Sermon from January 11th, 2015, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Text for the sermon was Mark 1:4-11.
Anyone who goes to seminary is bound to run into a few surprises. One of the surprises that I ran into in my Greek 101 class was the meaning for the word “baptizo.” I had sort of expected that to be translated “to baptize,” but there in my textbook it said “baptizo, to dunk.” With a little thought it makes a lot of sense. The modern word baptize now has 2,000 years of historical and traditional significance ascribed to it. We have made baptism into something specific, sacred, and holy. But for those people who stood shivering on the banks of the Jordan, waiting for a smelly camel-clothed man to help them look for something more in life, such things didn’t exist yet. For them, baptizo was just a word that meant dunk.
I have a lot of fun with this kind of thing. For instance, I baptized two donuts in my coffee this morning. And when the All-Star Break rolls around in the NBA, I will watch the Slam Baptize Competition, to see who can best baptize a basketball through the hoop.
What this should make us realize is that baptism was an ordinary thing that was used for extraordinary purposes. To those first people, dunked in the Jordan River, it was something unholy that was used for something holy. And that I think, is a good metaphor for who we are. We are an ordinary people used for extraordinary purposes. We are unholy but we are being made holy through baptism.
John was down in the Jordan river doing this ordinary thing to ordinary people when he looked up and Jesus was next in line. And after a little bit of hesitation John did this ordinary thing to an extraordinary person, and as he should have expected, something extraordinary happened. The heavens were ripped open, and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove.
A side note about the heavens being ripped open. There are only two times that Mark uses the word ripped (Gk. schizo) in his Gospel. The other time is when the curtain of the Temple is ripped in two. The curtain of the Temple separated the ordinary world from the Holy of Holies, it protected the sacred from the profane. The symbolism is that Jesus’ death ripped the barrier between heaven and earth. Through him, we are given access to the holiest of holies, God.
Jesus’ baptism demonstrates the same thing. It shows us an opening in the divide between heaven and earth, a crack in the façade. It tells us of an unholy people who are called to holy tasks. And it tells us of our holy God, who chooses to come and be unholy with us, in the form of Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are joined with Christ and made holy through Him. Jesus, the son of God, came down and participated in this ordinary thing. And then he invites us all to participate in this ordinary thing, and through it we become holy. What this tells us is that ordinary people doing ordinary things can become sacred, holy, and blessed.
There’s a church in Cincinnati called Holy Cross Immaculata. It’s an older church, and when it was first being built, the archbishop put a wooden cross up on top of the hill. And people would go up the hill to the cross to pray. Eventually Archbishop Purcell put some stairs up to make it easier for people to walk up to the cross. Over the years it became a tradition, people would pray their way up the stairs on Good Friday. You say a Hail Mary on every step and an Our Father on the landing. Eventually the wooden stairs wore out and they were replaced by concrete steps. But by that time so many people were praying their way up to the Holy Cross that the concrete steps had to be replaced. Twice. Now every Good Friday, beginning at midnight eight to ten thousand people gather at Holy Cross to pray their way up the stairs to the cross at the top of the hill. I don’t think anyone would deny that this is a holy place, for thousands of people to come to pray there every year. But if someone asked you what made this place holy, you’d be hard-pressed to say anything other than thousands of steps. Ordinary people taking ordinary steps, over and over again, until they became holy.
Baptism is an ordinary thing. Ordinary people, ordinary water, not even all that different from what you do in the morning when you take a shower. But in baptism we begin this process of being made holy, a process theologians call sanctification. And this process continues, not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary way that our lives progress. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Staying up late to talk to a friend. Watching the sun go all the way down. Offering forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness. Going to one more doctor’s office. Eating a meal with people you care about.
The miracle of baptism is not that the waters are holy; it is that the waters are not holy. Yet by the grace of God we are given holiness through them anyway, whether we deserve it or not. We embark on this great journey of becoming holy by doing something ordinary, through which the heavens are ripped open for us.
When I bring the Fun and Worship kids into the sanctuary, either for pageant practice or to show them something about the house of God, I always stop them at the door. And I tell them that this is a holy place. It isn’t a holy place because it has beautiful carpet, though it has. Nor is it a holy place because of the candles or the paraments or the beautiful cross hanging from the ceiling. This is a holy place because ordinary people have made it holy. It is holy because ordinary people have shared their lives here. Laughter has echoed off of the walls and tears have dampened the pews. Prayers have been prayed, spoken and unspoken. Hugs have been shared, both in joy and in sorrow. Here we have held baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And in the accumulation of all of these meaningful moments over our lifetimes, it has become a sanctuary for us. It is a place where we can go to take refuge from our crazy lives and find peace, if only for a moment. It is a place where we can go when our lives are falling apart and find people ready to help us put them back together again. It is a place where we can raise our children knowing that they will receive tender care and firm instruction in what is right. It is ordinary people who have made this place holy. Ordinary people who by the grace of God have done extraordinary things. That is the promise that we experience in baptism. We are dunked, dipped, or sprinkled, ordinary people in ordinary water, but because God chose to send the Spirit into the water and the Spirit into us, we can do extraordinary things.