the baptism of Jesus is that it’s an unusual baptism. Today is the day that we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the life of the church; we hop right from Christmas and Epiphany to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, frankly, because the Gospels don’t give us a lot of material in-between. And the thing about the baptism of Jesus is that it sounds like the sort of thing that we celebrate because it’s Jesus, like, look, any major milestone in Jesus’s life is going to get its own Sunday. We have plenty, and there’s still tons of Ordinary Time left, and if you find part of a sacred text that talks about Jesus’s graduation from High School, even if it was the most basic and ordinary high school graduation of all time, I’m sure we’ll figure out how to fit in Pomp and Circumstance Sunday of whatever it needs to be. What I’m saying is if Jesus is involved, we’re going to schedule some time.
That being said. The thing about the baptism of Jesus is that we’re not just talking about it because it’s Jesus. We’re talking about it because it’s an unusual baptism, in and of itself. John the Baptist has been baptizing folks in the River Jordan far longer than the memory of the Gospel of Mark, he’s become a mainstay of Jerusalem enthusiasts, he’s noteworthy enough that eventually he’ll attract the attention of the palace itself, which means he’s baptized a whole lot of folks. And yes, he’s preached a few sermons, and yes, he’s launched a few jeremiads, but mostly he’s been dunking folks in the River Jordan for as long as he can remember, and the folks have been watching him dunk folks in the River Jordan for as long as they can remember, but nobody had ever seen a baptism quite like this. A baptism of the Holy Spirit.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Which was very much the fashion, I mean, as we said, this was just a thing you did in Jerusalem on a Sunday afternoon. And I bet he stood in line. And he stood in line, and he watched pilgrim after pilgrim after pilgrim dunk into the water, come out, shake it off a bit, maybe give John a hug, maybe say a prayer, and come out. And then Jesus gets in the water, and everybody in the line behind him is expecting just exactly the same thing they’ve seen a hundred times. But just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Which was not a previously standard part of the baptism package. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. By definition, there was nothing like it they ever could have seen. It was an unusual baptism. A baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Now, imagine you are the person behind Jesus in line. This is the sermon. Imagine you are the person behind Jesus in line: which baptism would you choose? You have the old model. Repent of your sins, into the water and out, shake it off, on with your day. Go and tell your friends, hey, I got baptized, and they say, “Well, that took you a while.” Or, you become an early adopter. Baptism 2.0, with all the bells and whistles, the heavens torn apart, the Spirit like a dove. It’s a remarkable show, but the cost has also gone up. You can’t go straight home. Jesus gets baptized and immediately, Mark tells, us, immediately the Spirit sends him off to the wilderness to be tempted. The Spirit. The same one. So you’re standing in line behind Jesus and this whole psychedelic show has gone on and the voice of God has shown up and the he gets run off out into the desert and maybe that’s not for you after all. Waiter, change my order. I don’t need the special after all. Just give me a number 1.
We don’t think enough about what it means to be baptized not just by water, but by the Holy Spirit. It is an unusual baptism with unusual effects. Jesus gets run out into the wilderness, and not too long after, he’s going toe-to-toe with demons and evil spirits. That also is not part of the normal package. It’s distinctive enough that in our other reading for the morning, Paul shows up in Ephesus and immediately he can tell that this church has got their baptism all wrong. We don’t know exactly what he smells but he smells something, first step in the door — and now, admittedly, the text says that Apollos was out of town and Paul and Apollos have a long history of not agreeing with one another and so Paul might just be showing up to check on his rival’s work but something smells off. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” he asks, I think the same way you ask “Are you sure you used baking powder in these cookies?” like something’s not right.
Sure enough. They haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit. So what were you baptized with? Paul says, because by now that old #1 baptism is so out of date that nobody even remembers it anymore, it’s the 8-track of baptisms and some of you don’t get that joke and that’s the point. And they say, sure enough we were baptized into John’s baptism but this is not sufficient. You gotta get the upgrade, Paul says. John’s baptism is just about repentance, John himself was “telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” John told you to get the upgrade, and you didn’t get the upgrade. But now everybody wants the upgrade. So Paul baptizes them a second time, and the Holy Spirit shows up, right on cue, and once again, strange things happen: this time, they’re speaking in tongues, they’re prophesying, much like the exact results of the Holy Spirit when it came down at Pentecost.
