The Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2021 – St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7-11
Last Saturday I went to the baptism for my newest niece and goddaughter, Bernadette.
And those are always great celebrations. But in the new translation of the Rite of Baptism, there is this striking word. And the first time I used the new translation myself to baptize a kid, I didn’t even realize they changed the word until I got to it. And it really stood out to me. Honestly, the first time I said it, I was like, “That’s a bit in-your-face.” Last Saturday, Fr. John Jirak did the baptism (and he’s pretty intense to begin with), but the word just popped out: contagion. “The contagion of Sin.”
Usually when we think about sin, we think about it as breaking some rules. God give us rules and commands and laws; our conscience has this sense within it of right and wrong—and so “sinning” is breaking those rules. It’s like God says, “Here are the bars you need to jump over, and if you don’t, you are sinning.” And that’s nice, but it’s not entirely helpful.
Sin, first and foremost, is a contagion. It’s a disease. It’s a virus. It spreads and infects everything it touches. (This isn’t a homily about COVID, but) the pandemic is exactly what Sin (at it’s core) is like. It’s like those maps of the spread of COVID. It’s all nice and clean, and then boom, covered in red and death.
It’s a virus, a contagion. It spreads rapidly. It leaves destruction in its wake. It destroys. And when and if you “recover,” you can be left scarred and incomplete. And like Sin, it leads to Death.
Symptoms of a Disease
What I hear in confession a lot is the weariness of people. People are weary. They confess that they’re tired and weary, because they seem to be confessing the same sins over and over again. And what I constantly remind people is that sin is holding on to us. Yes, “sins” are bad things you do. Yes, we freely commit “sins.” But Sin, the contagion of Sin, has it’s hold on us!
You can get rid of Sin about as easily as you can end the pandemic.
And throughout history, we’ve tried; we’ve tried to put an end to Sin’s power, just like the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, we have enacted so many laws and restrictions and safety measures. And these laws are meant to protect us, to keep this contagion from running wild, to limit the destruction of the virus. Because of Sin, the People of God did this as well. And what’s more, God even helped them with this. God gave the people ten wonderful little laws. And again, these were not “ten bars God wants you to jump over,” they were ten commandments to help contain the spread of Sin: “Want to help decrease the spread of Sin? How about you place God first. Try honoring your father and mother. Don’t kill people. Don’t commit adultery. Stop stealing.” Later on—and this is the infamous book of Leviticus, and then later the 613 precepts of the law—the people of God developed more and more laws and rules and restrictions to try to contain the spread of Sin.
But what happened? Just like COVID, just like our rules and laws and safety measures are nice and helpful—just like this, the laws are not enough to truly fix the problem. People broke the laws. They didn’t follow guidelines. Things got worse. The people of God continued to break all of these laws God gave to them to help them! And Sin, the contagion of Sin, got worse and worse. It spread uncontrollably, and more and more continued to suffer and die.
People are very upset and very distraught about the pandemic. The number of people being infected and dying is truly staggering. People’s entire lives are consumed with it. We’re tired. The pandemic is always on our minds. And we keep crying out, “When will it end? When will things go back to normal? When will we be saved?”
But this is exactly what it’s about, what the issue of Sin is about. And I know I sound like a broken record when I say this—but sorry, I’m not sorry. This is what it’s all about. When it comes to Sin, we’re in the same kind of boat as this pandemic, only worse. We try to pretend that we’re not. We try to pretend that everything is fine. If something goes wrong, we think that we just need some better rules or laws or ethics. Or we just need to get over it. But that’s patently false.
What we need is healing, restoration, “immunity.” The change we need isn’t just external, it’s internal. What we need is the restoration of all of creation, renewal of our humanity.
A Suffering Servant King Who Brings New Creation
Alright. Good. How? What is God going to do about it? “Jesus.” Good job, the right answer is always “Jesus.” Go read our first reading from Isaiah (42:1-7)—and all of Isaiah really—with this in mind. The LORD says, “Here is my servant…upon whom I have put my spirit…not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street…[but] opening the eyes of the blind, bringing out prisoners.” What is the LORD saying? He is saying that He will send His Servant to do this. He will place His spirit on this Servant to empower him. And this Servant will not accomplish his task by violence or force or power or laws (“crying out and shouting”), but modestly and quietly, bringing about interior transformation and renewal. Signs will accompany this so that we can verify he is at work: the blind will see—healing will be the gift he brings; people will be freed from “prison”—liberated from what holds them captive. And the goal? The restoration of all of creation, the renewal of our humanity.
