“Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us. Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices. Abandon us not to our own voices. Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and then give us the grace to listen. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hears be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our rock, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.” — Will Willimon
I must say, I do not know how to preach this text. Not that I really know how to preach at all — I am just a kid — but these texts have proven quite difficult to wrestle with, not least because of the time in which we live. The past week has left me shocked, scared, sad, exhausted, depleted, angry, and a variety of other emotions that are not particularly conducive to preaching. One might assume that the potential for war would make sermons easier to write. I can assure you it does not. The task of truthfully declaring the peace incarnate in Christ is made all the more difficult by war. In fact, a theological analysis of war would probably conclude that this is precisely war’s purpose: to make the Gospel mute. Understanding how baptism could bear on the prospect of war has made for tough muddling.
You see, the fact that this country has been at war almost every single day that I have been alive means that peace — and, moreover, justice — are concepts that are difficult to entertain. Such entertainment has been precluded by the ubiquity of war in our collective, modern lives. In the U.S., this is true also because war does not happen here. We are blissfully untouched by the corporeal vicissitudes of militaristic violence. The flip side of this bliss is the ignorance of the ways in which war directs and pervades every aspect of ours lives, especially those of us who live in the DC area. We are ignorant especially of war’s tangible effects. We see a rising defence budget, while others only see a bomb dropping towards their village. Aeschylus was quite right to note that truth is the first casualty of war. War and its bedfellow Fear inoculate us to the violence they require, turning children into statistics and families into cold calculations.
I should say, though, that the prospect of war is not new to me: my generation has never known the United States without war. That I have never known this country without war is in itself a testament to the power war has to perpetuate itself. War makes a weapon of fear, and fear makes a weapon of the mundane, meaning that the everyday occurrences constituting our normal lives must never be taken for granted. It is a time of crippling, systematic anxiety, what Kierkegaard would have called “fear and trembling.”
The same fear and anxiety is what strikes at the heart of the Israelites in the Exodus scripture. This people has not known peace or justice for centuries; they have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The everyday activities of their lives are marked by violence, death, suffering; all at the hands of their captors. So when Moses comes along, we all read the text and assume the Israelites are ready to go, ready to get out of Egypt and go to the land promised to Abraham.
“Stand still,” the inspirational plaque painted in our minds reads. “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. The lord shall fight for you, and you shall have peace.”
But wait, look again. Did you notice? Israel didn’t want to go. To say they are scared does not do justice to the situation of Israel. They are paralysed by a fear that causes them to want to return. The status quo of slavery to the Egyptians at least offered them the possibility of a life. Slavery, they say, is better than death. And further, certain early church interpreters of this Exodus text understood Egypt to represent Death itself. What they did in identifying Egypt with death was to illustrate the sheer bind that faced the people attempting to escape. Death stands on both sides of them, one in the form of war, the other in the form of drowning. Israel sees death approaching, hears the march of war, and thinks, “this has got to be the end.”
Go back – its right there in the text. In verse 12, the Israelites yell at Moses, the drumbeat of the Egyptian army getting louder and louder by the minute. “Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians. It is better to serve them than to die in the wilderness.” They are, on all accounts, surrounded. War and death, personified in the Egyptian army, approach from the one side, and the Red Sea surrounds them on the other. They are sure to lose the battle, and they cannot survive the swim. The fear that Rameses held over them as slaves sets in once again, and the Israelites are afraid to leave. The fear strikes at the very core of their being.
Don’t get me wrong here: I am not blaming the Israelites for wanting to survive, no matter the cost. Their situation is the very opposite of envious. It seems that the only option is surrender.
But they are the people of God, and if there is any lesson to be drawn from that, it is that God will make his way happen, whether they like it or not. That’s why Moses’ directions is to tell them to stand still. Don’t do anything, Moses says, or you’ll muck up God’s work.
And then, well, you know the story. Moses raises his staff, and God does the rest. Egypt is no more, and Israel is saved. They are baptised in the Red Sea.
