Baptism in the New Year | January 8

Texts: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

This is seven brief meditations on the lectionary scriptures, baptism, the start of a new year, and our family’s Christmas vacation travels to and from Kansas.  Not necessarily in that order.

1. When presented with the fact of the matter, Columbus Mennonite young people grow curious as to why we’re told so little about Jesus’ growing up years. He’s born, he’s visited by shepherds and magi, and then boom, he’s a 30 year old getting baptized. Christmas is barely over, the curbs of Oakland Park Ave were lined with dried out Christmas trees for pick up just a few days ago,  and now, boom, it’s Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  The story of Jesus in the temple at age 12 talking with the elders hardly feels like enough to fill the gap.  What was he doing all those years, anyway?  It’s hard to imagine that learning the carpentry trade with his step-father Joseph, and studying Torah occupied every waking hour of his time.  So how do you get from the baby in the manger to the man who came to John by the Jordan River and requested baptism?  What all went into that young person, that prepared him for the life he was about to lead?  What experiences? what struggles? what relationships? what disappointments?  what revelations? Inquiring minds would like to know.

2. When you pack your swimsuits for a family trip to Kansas in the dead of winter you might as well use them. Having not used them, you figure it would be fun to stay at a hotel with an indoor pool on your way home.  When your two main criteria for finding a hotel online are a) has an indoor pool, and b) as cheap as possible, you know you’re rolling the dice.  After twelve hours of driving, you get to the hotel, looking forward to sharing a compartment bigger than the inside of a Toyota Sienna .  The desk attendant tries unsuccessfully to convince you that double beds are the same size as queen beds, and you head to your room to unload your stuff, and choose which double bed you would like to squeeze who into.  You’ve asked a different attendant if she could deliver a cot for the fifth family member.  She agrees to investigate, and come up to let you know either way.  Twenty minutes later you go down to find her and she informs you they are all in use.  You sleep somewhat decently and get up, excited for the pool and hot tub.  You’ve made a deal with your partner that if she gets the kids dressed and in the pool while you go to the workout room, you’ll swim with them the rest of the time while she relaxes and reads.

When you ask a third attendant where the workout room is he informs you it’s down the hall but four out of the five machines are broken, which, upon inspection, they definitely are in multiple senses of the word.  After a decent workout on that singular machine you change and come down to the pool area.  You notice that the hot tub is surrounded by a rudimentary plywood fence, empty of water, and clearly off limits.

But the pool, the pool is filled with water and functioning nicely.  The water is a pleasant temperature, you and your children are the only people in there for a solid hour and a half, and you have a blast.  You swim around, you play games, you have an overall delightful time.

As you load up the van to complete the journey, you ponder what a shabby situation that was, a series of unfortunate events.  Except for the water.    It’s all the kids are talking about.  Somehow the water of that pool redeems the entire experience.  It’s the second day of 2017.  You and your household have been immersed in those overly chlorinated baptismal waters.  And you’ve emerged, born anew in time, surrounded by the voices of the Beloved.  The playful spirit that hovered over that water goes with you as you drive home into a brand new year.

3. Sociologists Malina and Rohrbaugh estimate that in first century Palestine one third of the population died before the age of six, and only 25% of the population lived past their mid-twenties. If this is the case, then a 30 year Jesus at his baptism would have already witnessed plenty of life. Most of his would-be peers have already died, and a good percentage of the people he walked among would have been younger than him. Women married young, soon after they were able to conceive children.  Mary, Jesus’ mother, is present when Jesus is on the cross, fortunate to have lived into her late-40s, beating the odds, but it comes at the cost of having to watch her adult child die an excruciating death.  We hear nothing of Joseph after the birth narratives, very likely because, having married at an older age, he was dead by the time Jesus began his ministry.

With an average life expectancy of about 79 years in the US these days, and historically low infant mortality rates, it’s hard to imagine how much early death people witnessed in the ancient world.  A calendar turned to a new year isn’t near as threatening for us and, even if you feel that you’re getting up in years, you’ve still had a pretty full life, all things considered.

4. I wonder how the Jews in exile in Babylon responded when they first heard the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” So far, so good.  Lord knows the nations need justice, ours, and others.  Then this: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

Here’s the problem.  How will this supposed servant bring about justice if she won’t cry out or make her voice heard in the street?  There’s a lot that needs shouted from the roof-tops, and there’s a whole lot of harmful noise that needs countered with constructive words and actions.  Public words and actions.  Babylon doesn’t just let give up its captives without a fight.

And yet, the kind of fight this particular servant engages in seems to be with a different kind of power.  The kind of power that can hold a bruised reed without breaking it, that can shelter a dim wick just about ready to go out, but keep its flame going.  It’s a method of tenderness and attentiveness.

