Breathing Out

Baptism of Our Lord (transferred)
Sunday, January 14, 2018

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11

At yesterday’s 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend Breakfast at the Amherst Middle School, I was asked to give the invocation. Though I’m reasonably sure no one who heard it made the connection, the way I prayed was shaped by this week’s gospel text about the baptism of Jesus. Before I started the prayer proper, I began with these words that I invite you into now:

“I invite you to take a few deep breaths with me:

“Breathe in peace to calm your weary soul, and breathe peace out again to heal a wounded world.

“Breathe in to remember that you are loved, and breathe out again to remind all the world of its belovedness.

Breathe in hope to renew tired spirits, and breathe out hope to inspire the world to what is yet possible.”

You see, you can’t breathe out until you’ve breathed in. And this brief, almost tersely worded account of Jesus’ baptism is Jesus’ inhale. The spirit that comes down from heaven is described as “like a dove” but we might just as rightly imagine God’s spirit as wind or breath. And it descends on Jesus. At the risk of getting into Trinitarian gymnastics, God from heaven breaths out that God in human form on earth might breathe in. And then it is time for him to breathe out – to breathe out a long slow exhale of healing and teaching and agitating for justice, a long slow exhale of welcome and feasting with the marginalized and holding fast to what is right.

I worry that this might overly simplistic as if the Baptism of Jesus was as important as everything else he did. And in Mark’s account, without a birth narrative to rival Matthew or Luke’s gospels, his baptism is the story of God’s incarnation, of claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son. But let’s remember, too, that the Spirit that descends like a dove is no small and gentle bird. This is the spirit that, as we read this morning, hovered over the deep before the creation of the world. This is the Spirit that bumped and jostled along the tohu vavohu, the great chaos of the cosmos before it took form. Before the universe exploded into being, the Spirit grappled with the substance of all creation, pushing and pulling and moving and dancing. It is no small thing to receive that Spirit in us, to be filled with the breath that has the power to dance with all that is. That Jesus begins here is to fill not just his life but his death and resurrection with the full power of God.

At the same time there is this other element going on in Jesus’ baptism. The muddy water of the Jordan River. In contrast to the invisible but immensely powerful Spirit, the Jordan, even in Jesus’ time, was not exactly a world landmark. Though more robust before much of it was diverted in modern times for human consumption, it has never been known as a great and powerful river. There are Biblical stories which play on the Jordan’s inferior reputation as not much more than a muddy stream. That is to say, without using vulgar language, that the country in which we find the Jordan River and its peoples were not exactly considered by the powerful of the world to be worth much to the world stage. They were looked down and disregarded, dismissed, and derided. They were not welcomed into other parts of the empire that made itself rich on their backs.

But just as Jesus takes in the breath of creation, he also takes on the water of this oft-forgotten, oft-maligned river. The coming together of God’s incarnation in Jesus, the Spirit that danced in uncreated creation, and this out-of-the-way muddy stream, reminds us again that God’s redemption begins at the margins. It begins in places the world has shunned, the places ravaged by others’ accumulation of wealth and resources. And just as the combination of water and Spirit send Jesus into ministry and God’s work of redemption, that it happens in the muddy Jordan in Palestine is God’s transforms our ideas about who and what is actually on the margins. That Jesus comes here, that Jesus lives and breathes and bathes here invites us to consider all things, all places, all people holy and beloved.

But this is not just about Jesus. We come back to this story every year because it is also a story about us and our baptisms. It is easy to think that there is something special about this baptism because it’s Jesus. But we believe and proclaim that this is what baptism is and does for us, too. We are people for whom God tears open the heavens to send the spirit of all creation. We are people who have breathed in the fullness of the Spirit who has the power to go up against great chaos, to rival the great depths of the cosmos. We are people whose lives are a grand out-breath of that same Spirit for the sake of the world.

And we are people who, washed by local water, can never again disregard another as less than whole, less than a child of God. Because we have experienced God’s calling us beloved, a call both deeply personal and deeply communal. For our belovedness to God is a claiming of our whole person in every particularity and also a claiming of all humanity with the same particular belovedness.

And so we stand, water-washed and spirit-filled, living out God’s call to each of us in baptism. Breathing out into the world the breath of God, the breath that dances with the whole of creation, bringing new life into being and drawing us together to be the body of Christ.

-Pastor Steven Wilco