Fast forward a while and we find John, a rather extraordinary person dropped in the middle of the height of the Roman Empire to call Israel to repentance. He comes from the desert, from an undesirable place, calling out from the wilderness. He calls Israel out of Rome. John’s call to repentance mirrors Moses’ command to the Israelites: “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” “Repent ye,” John says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Come, be baptised, John urges.
Until Jesus comes along.
Then John stops. “I can’t baptise you,” he says. “I’m not even worthy to touch your sandals. In fact, you should baptise me.” John’s right. For all intents and purposes, John is right. The man before him is not a sinner; Jesus has no need to be baptised. There is nothing, John thinks, that he can do for Jesus. Putting aside John’s good-willed intention to tell God what God ought to be doing, John is right to wonder why Jesus comes to be baptised. The judge comes among the judged to be baptised; the one who is without sin approaches John with the worst of criminals. And John is right to be confused. Here is the man he has been waiting to see his whole life, the Messiah of the world, and he wants to be baptised? For what?
“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus says.
Did you get that? Baptism, His baptism, is necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.” He didn’t say, “Baptism is necessary for my personal repentance.” He didn’t say, “we need baptism to get to heaven.” He didn’t say, “baptism is about your choice to have a relationship with God.” No! Jesus is emphatic: “my baptism,” he says, “is necessary to fulfil all righteousness.”
Baptism, Jesus says, is about me. Baptism is about who I am.
Just like when God saves Israel through the Red Sea, the baptism isn’t about them. The baptism of Israel is about God. Baptism reveals to us not who we are, but who God is. Israel rejects God, and yet God parts the waters and drags them through to the other side. God refuses to let them return to slavery. The exodus story parallels what God does for us in the baptism of our Lord. Christ is baptised such that we may all be baptised — Christ’s baptism brings us through, kicking and screaming, from the clutches of death and slavery. In Christ’s baptism, the law is fulfilled. Whereas before, Jesus came in the form of a cloud that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians, in his baptism he is fully revealed to us as the Son in whom the Father is well pleased.
The God who is baptised in the Jordan by John is the one who seeks us out first and speaks to us first, in fact, speaks us into existence. We cannot conjure up this God; we could not think him up. If we could, we wouldn’t need to be told who he is. But the whole purpose of John’s baptism of Jesus is for us, for Israel, to find out who this sinless man really is. And as if it isn’t enough of a slap in our rational faces, this God who would humble himself to receive a sinner’s baptism is the God who saves us despite our rejection of him. The baptism of Christ is the moment in which the character of God is revealed, the character of the God who brought the Israelites through the Red Sea despite themselves.
So yes, I understand that the title of this sermon may be somewhat controversial, but it is true. Salvation is by baptism alone… Salvation is by His baptism alone. The baptism we have, the practice by which God enfolds us in Christ’s story, is the means by which we understand who God is. That we baptise babies is no joke: they are the precise markers of someone who cannot confess, who cannot conceive of their own sin, who is ignorant of everything except itself. Infant baptism shows us that our God, the God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the centrepiece of baptism. Baptism is the moment in which God tears open the world, breaks in and declares the Son ‘good.’
If baptism is really about revelation, if it is really about God showing us who God is, then the baptism of Christ cannot be abstracted from the cross on which he will hang later in the story. That is, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s crucifixion are two moments of the same revelation. Which means that to be baptised is to be baptised into death, into Christ’s death. The tearing open of the Red Sea is a foreshadowing of the tearing open of the heavens in Christ’s baptism, which in turn is the same salvation indicated by the tearing of the temple veil on Good Friday.
When we are baptised, we are baptised into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are baptised into our own deaths, and reborn in his life. The life of Christ is embodied in the people, the body that believes that war has been abolished, that death has been defeated, and that a new ruler has been enthroned. Notice: we are not a people who believe we have to work to abolish war. Our baptism, the act in which we find out just what kind of God we worship, tells us already that war has been defeated. It has been defeated because Christ has been baptised, because God broke into the world and did not let death win.
Matthew tells us that the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, alights on Jesus when he emerges from the waters. That this happens indicates to us that every prophecy has been fulfilled in the one who humbled himself and took our form. And it tells us that war is no more. War lost its stranglehold of fear when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan. The world has been baptised. And that means that our hope is not in vain.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.