Baptism of our Lord
Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
“In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth-when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water -God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God separated between the light and the darkness. And God called the light ‘day’ and called the darkness ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” The Hebrew phrase is ruach Elohim, literally “God’s spirit” or “wind of God.”
In Greek, it is pneuma, and these words mean wind or breath or spirit, all often used interchangeably. In the Old Testament, life begins and ends with respiration, with breath.
Whoooossshhhhhh. God blows into the nostrils the breath of life, and the human becomes a living being. And at the other end of the spectrum, a person “breathes their last”; It’s how Hebrew scripture articulates death in a poetic, and accurate, way.
So, what is the Holy Spirit? How do we have a sense of the Holy Spirit? I’ve always felt like God and Jesus are something you can wrap your mind around. I can imagine God as the Creator. I can think about God being very near, a source of comfort and strength. Jesus is pretty tangible. Jesus was a person. The human experience makes sense to us. We may still be a bit fuzzy on the particulars of things such as the Virgin Birth, even after that excellent Advent sermon. Jesus is an historical figure we can imagine in the same way we can think about other people from history, people like Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, or Thomas Jefferson.
But the Holy Spirit is a bit more nebulous or wily. How do you envision Her? Clearly, I am of the opinion that the Holy Spirit is feminine. But what do you think? Do you picture a dove like we see in scripture when Jesus is baptized? Do you think of the Spirit as wind, water, fire, salt, or seed? Some of us saw very clearly the Holy Spirit in the flames of the fire at our Epiphany celebration in the courtyard Tuesday night and there are some wonderful photos to share with you. And some of you have probably never even given it any thought, like the disciples in Acts, who said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” The symbols of the Holy Spirit in scripture are diverse. In addition to these symbols that are natural elements, the Spirit is also depicted as a Doorkeeper, Comforter, Advocate, Helper, and Witness.
As I sat in prayer the other morning, I was thinking about the Holy Spirit. Instead of rushing through Morning Prayer or my litany of intercessory prayers, I sat there with my eyes closed, consciously relaxed my shoulders and took three deep breaths. And you know what? I realized I was breathing. I thought about the ruach, the pneuma, the spirit and breath. I took a few more deep breaths in….and out….and realized how very, very long it has been since I’ve taken the time to breathe deeply. In the midst of Christmas and Epiphany busyness, I had forgotten to breathe. It is my guess, that with the loss of breathing deeply, I had also lost sight of the Holy Spirit. This realization made me wonder. When we pray, to whom do we pray? Do we pray to God? Do we pray to Jesus? Maybe we have some former Catholics in our midst who still pray to Mary. But have you ever directed your prayers to the Holy Spirit? If so, please tell me about it because I’m curious and I’m going to be trying it myself.
The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life that upholds the rhythms of life. If Jesus is the incarnation, the central mystery, the glue of Christianity, then what or who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the mystical space in between you and me and everything, moving between us humans and non-humans alike and building up the kingdom. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. She is the Force that transformed the specific body of Jesus into the abstract body of Christ that is the life of the world. The Holy Spirit is powerful because She shapes the interacting forces of the universe. It is a divine surge that calls all things back from destruction like a big magnet for good. The Holy Spirit is kind of like a vacuum…….really. A giant vacuum, that chases us down the rabbit trail of debauchery, or loneliness, or self-indulgence, or distraction, whatever it is that we let get between us and God. The Holy Spirit is a vacuum or a magnet that sucks us back, that draws us back, and reminds us of who we are and whose we are because we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and I’m going to get to that part in a minute because that’s about baptism.
With the birth of Jesus, there was a burst of activity of the Holy Spirit. At this point in scripture, we see a shift from the Old Testament Holy Spirit who visited occasionally through prophets or by God’s divine hand to a Spirit who is known and present. This profound shift occurs with the Baptism of Jesus which we celebrate today. Clearly his baptism happened and was important because all three synoptic gospels include the story and it is much the same in each version. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been preaching in the wilderness, a little bit of a strange guy. He has been preaching to the crowds, to anyone who’ll listen, baptizing with water and prophesying – saying, “Hey, there’s someone else yet to come, someone much more powerful than me. Wait for him. Watch for him. Let’s get ready. It’s time to repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness. I am only here to prepare the way.”
In each account, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus travels from Galilee to the River Jordan to be baptized. Just as he comes out of the water, the heavens are opened or torn apart and the Spirit of God, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. Luke’s gospel says “in bodily form like a dove.” And each version says the exact same thing next: “And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is the beginning of the shift, the shift in the way we know and experience the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the mystical space in between you and me and everything, moving between us, building up the community. It is a little abstract, a bit wily or nebulous. She is the Force that will transform the specific body of Jesus into the abstract body of Christ that is the life of the world. That is what I experience when I worship here with you because we are that abstract Body. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in this place.
I felt it in abundance Tuesday night when we came together as a community to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Many of us gathered for Evening Prayer in the chapel and then here, in the Church for Eucharist before processing out to the Courtyard for a Tent Revival with a Fire and more singing and more prayers. Right? Doyt and I took turns leading prayers to which the congregation responded, “Alleluia! Amen!” To which the congregation responded………… “Alleluia! Amen!” Our other catchphrase of the evening was: “This is none other than the house of God” and “Surely God is in this place.” The atmosphere was magical, the weather sublime, the fire abundant and Spirit-filled, and the excitement palpable. The Holy Spirit certainly was there. Boy, oh boy, was She there. That’s just how the Holy Spirit works in communities, creeping up and in – showing up in unexpected places like the flames of a fire or in the conversations and prayers of a small group, or in the endurance of someone undergoing a tough time. That is where the Holy Spirit shows up.
I mentioned earlier being marked as Christ’s own forever. We will say that in a few minutes as we baptize Vivian and Fisher as the two newest Christians in the world. They will be sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. And that can’t ever be taken away. They will be baptized just like Jesus, just like their parents, and grandparents, for Fisher, just like his brothers and sister, just like the generations who have been baptized in this place before, in this house of God.
We baptize in a community, making promises on their behalf because they are infants, and promise to help their parents raise them in their life in Christ. It’s a tall order, a big responsibility, and one that changes all of us. The final prayer during the baptism says, “Sustain them in the Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” What a beautiful thing!
This day we also renew our own baptism. I challenge each of us to take that seriously. Walk out of here this day feeling sustained by the Holy Spirit. Address your prayers for the next month to the Holy Spirit and see what happens. Have an inquiring heart, a spirit to know and love God. Attend classes. Talk to me about joining a small group. Challenge yourself to dig a little deeper in your spiritual practices and I’m willing to bet you will find a renewed sense of joy and wonder in all of God’s works.