The God who saves through water

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Now, let it be so; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Jesus

This week the Christian Calendar used by the Church around the world brings us to the celebration of Jesus’ baptism.  We began in Advent with the promises that the Anointed One – that God’s Son – would come into the world, we celebrate that first coming at Christmas, and then last week, with Epiphany we celebrated God’s revealing of himself not just to the Jewish nation, but to the world.

Now, today, we fast forward some 30 years to the start of Our Lord’s public ministry, where he’s revealed not just to prophets and scholars, to his parents and shepherds, but is revealed publicly to all who were there to hear “This is my beloved Son” echoing through the clouds.

And, of course, it’s a significant day for us, too.  After all, baptism is our entry into the Body of Christ; it’s the sacrament that sets us apart and identifies us as Christians – together with a life that cooperates with the Holy Spirit to live a Christ-like life, asking for forgiveness when we mess up.

But, if we stop to think about it, the baptism of Jesus raises some questions.

Baptism for Repentance of Sin

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin on Mary’s side, was a very strange man by any account.  He lived in the desert wearing a cloak of camel skin and eating only grasshoppers and wild honey: I’m thinking he’s the kind of guy who turned heads and probably left a bit of a stench when he walked by.

Now, he started his ministry a couple years before Jesus, announcing that he was preparing the way for the Lord, the Anointed One of God.  And, with that, he called people to confess their sins and to be baptized – to be washed – in the waters of the Jordan River.

And, the bulk of his message as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is that it simply isn’t enough to claim to belong to God’s family without living a life that is in accordance with God’s will.

So, one day, Jesus comes to be baptized.

But wait a second.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus, scripture assures us, is like us in every way except for sin.  If there’s one person ever who didn’t need baptism, wouldn’t that be Jesus?  In our Gospel lesson today, even John the Baptist is confused: it says, “John tried to deter him, saying, ‘No, it is I who need to be baptized by you; why are you coming to me?”

To find the answer, I want to suggest that maybe there’s more to baptism than meets the eye.

Saving through water: not just a New Testament idea.

You see, if we study the whole story of God’s salvation as one continuous action, rather than picking and choosing what we read, we find that this isn’t the first time God uses water to save his people. 

As we said last week, our God is in the business of revealing himself those who seek him – that’s something he’s done throughout history, and it’s something he wants to use you and me to do even today.  (Which reminds me: how have you done being an Epiphany, a revelation of God to someone who is searching this past week?)

But, together with God showing himself to those who seek him, from the beginning, he’s in the business of offering himself to be in relationship with his creation.  He does that, we’re told, in covenants – in promises made – in which the Almighty God of heaven and earth offers us his boundless blessing and mercy in exchange for our recognition that he is Lord; in exchange for our trust and loyalty, but more importantly, our acknowledgement that when we don’t trust him, when we forget that he’s Lord, we’re in the wrong, and we need to ask for forgiveness.

We see this even from the very beginning.

On the very first page of our Bibles, in just the second sentence, we see God the Holy Spirit working through water.  God, wanting to make a creature in his Image, a creature capable of true love and sacrifice, a creature capable of choosing good over selfishness, created a home for us, a home – even the most worldly of scientists would tell us – is special, not because of rock, or an atmosphere, but because it has been shaped by the water that sustains life as we know it.

From the beginning, God is at work, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters”, to create a home for us to live in relationship with Him.  And, from the beginning, he reveals himself to those first people, and offers himself to them, reaches out to them, inviting them into a covenant: ‘you can live in this paradise if you trust me as God, and you’ll show your trust by not touching that one tree – the rest is yours.’ 

Of course, we know how that chapter ends: we’re not happy with the 99.9% we were given, but broke that one simple rule, even though we knew that choosing to live apart from God would cost us dearly.

Time goes on, as some choose to live for the one true God who revealed himself in creation, while most others choose to live for themselves.  Then, God reveals himself and offers himself in relationship to us in a man called Noah, and his family.

