Baptism of Christ

January 8, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 1:1-5
Reading 2: 
Psalm 29
Reading 3: 
Acts 19:1-7
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:4-11
By Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:

When reading the texts one after another, or holding them side-by-side, the reader feels spoken to, addressed. Even though the Baptism of Jesus is the central theme of this Sunday, it emerges from these texts in surprising ways. The language of God seems to be the force behind everything. We will first look at the texts and then think about the nature of God’s language or the power of the divine word spoken over creation, over Jesus in baptism, over us in baptism of the Holy Spirit. The language of God evokes a world with the expectation that creation will respond.

Psalm 29 is loud. Try reading it out loud. It’s hard not to be carried along by the energy of the strong verbs: thunders, breaks, shakes, makes, strips, flashes. Verse 4 says “The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” The Psalm is a statement, even a celebration, of the creative power of God. Looking at the Genesis text, the way that God spoke creation into existence, it’s clear that the power of creation comes through Divine language. Again, notice the verbs in the Genesis text: God said, saw, separated, called. In the Mark text, John comes preaching, with the implication that baptism triggers the involvement of the Holy Spirit, which issues into another language world, tongues and prophesy, as suggested in the Acts text.

There is a general awareness in the Bible that we are formed and transformed by words, language, especially story. God is at the beginning of things, speaking out. There is an “I - Thou” quality to this Divine address to creation, and creation’s response. Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth,” gives the definite impression of the ongoingness of creation. God’s creative activity continues even in this present moment, calling us into being. There is an ongoing divine conversation between God and creation, each responding and giving to the other.

There is a long philosophical history devoted to language. There are many forms of language: mathematical, prosaic, poetic, scientific, etc. The philosophical discussion about language has been very abstract and technical. And the problem of language has been a theme running through most academic disciplines. Language remains a very mysterious enterprise and the conclusions of many points of view are that language shapes our world. We create it, yet it creates us; we exist in a language world. My wife is a speech therapist for preschoolers. She is acutely aware, and demonstrates through her work, how crucial early acquisition of language is to the future of a child. Without language, they are cut off from their world, or their world becomes very small because of the limits of their use of language. Language connects us to one another and to our world. Better language skills lead to success whereas limited language skills leads to limited success. Language is the “currency” of a culture. Traveling to a foreign country, we become aware that we are not simply entering a different geographical place, but a different cultural/language world. Language is not exclusive to human beings; birds have ways of communicating as do dogs and cats and horses, even plants, etc. But language has been so highly developed in humans that it seems to deepen the existential problem of being human, requiring the story form--narrative and poetry--to create meaning.

Language can be used to create--it can also be used to deceive, to harm. Think of the various forms of language involved in politics, military, economic language. I remember President Reagan calling a missile system “Peace Keeper.” Language can be used to manipulate and control. We experience this everyday through the commercialization of our world, militarization, weaponizing, being reduced to commodities. As Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, there are many language games.

Of course, as important as this philosophical background might be to the preacher’s preparation, little if any of it should appear in a sermon.

The Bible takes divine language as the primary creative force in the world. The question is, what is the nature of God’s language and how does it create? Ultimately, the question for us is, how do we hear and then respond to God’s voice?

Process Theology and the Texts:

A.N. Whitehead said that God is the Poet of the world. Through propositions, God lures the the world toward deeper forms of beauty. God’s dynamic relation to the world is primarily through the receiving of the whole world into God’s experience, and then giving back to each becoming creature a range of possibilities for it’s momentary becoming, which then, in turn, contribute to God’s experience, God giving back to each creature another possibility for becoming and so on. The divine language then is a language of possibilities, luring the world to become deeper, more complex, exhibiting greater forms of beauty. This supports the biblical idea that God creates order out of chaos. Yet, God is the source of novelty, the introduction of possibilities that are truly new.

Preaching the Texts:

For some reason, I think of a phrase from childhood, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This was usually said by someone with tears in his eyes, responding to hurtful words. The irony is that words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Words make a difference.

This Sunday is a remembrance of Jesus’ baptism, a reminder of our own baptism and what it means for us. Also this Sunday is a good day to perform baptisms during the worship service and to talk about how language can change our world, opening up new possibilities for us.

I would begin a sermon with a description of a particular use of language, for example, a wedding ceremony, an induction into the military ceremony, a swearing in for jury duty and other examples of what we might call performative language, language that, by its use, changes someone’s world. I might talk about reading fairy tales to children and how stories instill values and expectations; they create an imaginative world. “Cinderella” has been a powerful lure for my daughters, for better or worse. The Harry Potter series of books and movies or The Lord of the Rings are recent examples of how stories can capture the imagination and create a world in us.

I would then move on to the poetic power of the Bible, not only the psalms, but the large narratives, like 1&2 Samuel or Genesis and Exodus or the gospels. By reading them, we enter into a foreign language world that is designed to speak to us in unexpected, surprising, disturbing, ways.

I might then focus on the baptism stories of Jesus and the disciples and how the institution of baptism is performative in nature and its language actually changes us; it transfers us into another language realm. It changes our status. We are now followers of Jesus as the Christ and the discipline of internalizing his teachings and the meaning of the death and resurrection as pointing to a different kind of power. I would point out that participating in baptism is a way of embodying (literally) in movement, the rhythm of death being transformed into life; doing down in order to come up. We are baptized each moment, as the immediacy of the moment passes and moves to the next moment and then the next; always letting go in order to receive something new; death always issuing into new life. Baptism is the prime symbolic reminder that both our dying and our living are in God’s hands.

Entering into a worshipping community is entering into another language world with its prayers and liturgies, its sermons and sacred texts and symbols, its foundational stories. We learn a new language and by learning it, we are reformed, transformed. The process of transformation evokes a different spirit in us, a different power, something separate, different from what we have learned in “the World.” The church calls it the Holy Spirit, with its own new language, a new power, a new set of possibilities for creation. Baptism is the entrance to this new world of hope and transformation.

Children and the Texts:

The children's’ sermon could revolve around words and the kinds of words the children are used to that hurt or build up. Things that adults say that evoke happiness or hurt, what other children say. Talk about the kind of words God uses: love, peace, hope, creation.

The benediction to the worship service could be specifically written to affirm the point of the power of language. The Benediction need not be some nice ending words of vague hope, but a pointed, direct challenge in the name of God, creation words. “And God said, ‘Let there be a people, my people, whom I have created to be different in the world. I say, be salt, be light.’” Or something similar with an emphasis upon recalling our baptisms and how that act has exposed us to another world.

May you be aware of God’s presence as you preach.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.