If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, January 9, 2012

Water Marks: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

*This sermon was preached on the Sunday after Epiphany, January 8, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

The oldest known baptistery, constructed around the year 232 AD, was uncovered alongside the Euphrates River at Dura-Europos, once a Roman outpost located in modern Syria. It is located within the home of an early wealthy Christian and is the oldest known building used as a Christian meeting place. It probably accommodated 50-70 worshippers. The baptistery is an open pool surrounded by images. Around the baptistery are frescoes of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and the earliest images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, healing of the paralytic, walking on the water with Peter, and three women at Christ’s tomb. We can see how visuals and art played a key role in the worship of the early church.

If you were one of those baptized in that ancient baptistery, as a catechumen you would have had to sit at the feet of an episcopos or overseer for three years of instruction and examination in preparation for becoming part of that house church. If your vocation was an actor, a government official, a gladiator, or a soldier you would have been immediately turned away from baptism. A clear and certain break from your pagan world was required. Many nights would have been spent before the golden glow of an oil lamp instructed in what it means to live as a Christian, as well as learning the basics like the Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's Creed. Your moral life would be thoroughly examined to see if you were truly breaking free from the surrounding pagan culture. At the weekly Sunday assemblies you would have been able to sit through the service of the Word, but excused when communion was about to be served.

When the day of your baptism approached, most often at sunrise on Easter Sunday, your stomach would probably be growling from fasting on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Your skin might be wrinkled from various washings and bathings. The darkening sky of Easter eve would have found you once again before the glow of lamps attending an all-night vigil of scripture reading and instruction. The first rays of sun on Easter morning would have warmed you as you walked through the colonnaded courtyard of the Roman home and entered the room where the baptistery was located.

As the cock crows, there you are in the room set aside for baptism. Your eyes fall upon the sparkling baptismal waters with an image of Christ, the Good Shepherd watching over you from above and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden reminding you of your own sins and brokenness. The episcopos intones a blessing over the clear, rippling water. The aroma of sweet smelling oils floats through the room. You are invited to disrobe, to shed the garments of your old life like a snake sheds its skin. Then, you renounce Satan and his evil works as the wet sign of the cross is drawn on your forehead with warm, fragrant oil.

The cool water splashes and gurgles as you step into the baptismal pool. The leader asks you three questions of faith based upon the Apostles Creed. You respond to each saying, "I believe." With each response you are dunked under the crystal waves. Assistants hold your arms and help you out of the pool. A fresh white robe is placed upon your wet body like a new skin. You are drenched from head to toe in the waters of baptism. The assistants lead you to a large hall where the table is set with flat bread and a pitcher of wine. The assembly welcomes you with the holy kiss. You are now part of this community of Christians, who are ready to break bread and share the cup with you. You have left behind the world you once knew as you stepped out of the baptismal room. You have a new identity. Christ is your Lord. This is your new family. These are your people. You belong to God and the church. You have been marked for life.

This initiatory rite of baptism goes back to the days of Jesus. Along the Jordan River John the Baptizer was drawing crowds of people. They came to hear his fiery preaching and to be dunked beneath the murky waters as a sign of repentance, a moral about face, before God bursts through the doors of time and like a farmer separates the chaff from the wheat. Some thought John to be the Messiah, the Coming Judge. John pointed his finger to the horizon and said, "I dunk you in water. The One who is coming will dunk you in the Holy Spirit and fire!"

Though the temple had its ritual washings for purification, John's baptism was a counter ritual to the temple. His baptism "for the remission of sins" was offered as an alternative rite to those of the temple system, which needed its own purification. As the common people turned from their old lives in preparation for the coming judgment, they were marked as people identified with John and his apocalyptic message of the coming judgment.

One of those who come to be baptized by John is Jesus. He steps waist deep into the brown water with the rest of the people. By all appearances he's just one more sinner come to repent and be scrubbed clean by the Spirit. The reeds along the shore bend in the breeze. Expanding circles spread out around him from the water drops. A crane soars over the surface of the river. John dunks Jesus beneath the watery skin of the river with a splash and gurgle. The dripping of water harmonizes with the mumbling of a prayer as Jesus lifts his wet arms to the heavens. The cobalt blue sky responds to Jesus as if opening to receive his prayer. The Spirit of holiness descends upon him as when Noah's dove finally found a resting place. A thunder clap in the sky speaks, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Jesus is a marked man. His baptism marks him as one identified with sinful humanity. He is one of us, wading right beside us through the murky waters of life. His baptism by John for the remission of sins and identification with sinners would prove to be an embarrassment to the early church. How could a sinless Savior be dunked in the sin-soaked waters with the rest of us? As his mission unfolds we will soon see that Jesus is not embarrassed to cavort with tax-collectors and traitors and to dine with the social outcast. Jesus will continue to be marked as a prophet of the people, a Savior of sinners, Lord of the lost.

