When scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson died, his son, Leif, noted that his father "only had one sermon, one message.”
At Eugene’s funeral, Leif shared this poem about his father:
“It's almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new. They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them. They didn't know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”
Leif Peterson knew this because he heard the sermon every night,
"For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It's the same message over and over: 'God loves you. He's on your side. He's coming after you. He's relentless.’"
The secret is out: that’s the only sermon in my closet, too. I pull it out and accessorize it with stories, high-brow theology, and flowery language. But it’s all I will ever say because it’s all I know to say. This is gospel. One important theologian, who wrote masses of texts, was once asked how he would summarize the millions of words he had published. His answer? "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Though, to be fair, sometimes it lands harsher, like law, when the same blessing is proclaimed about our neighbors. We’re given commandments because we fail to believe that the gospel holds true for all, and not just the people we deem worthy.
At the very least, the church can preach love with confidence, and has been seeking to for two thousand years. The sermon has yet to go out of style or become inessential in a world starved for good news. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, only for it to roll back down the hill, I stand behind the pulpit and proclaim this message, which is more or less the same one that God gave to Jesus at his baptism. And then, I do it again the following week.
At least I’ll never be out of a job.
Jesus’ baptism is a microcosm of salvation history and a recapitulation of what has happened prior. Jesus is down at the Jordan River, that is, the same place where the Israelites entered the promised land after being led by Moses through the Red Sea into freedom out of Egypt. He is there alongside streams of people who are looking for a fresh start. In came the racists and addicts, the spouses in the midst of infidelity, the CEOs and stockholders. Surely, there were others who appeared healthy and happy, but were harboring some kind of guilt or darkness deep in their souls. It was a shameful and embarrassing lot of people for a king and messiah to be caught naked with. But Jesus, who didn’t need the water, hopped in line because we did.
We can’t reach up to God. There’s no tower of Babel that can climb to the heavens. God descends low enough to take a bath alongside us— like a parent who reaches down into the bathtub to scrub a screaming toddler and then, climbs in to be with her, soothe her, show her all will be well. God comes down, down, down until God was immersed into the scum and slime of a river. In other words, Jesus emptied himself into every part of our world so that we might be immersed into all of God.
Here, at Jesus’ baptism, Israel’s longings are answered. Isaiah’s prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” is finally answered. The Spirit that hovered over the chaotic waters when the world was birthed is now hovering over Jesus’ water-logged body, bestowing a new creation. The dove that Noah sent out when the ark waded on sea waves has returned with another olive branch—Jesus. Finally, God speaks from the heavens: “You are my child, my beloved, and I am pleased with you.”
There it is, the sermon, and the reason why God goes to all this trouble to play with water.
Water is completely ordinary, just a compound of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but it also sustains all life. Water nourishes us in the womb and runs through our veins. It’s the only satisfaction for a dry mouth and the foundation for all food that is complex and delicious. It is water that cleanses our children following an afternoon of marching through the forests and later becomes the bubble bath for the overworked mother or the sponge bath for the elderly resident in the nursing home. Even tears are drops of water that cleanse our eyes and hearts. But that's not all, water is security, sustenance for the future, and as the Israelites who crossed through the Red Sea remind us, an escape route.
Water: cleansing, sustaining, and saving. The best news about your past, present, and future.
The first thing that I do every Sunday is walk over to the baptismal font and pour water into a bowl. It’s a sermon that splashes and trickles. I plagiarize the sermon given to Jesus by saying something like this: “Remember your baptism. You are a beloved child of God. This is your family. Welcome home.” We are baptized only once, but we are called upon to remember our baptism every day. To bathe in it. Splash in it. Die in it. Be born in it.
Baptism doesn’t always seem to work, at least not immediately. Change, I’ve learned, takes time—especially the kind that reorients your entire constitution of desire. This is why we have to keep reminding ourselves of the water. It’s not that the gift is imperfect, but that we are. We must die to ourselves in order to rise with Christ, but sin is a hard thing to drown. Right when we think we’ve gotten it under control, it rears its head, takes another breath, and whispers 'there are other means of salvation, like that new toy from REI or your next one-click purchase. Shove the cleansing and healing water back into the font and close the lid. Forgot about it. Drink from the water of Starbucks while worshipping at the altar of Target. Turn back to the gods on your screens and in your wallet (or maybe a Dairy Queen Blizzard) to quench the ‘worthiness’ thirst.' Or, thus says the little voice in my head.
I think this must be why Martin Luther often dipped his finger in water during times of great stress and said to himself, ‘remember you’ve been baptized.’ The water was a reminder of his identity, and also a calling to live into a new identity. Now, he may have equally often picked up a stein of beer. But one of the two bestowed true life and the other bestowed life that was followed by a headache.
There is a paradox at the core of baptism: everything changes and nothing completely changes. If baptism is efficacious, then it works slowly like a seed that is planted and still needs watering, a marriage that must be attended to, a child who grows into the life that waits for him. In a sense, we’ve not exited the pool; we’re still immersed in the waters—dying, reforming in the womb, and rising into new life.
Baptism is more than a rite of passage, or a graduation ceremony for infants. It’s a death and resurrection. The start of something new. TS Eliot in his Four Quartets writes that “In my beginning is my end.” He must have been speaking of baptism. The font is the starting point for the journey and it’s also the endpoint. We can’t say in what oceans we’ll end up swimming or who ends up with us in the boat. We’re not promised calm or tumultuous waters, but only a Christ who will walk toward us on the waters. And when we come to the end of all our exploration, we’ll realize we’ve been at the end all along— swimming in the deep, rich pools of God’s grace claimed as God’s own children.
We need to be reminded of the truth about ourselves from time to time. After all, it can take a lifetime to claim what was named at the waters. And so every week we gather at the waters and I share the only message I know: you are beloved.