Humanity, we’re told, had become murderous, obsessed with killing for power.  God offers himself to Noah, and tells him, and his sons, and their wives to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, on the condition that they remember that each life is made in God’s image, and therefore no person should kill another.[1]

And how did God enact that covenant?  How did God offer salvation to Noah, and bring he and his family to their promised land?  He saved them through water; mighty waters of death that destroyed all in their path – except, for those whom God had called and carried through, those same waters became a fresh start, a new life, a new chance to live according to God’s will.

Time goes on, thousands of years pass, and God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be the chosen people through whom he will reveal himself to the world.  This chosen family find themselves in Egypt where, over generations, they become enslaved. 

Again, God reveals himself – this time to Moses – and God offers himself to be in relationship with them; offering freedom and blessing and mercy in exchange for their trust and loyalty.  The people set off on their journey of trusting God, and find themselves trapped, with the sea on one side and an angry army on the other.  And, once again, God uses water to save his people: his chosen people are those who walked through the sea on dry land, while the army is drowned as the tide washes over them.

Of course, we know how this chapter goes – those chosen people saved from slavery were particularly bad at keeping the “trust and loyalty” part of their covenant.  In the desert they were afraid that they would starve, even though God provided food and water for them, and then they had the gall to complain about the food they were given!

God promised them a land overflowing with crops and cattle and milk and honey, but they hadn’t trusted; after 40 years, God raised up Joshua to take Moses’ place and lead his people to the promised land.  But there was a problem; the river – the Jordan River – was in their way. 

This, we read in Joshua 3[2] was an opportunity: an opportunity for God’s people to consecrate themselves, to make a fresh start in choosing to live according to God’s will for their lives, to live as his chosen people.  And, once again, God is saving his people through water.  They consecrate themselves in accordance with the Law, the priests enter into the flowing water and stand there, as the water dries up as everyone – toddlers, old men and old ladies – crosses the river without harm, arriving in the promised land.

Our own Baptism

God works through water.  And, in Jesus, we’re all invited into those waters of baptism.

But, what is offered is no mere bath, nor a simple “symbol” for a fresh start, nor even just the washing away of sin, of which Jesus had no need.

Our God, the one in the business of revealing himself, calls people made in his Image to enter into covenant with him; the covenant in which we receive his blessing and mercy in exchange for our trusting him as our Lord, and repenting when we live as though we’re lord of our own lives.

Jesus had no sins for which to be forgiven.  But, as he responded to John’s objection, his baptism is necessary, not for Jesus’ sake, but for ours – to fulfill all righteousness, as he shares our humanity.

As Jesus rises from the waters, he is revealed as God’s Son, as the perfect Son of Man, the one who succeeds in keeping God’s Law where all others have failed, the one who death cannot hold, and whose destruction of the gates of death opens the path of life; and he invites us not to a mere symbolic bath, but to enter into covenant with him, to enter into covenant with the God who, from the beginning, saves through water.

In baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to share in his resurrected life; in baptism the bonds that hold us to the fallen world are cut free and we are given a fresh start – just as with Noah, and Moses, and Joshua. 

But, it isn’t magic.  It’s a covenant.  And covenants, like any relationship, have expectations.  Blessing and mercy – boundless, unending mercy from Christ’s sacrifice of himself – offered in exchange for our trust and loyalty – a trust that knows that, when we’ve broken that loyalty, we need only to ask for forgiveness to receive his grace.

Christ’s baptism, paving the way for our baptism, joins us to God’s covenant people, the Church, the Body of Christ.

…And, maybe, in the years since your baptism, you, like the people of Israel, have lost that trust, or at times forgotten that God is to be Lord in your life.  The good news, though, is that God is unchanging – he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever – and even if we let down our end of the deal, even if we forgot our promises made at baptism, even if our parents or godparents broke their promises made on our behalf, God is still keeping his: he’s standing, arms wide open, waiting to receive back the one who turns to him for mercy.

