The Baptism of Jesus:
God Manifest in Water
Sermon by Teri Daily
Life began in water. It was in the thermal waters of ancient earth that chemical elements came together to form organic molecules; over time these organic molecules became more and more complex, until they gave rise to simple cells and then ultimately to multi-celled organisms. Water cradles and protects the unborn child. Without adequate water the human body is unable to sustain blood circulation, regulate its temperature, or rid itself of toxic substances. Water sustains and nurtures us; without water, life as we know it would be impossible.
And yet water is one of the major sources of disruption in our world. Over the past thirty years, floods have caused an average of 7.9 billion dollars in damage and 82 fatalities in the US each year. Just look at the news coverage of the floods left by torrential rains in Arkansas and Missouri, or Facebook pictures of a flooded-out Toad Suck Park. Water is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as it is essential. It can break into our world in dramatic ways; it can disrupt our lives, our plans, our expectations, everything we cling to. No wonder water is the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, especially in baptism.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus—as we do each year on the First Sunday in the Season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation,” and during this season we celebrate that God has revealed God’s self in Jesus. The revelation or epiphany at Jesus’ baptism comes as the heavens break open and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove, declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, God’s beloved.
If we look closely at today’s gospel reading, we see a striking difference in the way that Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism when compared to Matthew and Mark. Both Matthew and Mark explicitly state that John the Baptist is the one to baptize Jesus. Not so for Luke; in fact, in the verses left out of today’s reading, Luke tells us that John has been imprisoned by Herod. So it’s not entirely clear who baptizes Jesus. What is important for Luke is not the role that John the Baptist plays in the baptism of Jesus, but the role that the Holy Spirit plays. And, as we know, when the Holy Spirit gets involved, things don’t always go according to our own plans or expectations.
I’m not sure what Jesus’ own expectations of his life were before he was baptized and then driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ ministry does seem to have shattered the expectations John the Baptist had of the Messiah. John proclaims that the Messiah will come with winnowing fork in hand. He will come “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” I’m not so sure that Jesus’ ministry lived up to John’s expectations.
Several chapters later in the gospel of Luke, John’s disciples tell him all about what Jesus is doing, and John sends them back to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another one?” Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus doesn’t fit the Messiah that John imagines. Can John not take offense at this unexpected manifestation, but actually embrace it? Can John let go of his preconceived ideas and expectations, and just trust the reality of God’s healing love in the here and now?
Frankly, I don’t blame John for expecting a Messiah who would dramatically resolve the injustices of the world in one great triumphant moment. After all, God breaks into the world in dramatic ways all throughout scripture—parting the waters of the Red Sea, making manna fall from heaven, saving Daniel in the lions’ den, just to name a few. And later the Holy Spirit would continue that precedent—descending in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism, dissolving language barriers on the day of Pentecost, and transporting Philip from one location to another in an instant. In scripture, God is often depicted as breaking into the world through spectacular events.
But all of the dramatic manifestations of God in scripture are balanced by the understanding that God is also known in the depths of our hearts, even in the most difficult of situations—by the faith of Job even in his grief, by the peace of Paul even during his imprisonment, by the joy of the early Church even in their persecution. The God that disrupts our lives and ideas and expectations is the very same God that dwells at the core of our being, sustaining our every breath with unwavering love; it’s just that this quiet activity of God in the world is so much harder to recognize.
There is the well-known story of two young fish who are swimming along, and they pass an older fish going the other way. The older fish nods and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep swimming. Eventually one of them says to the other: “What’s water?” The point is that we live and move and have our being in God and, yet, so often we can only see that presence when it is made strange to us.
But what if we learned to recognize God not just in miraculous events external to us, but in the still, quiet voice within us? What if we learned to see in a new way, not through the lens of our preconceived ideas but with the eyes of our heart? Maybe that’s the gift in having our expectations shattered—we have to let go of our own ideas about how God “should” be manifest and instead trust the deep, healing presence of God found here and now, within us and around us.
So as we enter the season of Epiphany, I invite you to look for all the many ways God is made manifest. Not just in expected ways, but also in the unexpected. Not just in dramatic epiphanies that originate outside ourselves, but also in the quiet ones that spring up from within. Not just in sudden conversion experiences, but also simply in the next breath we take. Not just in angelic visitations, but also in the companions who walk with us daily. Not just in the Holy Spirit breaking into this world, but also in God’s presence with us always and everywhere.
After all, the Holy Spirit is like water. Water not only disrupts our lives with floods; it also flows within us, sustaining life at each and every second. One manifestation is as miraculous as the other.