Cleansing Water of Baptism, by the Rev. Tom Harries
If you want to add an element of Creation celebration to your preaching on this Sunday, you could focus on some of the ways water actually does at the physical level what it does symbolically in baptism.
The sacramental act at baptism is immersion in water (unfortunately a mere pouring on the head for most Anglicans). Spiritually, one is cleansed from sin and death. Water is the perfect symbol because in the physical world it also cleanses. We use it to wash our hands before cooking or eating, we use it to wash our whole bodies in the shower. Sometimes we use it to cleanse our muscles of stress when we soak in a hot bath. In all of these ways water blesses us quite directly with its cleansing power.
Why is water such a good cleanser? Its molecular structure allows it to dissolve a lot of different things and to hold others in suspension. And the warmer it is, the more it can wash away. Water cleanses more than our bodies, though. I’m sure you’ve felt and smelled the cleanliness of air after a good rainstorm. Many of the particulates have been washed out. And of course we use water for cleansing in many industrial processes. That causes some problems, but it is still a major contribution to our overall wellbeing.
Baptism is the beginning of a new life in Christ and water is the source and sustainer of all life. To the best of our knowledge life began with complex molecules in suspension in seawater. Driven by the love of God to greater complexity and collaboration these molecules formed cells and, ultimately, multi-cellular organisms. Within our cells today is still a solution similar to, though not as salty as, seawater. Each human begins life in a watery bath in his or her mother’s womb. Even though we can now artificially inseminate eggs, the only place they will mature into a person is in the womb.
Water is essential not only in starting life, but in sustaining it from moment to moment. A person can fast for a month, but can go only a couple of days without water. All of our crops depend on it, as do our livestock. In short, water is an essential foundation for life. In order to bring us these wonderful blessings, water must be fresh and free of contaminants. That is our challenge: to care for this fabulous and essential gift, so that our children and our children’s children may enjoy a rich life on this earth.
But surely the theme for this season must be more than “going out.” For is not the purpose of mission to provide assurance that because the Word “dwells among us” (John 1: 14), we can be at home in God’s creation. This surprising view can be seen in two of the readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord.
Introduction to Epiphany, by Tom Mundahl
Excerpt: The First Lesson for the Epiphany of Our Lord (Isaiah 60: 1-6) describes not only the return of exiles to Jerusalem, but a homecoming for all people (vv. 3-4) characterized by great abundance including offerings of “gold and frankincense” (v. 6) to proclaim God’s praise. This theme is echoed in the familiar gospel reading describing the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12). What is often forgotten is that the Magi have come to the Bethlehem home of Joseph and Mary, in Matthew the birth home of Jesus. Even though Matthew will soon describe their flight to Egypt and resettling in Nazareth, the fact remains that Bethlehem, with all its Davidic resonance, is home.
The Baptism of our Lord, by Tom Mundahl
Excerpt: One cannot appreciate the power of “but now” in Isaiah 43:1 until the context in the previous chapter is examined. Just as the new and tenuous Paris Agreement on climate change depends upon an admission of human responsibility for rapid climate change, so the prophet makes it very clear that the exile is the responsibility of faithless Judah. The result is a people utterly homeless: “. . . all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons: they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one who says, ‘Restore!’” (Isaiah 42: 22).
Not quite. For Isaiah announces a new chapter in the story of God’s dealing with creation. And “creation” is the watchword here, serving as an inclusio beginning and ending our passage. As the exiles are promised a “new exodus” and return to their home, the initial promise is that no natural forces will impede them. As Claus Westermann suggests, “Verse 2 promises Israel safe conduct on her journey. No force of nature, no hostile element, is to be able to do her any harm as she travels . . . . Water and fire stand for dangers from any element, as in Ps. 66: 12” (Isaiah 40-66), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 118).
Physical and Spiritual Linked, by Kieth Innes
Isaiah 43:1-7: The Creator and the Redeemer are one.
Psalm 29: The God of the thunder and lightning is the giver of strength and prosperity to his people.
Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22: The sacramental use of elements of creation, such as the water of baptism, demonstrates that the physical and the spiritual are linked and mutually illuminating.
Creation itself participates when the Spirit descends in bodily form as a dove. by Dennis Ormseth
Excerpt: As with the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B of the Lectionary, the baptism of Jesus in year C reverberates with creational and cosmic accents. In the first lesson, we are reminded that the God who speaks from the opened heaven is one who renews the people God created for Godself, gathering them from the four directions of the earth (Isaiah 43:5-7) and leading them through water and fire. Psalm 29, appointed for all three years, evokes the power of God’s voice “over mighty waters” and the “cedars of Lebanon’” the voice that “flashes forth flames of fire” and “shakes the wilderness,” causing “the oaks to whirl and strip[ping] the forest bare” (29:3-9). With the descent of the Spirit “the first day” of creation” is again brought to mind, when the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). (See our comments in this series on the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B).
It is the “Holy Spirit descend[ing] in bodily form like a dove” that most demands our attention here, however.
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Psalm 29