God saves through water.  You’ve been washed, made a new creation in Jesus.   God stands ready to keep his end of the bargain, to forgive and bless and call you a son or daughter of his kingdom – all that’s left is for us to really, truly, confess our sins, and live for our Lord.


[1] Genesis 9

[2] Joshua 3

Cover image: Baptism of Christ by Daniel Bonnell

The Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

Colossians 3:1-11

When I was a boy in Sunday School, there was a song that we would often sing.  It goes like this:

            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            For the Father up above is looking down in love,
            So be careful little eyes what you see.

Maybe you’ve heard it.  The other verses go on to warn little ears to be careful what they hear, little hands to be careful what they do, little feet to be careful where they go, little minds to be careful what they think, and little hearts to be careful who they trust.

It’s a simple song, but in spite of it’s childlike simplicity, it shares much in common with what we read in the scriptures today. 

In Colossians, we are told that we are a new creation, remade as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and, St. Paul goes on to teach us, as those who now share in the life of Christ, we are to put off the thoughts and actions that define our world full of pain, grief, and shame. It’s a list of vices that isn’t news to any of us: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, slander, filthy language, lying to get ahead, and creating divisions amongst ourselves.

To borrow the extended image used by St. Paul, these are things that worldly people carry around with them, wearing these thoughts and actions as a garment, as clothes as they walk about.  And, to some extent, whether we like it or not, the old saying holds true: the clothes make the man.  Our identity is shaped by the image that we project to our friends and neighbours, and that image then shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions.  It’s like the kid who knows she has the coolest clothes, and allows that to become who she is, and shape how she treats other people.

Today’s lesson tells us to strip off that worldly clothes; to strip off that impurity, greed, anger, those lies and divisions, and instead to clothe ourselves with thoughts and actions that imitate Christ.

The implication, of course, being that we aren’t stuck in those sins as though they define us.  As comfortable as we get in well-worn clothes, and as much as wearing that favourite old shirt becomes a habit, if we choose, we can change them, and put on the garments of righteousness given to us at baptism.

Now this list, sexual immorality, greed, anger, filthy language, there are no surprises there, this is nothing new.  These are all things that, at some point, our parents, other family members, our clergy, and our teachers taught us, even if, in some cases, they didn’t practice what they preached.

A stumbling block

Yet, it’s this same list that becomes a stumbling block for so many who have left the church.  We’ve all heard it, I’d say especially from men who have wandered away from the church: “The church is full of hypocrites.  He’s selfish, she’s a gossip.  That one’s as greedy as you can imagine, and if that other one has a drink, you’d never believe the words that come out of their mouth.  Christians?  If that’s a Christian, I want nothing to do with it.”

All of us, as children, were taught to keep away from these worldly desires; all of us, one way or another, were warned to be careful of what we see, do, or say with our little eyes, hands, and mouths, often with the stern message that “God is watching”.

Many of us, for better or worse, were taught that purity – right actions, proper gratitude, good manners – would buy us favour with God.  Many of us were taught that it’s as though God was keeping a tally, like an eternal, heavenly “swear jar”, where we have to throw in a quarter for every curse word that crosses our lips, or do a good deed to make up for our failings.

And, if that’s the case, then those outside the church are right – the church is full of hypocrites.

Because the truth is, once we strip away the glossy exterior, every man, woman, and child alive continues to struggle with impurity and greed, with anger and rage, with filthy language, dishonesty, gossip, and divisions.

The reason for purity.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

The problem, though, with that Sunday School song is that it has the message backwards.

So many, both inside and outside the church, think that the Gospel message is that we are to do good, live the best life you can live, and earn heaven as the reward.  So many think that living a “Christian life”, living a pure and righteous life buys us eternal life.

But that’s to have the message bottom up.