I think of aunts and uncles, showing kindness and generosity to their nieces and nephews hungry for role models.  I think of the people who aren’t out on the streets but who cooked the meal that the protestors ate before they headed out, and had the place clean before they returned.  I think of people in power working behind the scenes to change minds and shape policy in a way that honors the dignity of all people.  Servants whose names don’t make the headlines.

I think of those hotel cleaners, who we didn’t meet, making barely over minimum wage, who, after we were packed are merrily on our way, arrived at our room.  Used towels still wet, bed covers in disarray.  Going about the work of cleaning up and setting the place right again, creating spaces of hospitality in a less than ideal environment.  Isaiah says: “She will not grow faint or be crushed until she has established justice in the earth.”

5. “Baptism is for those who are of the age of accountability and who freely request baptism on the basis of their response to Jesus Christ in faith.” Thus reads the final sentence of Article 11 in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, on the topic of Baptism. Those who came to be called Mennonites, after the leader Menno Simons, were first called Anabaptists, those who baptize again, because of their practice of re-baptizing adults who had been baptized as infants, the common practice of the day, but who desired to make a public expression of faith as an adult.  The belief of the Anabaptists was that nobody is really born a Christian.  You can’t choose your parents, can’t choose the circumstances of your biological birth, your physical identity; but you can choose the authority that you wish to live under, your heavenly parent, so to speak, your spiritual identity.  Baptism is a symbol of spiritual birth, birth by choice, born a second time as Jesus told Nicodemus.  The manger scene of Christmas birth gets replaced with the waters of spiritual birth.

It’s an identity that is chosen when one has reached, as the confession says, “the age of accountability.”  Mennonites have always been somewhat age conscious about the baptism process.  We want people to have had some life experience, role models and mentors, some struggles, maybe even some revelations that inform this decision.  And so we usually begin inviting people to start considering baptism in their early teen years, and extend the invitation all the way up with no upper age limit.  It’s an open invitation.

Like the decision to get married or have children, one is never really fully prepared for this.  If one waited until one was completely ready to do it, understood fully all the implications of the decision, one might never get started.

One of the pitfalls of our tradition is that by placing an emphasis on the human initiative of baptism we can underemphasize the Divine gift of grace that it is.  That, despite the shabbiness of our lives, and the series of unfortunate events we seem to find ourselves and our world cycling through, the waters of baptism are held out to us as a gift.  The waters remind us that we always have been and always will be Beloved children of God.  And the Spirit that hovered over those waters journeys with us wherever we go.

6. The further west one drives into Kansas along Interstate 70, the more open spaces one encounters. Towns get smaller, and further apart. The sky opens up to a full half sphere above you as the ground levels and settles into an imperceptible slope upward, toward the Rocky Mountains, still hundreds of miles away.  As if anticipating the temptation of the average driver to fall into a stupor of mind-dulling boredom as she cruises at 75 miles an hour across the prairie, a large billboard asks the driver to consider the question:  “If you die today where will you spend eternity?”

It’s a well placed billboard, given the dual facts that a) one is driving at 75 miles per hour and, although odds are still in one’s favor of making it through the day alive, this does temporarily increase the opportunities for an untimely death.  b) it’s the middle of Kansas and there’s not a whole lot of other things calling for one’s attention.  Despite its valiant attempts to get one pondering the question, there is a strong temptation for the mind to go in a different direction.  One wonders who’s paying the rent for that billboard and reckons that they probably think they’re getting a pretty good deal, since it’s hard to put a price on a soul saved from eternal damnation.  But mostly one feels a surge of frustration for fear based messages so often associated with religion.  This is not helping out one bit the church’s already poor public image.

If one were to have a mind to do it, one could get a group together, pool some money, and rent the next billboard down the highway, so that after drivers see “If you die today where will you spend eternity?” they would see something like “Since you’re alive today, how will you act justly and love mercy?”

7. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe a similar scene at Jesus’ baptism. After Jesus goes down into the waters, he emerges, as if from a womb, and hears what he has been named. A voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Christians have seen in this declaration echoes of Isaiah 42, “This is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  Jesus hears this identity of belovedness spoken over him, and it directly connects to being the servant who brings justice to the nations, who tenderly, but persistently, lights the way.

Aside from the birth narratives and a couple stories of his early years, we don’t know much about the life of Jesus at this point.  Before any miracle, before any teaching, before anything he does, Jesus is told who he is, which is a gift.  And it is out of this identity as Beloved, that Jesus then is able to teach all those he encounters that they, too are beloved.  Whenever and wherever he encounters the dying, the youthful, the sick and injured, the aging, the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, he proclaims through word and deed that, even if they don’t know it yet, they too are beloved children of God.  They too are servants of God, whether quietly or out in the street, making space for the way of justice.  The waters of baptism offer a chosen, and a given identity, that we are all children in the Beloved Community.  You need not wait until death and eternity to live this, because, miracle of miracles, you are alive today.