Sermon for April 11th, 2021

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Sacred Promises: Water & the Spirit, Part I

It was the season of Lent in a small, Roman Catholic neighborhood, and that meant only fish dinners, for everyone except Donald McGregor, who was a Presbyterian. Every Friday night, Mr. McGregor would fire up his grill and put on a nice, mouthwatering steak. The smell would permeate the neighborhood and make all the neighbors green with envy. So they got together with their local priest, who agreed to talk to Mr. McGregor. After a long, very persuasive conversation, Mr. McGregor (who was a pretty agreeable sort) agreed to convert to Catholicism. The priest baptized him on the spot, sprinkling his head with holy water and saying, "Donald McGregor: You were born a Presbyterian, you were raised a Presbyterian, but NOW you are a Roman Catholic."

Everyone was happy...until the next year, on the very first Friday of Lent. Mr. McGregor fired up his grill again, and the delicious smell of steak wafted through the neighborhood once more. The neighbors rushed over to his house, and peering over the fence, they watched as Mr. McGregor bent over his grill. He held in his hand a small bowl of water, and as he sprinkled water onto the sizzling steak, they could hear him say to the steak, "You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but NOW you are a fish!"

Today's sermon is about baptism, an ancient ritual that is important to Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and pretty much all Christian denominations. Some Christians baptize only adults, others baptize mostly infants, some sprinkle with water, others immerse completely, and entire wars have been fought over how to baptize someone in just the right way, at just the right time, with just the right words.

I think Craig Field is going to address some of those differences in his sermon next week, but today, I want to focus on something really basic, something everyone pretty much seems to agree on: The water, and the Spirit of God that is somehow present in the act of baptism. How did water come to be seen as central to the act of baptism? And how did this ritual (which is one of the two sacraments recognized by Presbyterians) come into existence, long before the Presbyterian Church existed, long before Christianity existed, and even long before the time of Jesus, in the ancient faith of the Jewish people.

To do this, we're going to take a trip through the Hebrew Scriptures, which we often refer to as the "Old Testament." And we'll start at the very beginning.

Genesis 1:1-5 (OT p.1)

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

This is the first place where water is mentioned in the Bible, and it's interesting that even here, in the very second verse of the Bible, the water is somehow connected with God's spirit. The NRSV says that "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" but the Hebrew word for "wind" is רוּחַ (ruah) which is the same word used throughout the scriptures for spirit. If you keep reading through the chapter, you find that the waters, along with the land, the animals, and the people are all created by God, and blessed by God when he calls these things "good."

Some people ask me if I use a special kind of water for baptisms, some kind of "Holy Water" that has been specially blessed. The answer is no. I don't think I'm capable of a better blessing that what God has already given, and God blessed all the waters of the world at creation. Although sometimes, if I'm feeling mischievous, when someone asks me how you make holy water, I tell them you just take regular water and boil the hell out of it.

Our story continues in the 17th chapter of Genesis. There's no water in this passage, but there's something else for the first time: A covenant. A promise.

Genesis 17:1-7 (OT p.13)

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

There is an outward, visible sign that goes along with this covenant, and that was circumcision. Obviously, it was only an outward sign for males, and (hopefully) not a very "visible" sign most of the time. But all the male descendants of Abraham were marked with this sign from an early age, and it served as a reminder of the promise that God had made, not just to Abraham, but to all of his descendants--genealogical as well as spiritual.

Eventually, those descendants grew into a nation, a culture. They experienced victories and setbacks, and in both of those circumstances they sometimes forgot or called into question the old promise that God would be their God, and they would be God's people. So God sent prophets to remind them, to call them back into the covenant. And here, especially through the prophet Isaiah, water comes back into the picture.

Isaiah 43:1-4 (OT p.672)

1 But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.

Many biblical scholars think that when Isaiah talks about passing through the waters, and walking through fire, that this represents some kind of ancient rite of passage. For what it's worth, in ancient Middle Eastern culture, both fire and water are often associated with God and God's spirit. They also represent danger and uncertainty--things that are a part of every life. God doesn't take away our trials and tribulations, but God walks with us through them. God is ever-present with us in the water and in the fire. Rituals have the power to remind us of this, and comfort us, especially when we celebrate a life that is just beginning, a journey with all the hope, all the uncertainty, all the peril and all the promise still ahead.

Isaiah 44:1-4 (OT p.673)

1 But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! 2 Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. 4 They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams.

Water also represents life, and is essential to life. Here, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God compares the pouring out of water upon the land to the pouring out of his Spirit on the people. Just as the land flourishes and grows with water, so we flourish and are blessed when God's spirit is at work in our lives. Water, and the pouring out of water, reminds us of this beautiful analogy.

Isaiah 55:1-3 (OT p.685)

1 Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

David was a descendant of Abraham, and represents the continuation of God's promise. But what I love most about this passage is the broad invitation--who can come to the waters? Everyone who thirsts. Which is to say, everyone who lives. Regardless of your financial situation, and regardless of whether you are one of Abraham's descendants or not--because of God's love for Abraham, and God's love for David, the covenant is now extended to EVERYONE, so that you may live. The promise that we first encountered back in Genesis is changing, evolving, growing more and more inclusive, and in the next passage from Jeremiah, there is a recognition that what God is doing at this point is something entirely new.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (OT p.735)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

There's no water in this passage, but for the first time, there's an acknowledgment that the covenant between God and God's people is not dependent on our actions, our "good behavior," our social status, or even our ability to live up to a myriad of laws, expectations and other externalities. The new covenant is within our hearts; it is powerful and deeply personal... although there is still one familiar, external sign to remind us of this new covenant:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (OT p.805)

25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God acknowledges that we cannot possibly follow all of God's laws on our own--the only way we can do this is with God's help, with God's spirit poured out upon us, cleansing us like water. Whenever you take a shower, morning or evening, as the dirt and sweat and dead skin cells wash away down the drain, remember that God does the same for our hearts, for our spirits, washing away all of our mistakes, our shortcomings and failures. And then God looks at us with fresh eyes, seeing only what is possible in the new day. How often will God forgive us and give us a fresh start? Well, how often do you shower? At least that many times.

So to sum things up a bit--by the time we get to the end of the Old Testament, it's clear that

1. God's spirit has long been associated with water. 2. God's covenant and promises are associated with water. 3. Water represents new life, blessing, fulfillment, and forgiveness. 4. All of these things are available to everyone.

The pouring out of water upon a person--infant or adult--is more than just a ritual, although it is certainly at least that. It is symbolic--a sign that points to something deeper; but is also a seal--something that connects us to God in a real and tangible, though mysterious, way.

When we baptize someone, God is present in the water, just as he was on the first day of creation. God is present in the community, just as he was in Ancient Israel through Abraham, David and the prophets. And God is present in the covenant, the promise that we make, either for ourselves or on behalf of a small child.

God is present. God is with us. And yet, lingering there at the end of the Old Testament, there was one more very important way in which God would soon choose to be present with us. He would send his son Jesus, Emmanuel (which means "God with us") to be present on earth in the most tangible, physical and human way possible. Jesus himself would be baptized by his cousin, John. And at the end of his earthly life, Jesus would tell his followers to go into all the world, making disciples, and baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And they did. But that's next week's story....