Yes, and it’s so important that the scriptures tell us in multiple places, we’re to avoid immorality and adultery, impurity, and greed.  Yes, we’re to avoid divisions and lewd speech and drunkenness.  Yes, we’re to refrain from anger and dishonesty.

But we don’t do that to earn our place in the church or in the family of God.  And, our place in the family of God doesn’t depend on some heavenly tally, whereby any one of us could pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, aren’t I a good Christian”.

No.  We do our best to live in imitation of Christ because all of us – no matter what we’ve done, or whether our struggles are invisible or open for all to see – all of us have been invited to take off our worn-out earthly clothes and instead clothe ourselves with the grace of Christ.

I don’t try to live a pure life to earn heaven.  It’s the opposite.  Because Jesus loves me, I will live my life in a way that honours him. 

And if our neighbour’s struggles are more public than our own, we reach out to them in love, knowing that it’s only by the grace of God that we haven’t found ourselves in their situation in this broken and messy world.

Indeed, the Church – our church – is not called to be a museum for saints.  The church is a hospital for sinners, a home for the beloved children of God who have accepted the invitation into God’s family.

Yes, be careful little eyes what you see; and be careful little ears what you hear. 

But remember, it’s our Lord himself who says that it isn’t what goes into a person that makes them unclean; it’s what comes out of a person that makes us unclean.

It’s our Lord himself who raises the bar, saying that even just looking at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery.

And by the same token, if we pat ourselves on the back for our clean living, what have we done but allow pride to puff us up, allowing us to see ourselves as better than a brother or sister struggling with sex or drugs or drink or gossip or gambling.

We choose to take off those worldly habits because we love God, not to earn God’s love.

God is Watching… but that’s not a threat.

We have to remember, too, that God is watching.

But, even there, I fear sometimes we’ve got the message bottom-up.

For the Father up above is looking down… in what?

Too often, “God is watching” has been used as a threat.  But that goes back to that whole mistaken understanding of God as the great tally-keeper of good and evil.

As we heard in the Old Testament, yes, God is always watching.  But he watches as a loving Father; he waits patiently like a parent ready and willing to welcome a child back with open arms, no matter the mess we’re in – ready to take off the dirty, stained clothes we’re wearing and clothe us in his love.

Yes, God is watching, but he’s looking down in love, calling us to put off the ways of the world.  Not because our impurity makes him love us less, but as any loving and patient parent, he wants to spare the wayward child from learning lessons the hard way.

Being a disciple means to be one who is studying a discipline.  The scriptures use the image of a runner training for a race; no athlete who wants to win the race sits around eating donuts when they should be training on the track.

A disciple of Christ is one who is learning, studying, training to be like Christ.  And while no amount of failure can change the fact that he loves us and that he sees our value and our worth, it’s hard to say you’re training for the Olympics if you never go to the gym.  If we’re disciples, if we’re studying the way of God, that means we have to learn to love what he loves and to hate what he hates.  It means we live lives that keep things in perspective, not allowing our desires or pleasure to become the driving force in our lives.

Our Witness in the World

Be careful little eyes what you see?

Yes.  Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about you.

God’s plan for every church is that it is not just the place where people gather to praise and be fed and to fellowship and to have their wounds healed.  It’s the place from which we, you and me, are sent out to share that healing, that belonging, that love with people who are desperate to hear it, who are desperate to be invited to belong, and to be told that they are loved. 

There are people – even our own neighbours – who are desperate to take off their worn-out, dirty clothes, and to put on the garment of God’s love and forgiveness as they accept their place in his family – this family.

But, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, the clothes make the man or woman

If we’re to do that work God has given us, to be his messengers, his hands and feet in our community, we have to live lives that reflect his forgiveness, that reflect that, every time we mess up, he stands ready to re-clothe us as we commit once more to be his disciple.  

