“A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light: a being. And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day’s blow rang out, metallic – or it was I, a bell-awakened, and what I heard my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can.” (Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke,” 1987)
Listen to my entire sermon: http://www.trinitycleveland.net/podcasts/sermons/Lind01082012.mp3″
Whenever I hear these words, penned by the poet Denise Levertov, I am reminded of the sacrament of baptism, and today I am especially reminded of Jesus’ baptism. I can imagine our Lord as a young man who decided one day to abandon his carpentry tools, leave his hometown of Nazareth, and wander into the wilderness to meet up with his cousin John the Baptizer at the River Jordan.
This famous body of water is more like a meandering creek than a big, wide river. Yet, this is the river that Jesus’ spiritual ancestor and our spiritual ancestor Jacob crossed to be reunited with his brother Esau. This is river that Jesus’ spiritual ancestor and our spiritual ancestor Joshua crossed when he led God’s chosen people into the Promised Land after forty years of roaming in the Exodus. This is the river where Jesus’ spiritual ancestor and our spiritual ancestor Elijah took off his cloak and struck the water so that he and Elisha could cross on dry land. This is the great River Jordan whose name was derived from a Hebrew verb that means to descend, go down, or pour out.
Jesus, spiritual descendant of Jacob, Joshua, and Elijah, waded in those waters and God’s very spirit was poured out upon him. When he ascended from the muddy water of this very river, our Lord Jesus commenced his public ministry as anointed servant, savior and Son of God.
According to the Gospel of Mark, it was on the occasion of his baptism Jesus finally knew who he was, to whom he belonged, and what he had to do. Like the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, at his baptism Jesus stepped down into the dark, formless and murky water, the Spirit lighted upon (or as some have suggested dive-bombed onto) his shoulder and the Son of God emerged and began to create in God’s very own image.
Did Jesus know what was about to happen when he submerged into the water of baptism? We’re not told. In fact, if you were reading the Gospel of Mark like a novel, you won’t even yet know whom Jesus was. For this is Chapter 1, the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ.
So for a moment, suspend your knowledge of Jesus as Son of God and your faith in him as Lord and Savior, and just consider him a thirty-year-old man coming from a small town to met up with his cousin John. Perhaps, he stood on the shores of the river and watched for a while as men and women were submerged in the flowing water. Perhaps, he sat on the riverbank and listened to John’s prophetic words of repentance. Perhaps, there was a lull in a baptism business and nobody was around but John, and Jesus greeted him with a big hug and caught up on family news for a while. Or perhaps, Jesus caught John by surprise as he stood in turn in line to be baptized. Who knows?
What we do know is that Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the River Jordan. He chose to dive deep into the muddy and murky water, to go below the surface to the place of darkness and chaos in order to submit and surrender to God’s way. We also know that, “just as he was coming up out the water, he saw the heavens tear of apart (literally, schism) and the Spirit descend like a dove on him.” (Mark 1:10) To borrow Denise Levertov’s metaphor, “it leaned over and struck [his] shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting [him] honor and a task.”
According to this Gospel account, it was an epiphany of divine power, divine love, and divine claiming of humanity. According to Mark’s account of this event, when Jesus was baptized and came out of the water, God entered the earthly realm in a powerful in-breaking and tearing apart of the boundary between human and divine.
Can you imagine it? Can you see what Jesus saw and felt – the full force of the divine descending and tearing apart all that separates humans from the Eternal One? And then, can you envision a dove with its big, fluffy feathers descend upon your shoulder like the “flat of a sword” anointing you and claiming you as God’s very own beloved child.
Coming up from the waters of baptism, God took hold of him. What could he do? In the film Patch Adams, a doctor played by Robin Williams who wants to heal his patients with humor, laughter and joy played said, “When a dream takes hold of you, what can you do? You can run with it, let it run your life, or let it go and think for the rest of your life about what might have been.” Was he going to run with God and let God run his life, or was he going to let God’s Spirit go and for the rest of his life think about what might have been?
And so it is with each and every one of us. At some point in your life, God will take hold of you. One day, if you surrender to it, God will call you to the dark and murky waters of creation, land upon your shoulder, and you will finally know what you have to do and begin, for God wants to claim all of humanity as chosen vehicles of grace. In fact, I believe that God needs all of us to fulfill the divine dream for humanity. But each one of us has to make ourself available to be claimed and anointed by the transcendent and yet intimate power, and perhaps even frightening grace of God.
I always say that baptism is our first and most important ordination. That’s why, at Trinity Cathedral, we give big certificates to those upon whom baptism is conferred – to remind of us our ordination to the priesthood of all believers. Baptism is our call to run with Jesus and minister in Christ’s name, witnessing to the power of God’s love. It is our commission to be disciples of our Lord, to follow the way of the cross. It is our call to seek unity and community with one another, to bless and care for one another, and to serve one another.
Can you imagine what would happen if we took seriously our ordination of baptism? Can you imagine what would happen if all the baptized really lived as if we were by anointed by God? Can you imagine what would happen if we would claim the dream given us, receive the divine presence, and welcome the Spirit as she descends from the heavens, leaning over and striking our shoulders “as if with the flat of a sword, granting [us] honor and a task?” Can you imagine “The day’s blow [ringing] out…[and yourself] a bell-awakened….saying and singing what it knew: [You] can?” What a world it would be!