That’s the thing about this upgrade. That’s the thing about this Holy-Spirit-baptism. Strange things happen. Jesus gets sent into the wilderness. Jesus goes toe-to-toe with some evil spirits. The apostles start speaking in tongues. Elsewhere in Acts, the Holy Spirit gives them all kinds of supernatural powers, they’re healing, earthquakes show up, they’re even raising from the dead. It is not to be underestimated. It does something, this Holy Spirit baptism. It empowers these apostles to do things they never thought they could do. It sends them into places they never thought they could go. It gathers them with people they never thought they could encounter. It is an unusual baptism. It has power.
In natural science there is a phenomenon called the Leidenfrost Effect. What it describes is a quality of liquid, generally water, in which, when the water is in significant contact with something much hotter than its boiling point, the water actually produces a small layer of vapor that ends up insulating the water from the boiling surface. So, if you heat a pan up hotter than the boiling point of water and then pour a bit of water in, the water will skitter along the surface because of this vapor — and because of the insulation that this vapor provides, it will actually take longer to boil than it would if the pan were cooler. But the Leidenfrost effect also gives us the chance to film a number of dumb YouTube videos, most notably, that you can, if you so choose, dip your hand in a bucket of cold water, and then dip your hand in a bucket of molten steel, and at least for a few moments, it will be just fine. The water will create this layer of vapor between it and the steel, and your hand will be perfectly well-insulated. Because of water. Water, and something like the Holy Spirit. You can walk through fire and not be burned. It just takes courage.
No wonder Paul walks into this church and notices something off. He’s been through the fire enough times by now to know what it’s supposed to smell like. He’s been with the Holy Spirit enough times by now to know what it’s supposed to feel like, like that vapor just running around the surface of your skin. He knows what real church is supposed to be like. Holy Spirit Church.
Holy Spirit church that doesn’t mind the wilderness. Holy Spirit church that doesn’t mind the demons. Holy Spirit church that doesn’t mind the fire. Holy Spirit church runs into the world with courage, the courage of the baptized, the courage of the Holy-Spirit-baptized, the courage of the church of Jesus Christ who came up out of the water and went toe-to-toe with the demons. It’s a lot to ask. That’s why I empathize with the guy behind Jesus in line. It would be easier just to repent and go home. But that’s not the calling. The fire is raging. The water is here. And the Ephesians are waiting. Are you sure you used the Holy Spirit in this baptism?
And the answer is, yes, of course, I am sure that we have used the Holy Spirit in this baptism, in the baptism of all who gather here by the font, in the baptism of all who come to this place seeking the living Lord. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we say, every time. That’s the thing about this day, about this Baptism of Jesus Sunday — it changes baptism. It raises the stakes. It says, now you can walk through fire, but when the fire comes, I expect something. It raises the stakes. It says, now, you can navigate the wilderness, but when the wilderness comes, I expect something. It says, now, you can go toe-to-toe with the demons themselves. But when the time comes, I expect something. At every Ordination service I have ever been to, someone giving the charge or someone giving the sermon has used some version of this old chestnut, that your baptism is sufficient to your calling. It is meant, surely, for those moments of self-doubt, for those moments when confidence wanes, those moments when any of us think “I don’t know whether I’m cut out for what this day brings.” But with the Holy Spirit comes courage, and, with courage, also, responsibility. Remember that your baptism is sufficient to your calling. And remember to lead lives sufficient to your baptism.
In just a few moments we will gather at the table for the celebration of communion, the first communion here in this place in this new year. Though we rarely mention it, it is common practice here at UPC for many of you to approach the table and then, as you come past the font, to dip your hand in the water. It is a remembrance, a remembrance of baptism, a remembrance of the one who has claimed us in the waters, a remembrance of the one who feeds us and sustains and was broken for us even at this table, a remembrance of the baptism of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit baptism, in which we are all baptized. I hope you will do this today, come forward, let you hand linger through the water, take the bread, take the cup, remember who you are and whose you are. And I hope you will let the water linger. I hope you will let it roll around the surface of your skin. I hope you will feel it coat you with the cool running flow of the Holy Spirit. I hope you will walk through these doors into this world full of fire and into this year full of wilderness and into this creation full of demons and I hope you will feel the remembrance of baptism in every pore of your being. May we all remember our baptisms, in the days and weeks ahead, and if we forget, may the water remind us. Amen.