We’re to live lives not to show how pure or righteous we are, but to show how good God is, as we live for him instead of for ourselves.  The worn-out clothes of self-righteousness won’t get us far.  But, by the grace of God, with minds set on things above, clothed in forgiveness, and following the way of Christ, our lives themselves will preach the Gospel to a world that is desperate to hear it.

May God give us grace to live as his disciples.  Amen.

The Head of the Body

Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Christ is the head of the body; in him all things hold together.

Our lessons today point to Christ as the head of the body, as the cornerstone and foundation on which the Church is built. 

Our reading from Colossians really takes a big-picture, cosmic view: Jesus Christ, the second person of the eternal Trinity, is the one in whom all things were created.  Here St. Paul is speaking of Jesus as the Word of God spoken at creation – that Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us – as the very means by which the Creator called everything visible and invisible into being.

And, it’s worth noting, that St. Paul in this first part of Colossians makes some very big, and very serious claims.

All Things

While it’s one thing to say that Jesus is the head of the Christian Church, the scriptures actually make a claim much bolder than that.  As we proclaim today, he’s not just the head of the Church, but he himself is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning of all things, as the word that echoed through the universe and brought forth everything that is.  That’s what we proclaim when St. Paul says “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. 

And that’s a bold claim:

Not all “churchy” things, not all Christian things.  Not even all loving or lovely things.  But, in him, all things hold together.

That’s probably not the kind of deep theology that we spend much of our time thinking about. 

But, when we stop and think about what it is that we believe, there’s great comfort to be found in acknowledging Christ not just as my lord, or as a great teacher of Christianity, but in bowing the head and bending the knee to acknowledge Christ as lord of all creation.

And this bold claim is also a big part of understanding our faith.

One of the deep truths that we often hear repeated, especially in times of trouble, is that, in spite of whatever we’re facing, God works all things together for good for those who serve him.  But, if we stop and think, how could that be if the Lord is only lord of those who choose him, or is only one lord among many?

Those promises that we hold so dear – that the prayers of the righteous are effective, that the Lord will be with us and never forsake us, that the Risen Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us to live with him eternally – they only make sense, they only work, if Jesus Christ is not just my saviour or your saviour, but is indeed the Lord of all creation: the way, the truth, and the life for everything that is, the one by whom even that fallen angel, the devil himself, is destined to die, as Christ already conquered hell and the power of the grave, reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to himself in the offering of his sinless blood on the cross.

Of course, this is nothing new; this is the classic faith of the Church that we learned in Confirmation Class.  But, and I think we’ll agree, the world, and our communities have changed much in recent years.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the expectation, for better or worse, was that everyone belonged to a Church; that every child was brought before the congregation and baptized, in many cases, regardless of their parents’ intention to keep the solemn promises that were being made. 

There was also a time, not long ago, when the expectation was that every couple would receive the sacrament of holy matrimony in a consecrated church, regardless of whether or not they were actually inviting God into their relationship, and in some cases, regardless of whether or not they were actually intending to keep the vows made before God and his Church.

Today, by and large, that pressure to affiliate with a church is gone, and as Canadians, we do enjoy freedom to practice the religion of our choosing. 

But, the absolutely crucial point for the Church to remember is that, while it isn’t politically correct, and it certainly won’t make you popular, our steadfast belief is that Christ is Lord of All – Lord of every creature under heaven, and Lord of the living and the dead.  Our message – the message of hope and forgiveness and mercy through the offering of God’s own Son to redeem the world – only works if Jesus is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.

The moment we reduce Jesus to be a holy man and a good teacher, we’ve lost that firm foundation, that cornerstone, that solid rock on which we stand.

The moment we think of Christ as one option among many, we’ve lost the glorious truth of the Gospel – that, from the very foundation of the world, before time itself, the gracious Creator desired us to be in relationship with Him, and knowing that we mortal creatures could never earn immortality, would allow his only Son to take on human flesh, joining divinity and humanity together to break the grip of death, and paving the way for us to share in eternal life. 

