Epiphany I/Baptism of our Lord
This summer something extraordinary happened here. Men in hi-vis work clothes waded in the creek, they drove huge machinery that clawed at the earth. Enormous white bags, called super sacks, were laid down forming a snake shape colossal enough to show up in your worst nightmares. Diversion piping was laid along our village main street, which this summer, answered to the call of 8201 – referencing the forest service number given to the road. And the dewatering process began of moving water from one river bed to another and work crews plotted along following the orders from engineers and the forest service and early this autumn Railroad Creek was re-routed into a new creek bed.
Words such as realignment, diversion and dewatering became commonplace around here. Yet there is nothing commonplace about even considering moving a part of nature and giving it a new path and home. Yet that is exactly what took place, human beings came into the valley and fulfilled their extraordinary promise to realign Railroad creek.
The extraordinary act was a part of the clean-up of Railroad Valley, the creek was physically moved away from the tailing pails which were polluting the creek water and making the area toxic for the wildlife that found themselves in the orange-tinted waters.
The move was not without sacrifice or risk, these elements are always in play when humans try to control creation. Yet we pray the good intentions outweigh the peril and that the future of this valley is worth the upheaval.
Classic-view of baptism: we get realigned
I wonder if the men who spent their summer knee high in Railroad creek ever thought more broadly about the task placed in front of them. I met many an introspective construction worker, many with faith lives that were integral to their living and their work. Did they ever consider the madness of their toying with creation? Did they remember their own baptisms that maybe took place in a church or a river, or did they know they were standing in baptismal water as many villagers over the years, have been splashed with Railroad creek?
The work done to the creek this past construction season seems a fitting representation for a classic understanding of baptism. We could think of the one preparing for baptism as the creek itself, rushing down the mountain, unable to deviate as it approaches the tailings piles. After rolling by the looming orange hills the river now carries pollutants of the tailings and it continues on its way. In this strange metaphor we cast the tailings piles as sin – as so much like the sin of our lives, the tailings piles are beautiful to look at, dangerous yet fascinating. The labor intensive work of realignment of the creek is the work of faith, sometimes done by the one being baptized, but in the Lutheran tradition is more often done by the parents of the baptized. Those preparing for baptism engage in their faith by digging into the earth to discover a treasure of faith by making a commitment to the community and to God. In this theological view of baptism, the realignment of the creek is a purification process, likes its Jewish counterpart meant to cleanse from sin and make one right with God.
This is a common Christian understanding of baptism, it is a movement away from what would be harmful and deadly to the person and the baptized is now joined to the life of Jesus through the baptismal waters. Set in the way of the life, the baptized is gifted with the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life of life, not death, cleanliness not pollutants. As the creek is realigned so it may flow powerfully and purely so others may know of its life and gift and follow where it flows, so is the baptized now sent to live in faith and shining a light so others may know of its life and gift and follow in love.
Now, this is a lot of talk about a sacrament that is holy and beloved by many people gathered tonight…but not all people. So, I would like to pause for a moment to simply name the reality that we all approach this sacred passage of faith very differently and some do not approach the sacrament at all. There was an era in the church where a preacher could stand up front and preach a sermon on the deep meaning of baptism and assume that most everyone out there was baptized, in fact baptism is still used as a proof of faith and commitment that a member may need to vote, serve in leadership or receive in communion in some churches. This is not the case here at Holden, we gather for worship daily – yet we gather with all the different shades on the spectrum of faith and belief.
There are some here tonight who were brought involuntarily to the sacrament of baptism and raised in a tradition that holds baptism as a sacrament – meaning the combination of God’s scriptural promise and physical elements; like promise and water or promise and bread and wine.
Others here have freely chosen baptism in their adulthood or in a coming of age ritual. Perhaps who have been asked to stand up for another’s baptism and been surprised at the promises you’ve been asked to make as a godparent. Or perhaps you are have no claim in this faith and feel indifference to all the sacramental fuss. No matter where you are on this spectrum, this scripture and this water is before us all.
I imagine that we, in all our diversity, are not so unlike the rag-tag bunch gathered with John the Baptist at the Jordan river that day so long ago. Some came to watch the nutso preacher man splash around, some came seeking the acceptance that was offered there, some religious folks came to see if this new movement could be in line with the faith they had been raised in and others certianly came looking for a new beginning to their lives. Some came to see what God was doing in the water with the Hebrew bible ringing in their ears. And then Jesus came, humbly and earnestly joining himself with every person gathered on the river’s shores.
The unifying experience of that entire gathering was God’s message spoken from the heavens, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Every person that day heard of God’s love and presence in a most unexpected place.
New-sight: Jesus is realigning with those on outside and on the edge
This scene is the first story in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke where Jesus is an adult and already there is conflict and controversy. John stops this embarrassing gesture by humbling himself and pointing out the ridiculousness – because if Jesus is truly God, if Jesus is fully Divine there is no need for his baptism. He has no sin to wash away, no wrong to purify no need for realignment for Jesus, who is the pure flowing water of life!
So, what is going on here? Why is the Savior of the people, the innocent Christ Child now grown, asking to step into the moving water and have words of forgiveness, election and love spoken over him? What is being unearth? What here, in this scene at the Jordan, needs realigning?
The realignment is God realigning with us through Jesus. The mercy of this baptismal story began before the river baptism, it began as Jesus left the temple, the center of religious life and went out into the woods to catch up with the loony preacher down by the creek. Jesus went after the people who were seeking God, who confessed their sins and were washed in the water. Jesus aligned himself with these people by following suit and in doing so aligned all people with the love of God.
The baptismal story is a continuation of the Christmas event; the incarnation of God in a human body is still the center of this story. That Divinity is not satisfied to remain apart from the beloved creation, but rather God stoops down in the life of Jesus and Jesus begins this life of ministry and being with broken and outcast people, like you would likely find at any river front, and living in solidarity with them. And there, at the river, the Word of God is found in water. This is the same dynamic duo we faithfully wait for in every baptism – God’s Word and water, and its origin is found in this story with the Word incarnate stepping into the Jordan River.
Let us consider, once again, the metaphor of the realigned creek. Originally humanity was the creek, needing a new path in order to be purified – one view of the power of baptismal waters. However, through the lens of tonight’s story we could imagine that God is creating a brand new creek bed, like the work crews from Magnus Pacific Construction, unearthing the old ways and laying down a new path of life. Jesus is the water which flows throughout the new creek bed, fulfilling what God has laid out, brimming and bubbling with the promise of life and new hope. And we, brothers and sisters, we are the happy wildlife who flow in this new creek – given a safe place to live and flourish, offered nourishment and protection, freedom to play and explore. And in this new creek bed, throughout the powerful waters we are given a home where we too are named, chosen and beloved by the One who makes new pathways and by the One who realigned God to all creation.
Realignment that is generated through Jesus’ baptism is for all people – no matter their experience or indifference to the mysterious and formative sacrament. God’s word is spoken over every person at the river Jordan, and every person standing at Railroad Creek’s shore…”This is my child, my beloved, with this child I am well pleased”
This is grace, this is love, this is the promise that moves across the waters. Thanks be to our re-creating and ever flowing God. Amen.