The great announcement that we have about Jesus is not that he is a cute baby in a manger; it’s not that he was a nice guy, or that he taught us how to vote; it’s not that contraception is wrong, or that if you follow Jesus’ rules you get to go to heaven. No. The announcement is that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with [the Spirit of God] and power. He went about doing good and healing those oppressed by [the source of Sin]” (Acts 10:38).
This guy, this Jesus from Nazareth, Joseph’s kid, the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14)—this is the Servant God spoke of. This is our Gospel today: the Spirit comes down upon Jesus in the water, anointing him as this Servant.
Alright. I have $2 bills. Question to the audience (must be under 18 to play). Question: when was the first time we were told about the Spirit of God hovering over waters, and then God spoke his Word, and what happened was described as “good”? When was the first time we hear about the Spirit of God hovering over water?
Genesis 1. Exactly. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.…and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said (spoke his word), ‘Let there be light’…And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:1-4).
Mmmk. Here in this scene in the Gospel today, of Jesus’ baptism, what do we have? We have the Spirit of God moving over the waters, and the literal Word of God (Jesus, God’s Word, God’s “speech”) is there in the waters. And what happens? Again, what is God doing with his Spirit and his Word? Creating. Here in Jesus’ Baptism, God is announcing the beginning of new creation.
The Ruakh (רוּחַ) of God
We say “Holy Spirit,” and we’ve said it so much that we don’t know what we’re saying. “Oh yeah, Holy Spirit—Father, Son, Holy Spirit.” So we’re going to use the Hebrew word so that we don’t zone out and forget what’s going on. The Hebrew word for the Spirit is Ruakh (רוּחַ).
Ruakh is the way the Bible talks about God’s personal presence. Ruakh can mean a lot of different things, but what they all have in common is energy or power. It’s also the same word for wind or breath, or spirit—an invisible force or power or energy. It is this Ruakh that gives life, that is the power at work in creation. (Are you with me? Ok.) Throughout the Bible, though, this Ruakh also gives power to certain people for certain tasks. Most importantly, it is given to the prophets (like Isaiah). And the prophets said that one day, God will pour out his Ruakh upon us. Why? To renew us, to liberate us, to recreate us and, indeed, to recreate all of creation.
Here in the Baptism of the Lord, we see this Ruakh hovering above the waters with God’s Word again. It comes down upon Jesus to anoint him, to single him out as God’s Servant, God’s Servant who will begin the new creation. And we see this happening when Jesus goes about doing “good”—again, not “being a good guy,” but doing the work of new creation, creation which God described in the beginning as “good.” Jesus goes about healing people, forgiving sins, raising people from the dead; Jesus is creating life where there once was only Sin and Death. But as Isaiah continues, this Servant’s mission takes a striking turn.
The Lamb of God
John the Baptist cried out, Jesus is also the Lamb of God. John cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the Sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And when the religious and civil leaders oppose Jesus and eventually have him killed, we learn what this Baptism was pointing toward. Jesus wasn’t only going around doing good: he was going to confront Sin at its core. Jesus came to take away the contagion that had inundated the world.
On the cross, Jesus confronts Sin—and it appears he loses. Like everyone else, he goes against Sin, and dies. But even here, God’s Ruakh is at work. His apostles testify that he has risen, that God’s energizing Ruakh had raised him from the dead. And not just revived him, but resurrected him. He is the beginning of the new creation, the first-born of this new creation (c.f., Col 1:15).
Baptism in Christ: New Creation
And this new creation is still going on. Jesus appears to his followers and breathes on them and says, “Receive the Ruakh” (c.f., John 20:22), and gives them the power to forgive sins. Later on, the Ruakh comes upon them while they’re in the upper room; it comes from heaven like the sound of a violent wind, and fire rests above them, and they are filled with this Ruakh (c.f., Acts 2:2-4). Why? So that they can become a part of this new creation.
This is precisely what happened to us when we were baptized and confirmed. Like the Beloved Son, we became children of the Father, reborn through water and the Ruakh, the Spirit—reborn as a new creation. And the Spirit of God continues to work within our hearts, bringing about an interior transformation. And through us—not by our power, or our cleverness, or anything—but through us, the the power of Spirit continues to work, spreading the new creation throughout the world.
Right after the Baptism of a child, right after my niece Bernadette was baptized, right after you pour the water on her head and anoint her with the Sacred Chrism (again, symbols of this water and the Ruakh—the priest says, “Bernadette, you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ.” A new creation, clothed with Christ, empowered by the Ruakh, reborn of water.
And that Ruakh will continue to transform her and empower her, just as it does each one of us—until the day the Ruakh finishes the job, we are raised from the dead by the power of this Ruakh, and all of creation is made new.