Jesus' baptism marks him as one identified with God and God's people. Like a baby born from a watery womb and named by their parents, Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters and is named by his heavenly Parent. Jesus is declared to be God's own beloved Son. Like the kings of ancient Israel, who were anointed with oil to set them apart as exercising a special relationship between God and God's people, Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit to be God's representative to the people. But, this wet king will take up the towel of the Suffering Servant and rule with the basin and reign from a cross. The waters of Jesus' baptism mark his identity as one with God and God's people.

Water can leave indelible marks. Consider the rocky banks of a lake where the water has marked the rise and fall of the water level. The winter snow melts and drains off the mountains into the lake. The hot summer sun drinks up the water revealing the lines of years of the ebb and flow of the lake's changing face. Water changes whatever it contacts. I remember storing my artwork in the shower of a garage turned into a small house, where Iris and I lived while serving as youth director in my first church position. The shower had not been used for a long time and the water had been shut off. One day something happened and water backed up through the drain. Even though the water was clear, it left a permanent sign of its presence on all my artwork. Water leaves its mark.

There is another kind of water mark. You can see it on quality paper. That is, if you hold a sheet up to the light. There stamped, almost imperceptibly on the paper, is the identifying water mark of the company from which the paper was produced and the quality of the paper. The water mark identifies the paper and to whom it originally belongs. The scene of Jesus' baptism in Luke's gospel is as if the writer were holding up Jesus' life to light of God to reveal his water mark. There, almost imperceptible, hidden beneath his humanity is his identifying stamp. Holding him up to heaven's light, there is no mistaking to whom he belongs. This is God's Beloved, a servant of the people.

Our baptism is our water mark. It identifies who we are and to whom we belong. In our baptism we are named for who we truly are, God's beloved children, followers of Christ, sealed with the Spirit. Remember, when you knelt in front of the church with your head bowed. To get to that moment, you had to sit through those long, tedious catechism classes, which sometimes bored you to tears. You were a bit nervous as the day for your baptism approached. The new flowered dress or suit jacket was laid out on the bed that Sunday morning. When you got to church, you were trembling and rubbing your hands together. When the time in the service came, the pastor called you to the front. Some passage was read from the Bible and some words said that you can't remember any more. As you knelt down you heard, "I baptize you in the name..." The water streamed down your face. Everyone sitting in the pews was smiling. A firm shake of the hand. The pastor said, "We welcome brother or sister so-and-so to the congregation." Maybe the water was at a stream or in a baptismal pool, or poured over you while you knelt, like at Dura-Europos. But, wherever and however it happened, you were marked for life. You stepped into that stream of saints flowing through the ages that have claimed allegiance to Christ and were engrafted into the church.

In that simple, yet profound act of baptism, we all received our water mark. We publicly declared our identification with Christ and God's Spirit sealed us as one of God's own, stamped on our lives an indelible mark. The application of water in baptism inscribed upon us a mark, not immediately apparent, but which indicates to whom we belong. We are God's children, Christ's followers, born of the Spirit. When you hold us up to the light of God you can see our water mark. We have been marked as followers of Jesus Christ. Our baptism has stamped his life, teachings, death, and resurrection upon us. Christ is our Lord. Our allegiance is to Jesus, his way, his people. No longer is our primary identity one of belonging to the people that makes up our nation, our race, our political party, or even our blood family. We have been marked as members of a people from every nation, tribe, and race set apart by their baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. We have been marked for life.

Occasionally we need to be reminded that we bear an indelible water mark that shows who we truly are. When our job serves us up a cold cup of put downs; when the cacophony of voices on TV blare out at us telling us who we should be; when the flags of other allegiances begin to wave over our heads, it is good for us to take another look at our water mark and remember to whom we ultimately belong.

I once walked into entrance of a sanctuary of a Catholic church in Houston, Texas and was surprised to see a cross-shaped baptismal pool in the floor. Not only was it a delightful surprise to find it in a Catholic church, which most often practices infant baptism by sprinkling, but that this baptismal pool was located right in the entrance way of the sanctuary. Everyone who entered to worship would have to walk by the baptismal pool as they came into the building for worship. I thought it was a wonderful architectural reminder, to all those came through the church's door each week, of their baptism and the covenant they made with God and God's people.

We all need to be reminded that we have participated in a holy bath. We have been set apart as God's beloved, followers of Christ, sealed by the Spirit. We belong to God and God's people. The people sitting in the pews around you are not just friends and acquaintances. They are your family, your community, along with all those who claim allegiance to God in Christ. Remember, above all else, we are God's children. Baptized into Christ. Sealed with the Spirit. Marked for life.

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