That’s either universally true, in which case it is of the utmost importance and worth laying down your life for; or else, if it isn’t, then it is of no importance whatsoever; our great Gospel, the message that there is hope and mercy and forgiveness in Jesus, is a bold message that simply doesn’t work if it’s only half-way true.

Membership in the Body

And, this is where Christ as the “head of the body” really comes in.

Yes, Christ is Lord of all.  He’s Lord of all the living and the dead.

But, there are two ways we go about living into that.

It goes without saying that the head is the part that makes the body effective; if every body part were free to go its own way – think of someone having a seizure – it’s actually quite destructive; or, by the same token, if a body part won’t listen to the head – like a joint seized up with arthritis – then it makes life much more difficult.

It’s the head that makes the movements of the body effective.

And, if we think about it, it’s also the head that takes responsibility for the actions of the body.  If a kid steals some candy on the way out of the store, it’s not like he can stand there and say “well, my hand just did it”.  It doesn’t work that way: the head directs the body.

And from the beginning of the human race, our merciful, loving, and patient God has revealed himself to every people, language, and nation: first in the covenant of Creation, where, as scripture says, nature itself proclaims the goodness of the Creator; then in the law given to Moses, finally in the offering of Jesus Christ to reconcile God and humankind.

And in that, every person ever living has been given the choice: to live as though they’re the head of the body, as though they’re the lord and master of their own life; or to accept God as the head, and live according to his direction.

And as with human bodies, the head of the spiritual body both directs the actions of its members, and also takes responsibility for the actions of its members.

When we choose to live as though we’re in charge of our own lives, sure, it may appear as greater freedom: we can live as we want, spend our money on what we want, choose to love or hate our neighbour, choose to hold grudges, choose to seek revenge or hold on to past hurts, or gossip or steal or cheat.

But, if we live as lord of our own lives – a choice we’re free to make – then, when we stand before the throne of God above, we, as the head of our own body, will be held to account for our actions.

And, to be fair, that’s the standard operating procedure for many world religions: you have to do your very best, because they believe something will judge you based on the good you’ve done.

But, our Christian faith is very different.  Because, when we say, “Yes, I am a member of the body of Christ by baptism, with Christ as the head of the Church”, we’re saying “Yes, I agree to do all in my power to live by the example set by Jesus”.

But, we’re also saying, that Christ, the Risen Son of God, is our advocate; that we allow him to stand in our place before the throne, where he stands as our great high priest, pleading mercy on our behalf.

When we acknowledge Christ as head of the body, it means that, while we mourn our sin and strive to live rightly, when we look up, we see Christ offering himself for us, bearing our sins and our failings for us, so that we are counted free.

We proclaim, “no, I’m not the lord of my life”, and in doing so, accept the greatest freedom that comes from knowing that you don’t have to earn your reward, you just have to accept it, as it’s been freely given.

A Decision to Make

When you were baptized, either you or your parents and godparents proclaimed on your behalf your belief in the holy Catholic Church in the Apostles’ Creed.  That same church, which in our catechism is described as the body of Christ, and stands for all time and for all people living and dead, yesterday, today and forever.

The question now is whether you’ve chosen to live as a member of that body, with Christ at the head, or whether you’ve chosen to try your best and depend on your own strength.

Or, to put it in the words of today’s Gospel, are you living as Martha, rushing around, distracted, trying to do the right thing, when Jesus is calling you to be like Mary, who sat at his feet and listened to his Word.

The good news – the great news – is that it’s never too late.  While we can never do enough to pay off the wrong we do to others and our disobedience to God, Christ, the solid rock on which we stand, is ready to lift the burden of trying to please God and others, and to give us the grace to stand firm in his risen life.

He is ready to stand before God in your place, and take the responsibility for you, out of his great love. 

That’s what it means to say that you’re a part of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head.

To him be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.