Luke 3: 1-6; 15-16 (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
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.
I was paging through a fashion magazine a couple days ago when a news blurb caught my attention. Apparently, some researchers at a major university recently finished a study that found that taking a hot shower or bath can actually alleviate feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. I chuckled at the news, not because it surprised me, but because it's one of those things Christians have been saying for a long time. Ever since a man called John the Baptist came bounding out of the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We recognize that something mysterious and beautiful happens when water touches the skin of a believer in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Dispelling feelings of guilt is just the start of it. A completely new person emerges from the waters of baptism. Her identity is settled once and for all: she is a child of God. Beloved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and saturated with the Holy Spirit. All this, and the only ingredients are faith, grace, and a whole lot of water.
Anne Lamott writes that "Christianity is about water. 'Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.' It's about baptism… It's about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rains and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving into all those things we can't control: it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."
Nearly every season of Advent that I can remember has included an appearance by John the Baptist. No matter how intentionally a congregation observes the Advent themes of waiting and preparation, the man who came to prepare the way for our Lord is startling. He seems out of place. His strange face certainly wouldn't make for a good Christmas card picture; it would look more like a mug shot than a cheerful holiday greeting. And yet he's the one who reminds us, year after year, that the child we celebrate is the one who saves us. He reminds us to get ready, challenges us to change, and dares us to get wet.
So a lot of churches, a lot of Christians, struggle to greet John the Baptist. He represents everything about Advent that is different from Christmas. There is a comic strip drawn by a Lutheran pastor—one that I've included in your worship bulletins a few times. In this week's edition, one of the main characters is showing off how well he is preparing the way of the Lord: his tree is up, his cards are in the mail, and he got all of his twinkling lights to work. His friend reminds him of a different kind of Advent preparation: the kind that starts with baptism. The first fellow looks forlorn. He has lights strung around his neck and reindeer antlers hanging from his Santa hat, and says, "I don't think this stuff is supposed to get wet."
We are going to remember and witness the sacrament of baptism today, and nothing could prepare our hearts more thoroughly to receive the Christ child than this. A whole lot of water is involved, and not just for Codyanne and me. Each of you will be invited to come forward and dip your hand in water drawn from the baptistery in memory of your own baptism experience. When we receive the sacrament of Communion, we take and eat a tangible reminder of God's grace. And so it is with baptism. The Holy Spirit will work through the ordinary stuff of water with a mysterious and transforming power. Once a Christian has been reborn into the heart of God, their lives are not the same as they were before. Will you feel holier? Maybe. But probably not. In the movie Tender Mercies, the rough and tough Mack is baptized as an adult. "After his baptismal service, he is driving home in his truck and his girlfriend's son asks him, "Do you feel any different now?" And Mack smiles and says, "Not yet."
And then there's the baptismal story of the highly-respected Methodist bishop, William Willimon. He doesn't literally remember his baptism. Like most Methodists, he was baptized as a baby. What's more, he wasn't even baptized in a church sanctuary, but in his family's living after Sunday Supper. He writes about how his baptism was entirely passive, that he didn't do anything but receive the gift. And yet he testifies that he was no longer just the newest member of his family; he was the newest member of God's great family, the church. He was a gift of God, and heaven was mixed up in who he was. Bishop Willimon acknowledges that his baptism could easily be criticized. After all, baptism is a sacrament of the whole church, not a private family affair. Folks like us Disciples might shake our heads and say he shouldn't have received the watery blessing until he was old enough to make a decision, and that a mere sprinkling doesn't quite get the point across.
To all that, Bishop Willimon says, "You at least must admit that my baptism worked."
I can't tell you how it works. I only trust that it does; in the moment the water rushes from your face and in every living moment that follows. God will meet Codyanne in that water, and will be utterly delighted that she has decided to respond to his call on her life. If you've ever wondered what it's like to receive an enthusiastic bear hug from God, I have a feeling it's something like getting baptized by immersion. Well, assuming the water heater is working.
In baptism, God freely gives us gifts of grace, forgiveness, love, identity, and wholeness. We cannot earn the salvation we are given through our baptism into the Body of Christ. All we can do is respond by obeying the commands that go along with it. They are few, but just as the waters of baptism continue to act within us long after our hair is dry, these commands are ours to live into, each and every day. Repent, and follow.
Repent. Turn away from the things that keep you turned away from the face of God. Turn away from sin. We Disciples aren't always so good at talking about sin; that doesn't make it any less a factor in our lives. The plain truth of the matter is this: human beings sin. We like to tell ourselves that only things like lying and cheating are sins in God's eyes, and that we're okay. But any time we fail to love, any time we put our own desires above the needs of our neighbors or the will of God, we sin. Eugene Peterson, the fellow who translated the Message Bible, believes that sin is so pervasive in our lives that when we repent we should just quit whatever it is we're doing—"no matter how hard we're trying, no matter how well-intentioned"— because it's probably wrong. He compares repentance to saying a "loud, authoritative, non-negotiable "no." No to shame and selfishness and fear. No to sin and death and confusion. No to a life lived without God at the center.
If repentance is a resounding no, then "'follow' is the yes of baptized life." Follow Jesus. Pay attention to what he did and said in the gospels. If he tells you to love your neighbor, obey. If he shows you how to be compassionate, conform. Accept him as your Lord and love him as your brother. Expect him to challenge you and comfort you. If you find that you are neither challenged nor comforted by Jesus, you probably stopped paying attention. There is always more time to repent and follow again.
Repentance and discipleship. Turning and following. This is the life we sign up for when we agree to be immersed into Christ. This is who we are and what we do, and it all begins with baptism.
Whether you encounter the living water again or for the first time today, may the parched places of your souls be refreshed. May you be unafraid to surrender to God's love, even if it means getting wet. And may you respond to this holy mystery with great joy and deep peace. Amen.