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A Tale of Two Baptisms

A Tale of Two Baptisms
December 10, 2017
Passage: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 ,2Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
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Hey! I am sending my messenger to prepare a path for you in the wilderness. My messenger will cry out: Prepare the way of the Lord; make the roads straight, so that all may see this Messiah, my Son.
The messenger was John, dressed like an old-fashioned desert prophet, eating food you’d find in the desert: grasshoppers and agave nectar. He came out of nowhere into the middle of nowhere shouting to anyone who would listen: “I will plunge you into this cold, muddy river to mark your repentance and God’s forgiveness.” People heard him, and people came. They left their homes in the countryside and in the city and came to the River Jordan. It was at least a day’s journey from just about anywhere; they probably camped along the river, where their ancestors had camped before them. They would have repented, not as you or I might repent, one by one in our private prayers, but as a community longing for peace in a time of war and strife, longing to be reconciled to the God who led their ancestors out of Egypt through the desert, into the land of promise, the land where they still waited for God’s promises to come true. They repented together as a community looking for God in the wilderness where the Holy One is so often found.
What would compel you to go out to the desert to see someone dressed like Elijah, calling for repentance? What would you cancel or reschedule or leave behind? For whom would you take off a day from work and leave the comfort of your neighborhood to travel to—I don’t know, Tacoma, Olympia, Wenatchee, even—to have your sins forgiven at the hand of God’s messenger in a cold, fast-moving stream?
Once we got there, of what would we repent? From what would we long to turn away, as a people? We might turn away from apathy or inaction, or from our inordinate attachment to worldly goods. We might repent of fear or anger. We might turn our backs on our own selfsatisfaction, or frustration, or lack of self-acceptance. We might repent of the delusion that not much we say or do matters.
So let’s say we do that, and we’re huddled around afterwards, wrapped in fleece blankets, drinking hot chocolate or something stronger. We’re feeling good about what we’ve done, because we all know that a heartfelt request for forgiveness, coupled with newfound resolve…it’s a good feeling. Then this John, the oddball messenger, says: “Actually….This isn’t the be-all and end-all, you know. This isn’t it. Someone is coming after me who makes me look like just another prophet.”
“This guy,” John continues, “This guy who is coming has a kind of strength and power I will never have. I have washed you with water, but this other guy will wash you with the Holy Spirit.” So, two baptisms. One water baptism from John; the other a Holy Spirit baptism from the More Powerful One who, to our knowledge, never actually baptized anyone with water. So what is this baptism with the Holy Spirit?
One of my brilliant colleagues put it most succinctly: John’s baptism signifies the restoration of a community; Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit signifies the creation of a new community.
The verb used in this passage, baptizon, prior to its New Testament usage was not translated as it so often is, as “to wash,” but rather, to dip, plunge, or immerse, as in dipping a bucket into a well, or sinking a ship, or plunging a knife. As we consider baptism with the Holy Spirit, imagine being immersed in the Spirit, plunged into communion with that same Spirit.
If John’s baptism with water is a baptism of repentance, of changing our ways in a particular time and place, the baptism of the Holy Spirit brings us into a new relationship with God, always and everywhere.
By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus transforms the nature of baptism. It is no longer something we do to signify a change of heart. It can be, but it is more than that. Baptism with the Holy Spirit is baptism into the whole story, the story that begins with creation, continues through the desert—including the wilderness places of our own lives—and continues with God’s call and our response of I will, with God’s help. We are baptized into the story of our own vocation to express god’s work of reconciliation in the work of our own lives.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not a baptism of cleansing but a baptism of preparation, preparation to go out into the world as witnesses to God’s presence and God’s plans. This is not always easy. That’s why we say “I will, with God’s help.” Think of baptism as immersion into a protective coating of sorts, a suit of armor that protects and strengthens. The armor of light, which we heard about in last week’s collect, or the whole armor of God, which we read about in Ephesians. In baptism we are commissioned— sent—to pray, resist, seek, serve, repent, and protect. It is no simply thing to move through the world, Seattle in 2017 or anywhere, any time, as member of God’s new community. You know this, you work at this every day. Being a Jesus-following barista, anesthesiologist, realtor, grandmother, engineer, dancer, programmer, graduate student, financial adviser, painter or poet is not for sissies. Baptism with the Spirit enlists us as soldiers in God’s peacemaking, hope-bearing, mercy-loving, justice-doing, reconciling army. Baptism with the Spirit is not for the faint of heart.
As we anticipate the coming of the One who is more powerful than John, let us rejoice in the call of our baptism. We have been plunged into the Holy Spirit so that we might be plunged into the world as a new community, heralds of God’s kingdom.