Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn.
In Isaiah, God says that God loves us very much, and our baptism is kind of like the kissing hand—a reminder of how much God loves us—something that we can take with us no matter where we go.
As I mark the sign of the cross on your hand to keep you remembering, we’ll pray. Gracious God, thank you for your love and willingness to be one of us. Help us pass your love on to others. Amen.
And now, you get to pass that love on to others and make the sign of the cross on the hands of those here. And they can pass it on to those sitting next to them. And you all can pass it on to those you meet this week.
I love the passage from Isaiah 43. It has found its way into many funerals. I know that Elsa reads it frequently to those she visits and shares communion with. It is a beautiful poem of God’s provision. Isaiah wrote it when Israel was in the midst of exile. It describes God’s intentions. Everything in it is God’s actions. God redeems, God calls, God is present, God loves, God brings, God creates, God forms. Our part in this relationship? Do not fear.
Do not fear. Because God is with us. Verse 2 especially invokes images of baptism—‘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.’ Water and fire. Apparently, they’re inevitable. And yet…and yet, what?
I always hope that these words will bring comfort to those who are struggling—those who are within sight of the end of their life, those who are on the brink of challenging changes, those who find themselves in significant danger. And yet…life ends, anyway. And, one might think, the waters have indeed overwhelmed, and the fire has succeeded in consuming. And there is nothing left.
And that would be true—except for hope in the Christ, the Messiah, the risen one.
The question has often been posed—why did Jesus need to be baptized? If he was sinless, he didn’t need forgiveness. He didn’t need to be washed clean. He didn’t need to be claimed—he was literally God’s Son. And there are lots of answers to that question: it was his commissioning; he needed to hear God’s claim on him before entering the wilderness; the crowds needed to hear God’s claim on him before following him. And, as theologically grounded as they are, those answers only scratch the intellectual surface of an emotional and spiritual yearning. Because our question remains—does this really change anything?
It changes everything. First, Jesus got into the water so that we would know God is with us. In his baptism, Jesus allied himself with humanity. He chose us, against all odds. He chose us, though it meant being ostracized by family and friends and even his church. In his baptism, he stands with the broken, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the hurting, the oppressed, the victimized, the outsiders. Jesus stands with humanity and claims us as his family. In defiance of what the world wanted/wants of God—victory, strength, and might—Jesus chooses humility, weakness and death. Jesus chooses this broken and hurting world as home and refuses to abandon us. He gets in the water with us.
God says in Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” I will be with you. God gets in the water with us—into the muddy, swirling waters of our worst days and poor decisions; into the clear, sparkling waters of our most blessed moments; into the trickling waters of uncertainty; into the roaring waves of excitement.
God gets in the water with us, come what may. Jesus gets in the water, and is overwhelmed by humanity’s brokenness. He gets in the water, and his life is consumed by humanity’s sin and arrogance. He gets in the water of life—and he dies.
Yes, baptism changes everything. One commentary I read somewhere called baptism a boundary-crossing. And I thought about that. This is the first time I’ve gotten really hung up on the part in Isaiah that says, “Because…I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” And in the context of Israel’s exile, I’m sure that the promise brought great comfort to them—the idea that no one else was as valuable as these insignificant people who always seemed to be at the mercy of other nations. Imagine what it would mean for God to say that these powerful nations are nothing compared to the love God has for God’s people.
That was a fine sentiment when those who considered themselves ‘God’s people’ were always and ever under the thumb of someone else. It becomes dangerous when those who identify themselves as ‘God’s people’ are the ones holding all the cards.
And so I come back to the idea of Jesus’ baptism as a boundary-crossing. And on level, I agree. What he does—entering into our sin and our death and our humanity for the sake of pulling us out of it—is a crazy crossing of boundaries for a God who could have abandoned it all and walked away. It is absolutely what we need to hear in those vulnerable and scary moments of our lives.
We need to know that God is in it with us. We need to know that, though life ends in death, it is not without meaning. We need to know that, though we walk through the fire, God still protects us from fire that only consumes and does not purify. We need to know that, overwhelmed as we might be from the struggles and horrors and unimaginable stupidity of humanity sometimes, our lives are not overwhelmed by doubt and fear over a God who does not care.
God crosses every boundary between the created and the divine so that life is more than simply survival—that we have hope in boundless love. And then, we are invited to cross boundaries as the water is poured over us and we acknowledge in our bodies an unbreakable bond between our hearts and God’s. In baptism, God draws us across the boundary between the impossible and the possible, between death and life, between sinner and saint.
But I think baptism is more than boundary-crossing. That’s only the first step. The second step is boundary-breaking. Luke is too systematic and logical to use Mark’s dramatic description of what happened at Jesus’ baptism. Mark says that the heavens were torn apart. The boundary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, was not only crossed; it was torn apart.
I often hear good theologians say, “When humans draw boundaries or lines, God inevitably ends up on the other side.” But God doesn’t stop there. From the other side, God destroys those boundaries—boundaries that let us believe that one group is better or more civilized or more moral or more educated than another; boundaries that keep people under the thumb of those who hold the cards; boundaries that give way to oppression, sexism, racism, and every other form of bigotry; boundaries that led missionaries to places where ‘savages’ lived. All of these boundaries between people are eliminated by the God who loves people too much to allow us to keep hurting each other like this.
That’s what baptism is about—it changes everything. God dies in order to show us the way to life. God crosses and destroys boundaries. It is both comforting and frightening. But at all times, it is what God has promised.
Look again at the passage in Isaiah: “I give nations in exchange for your life.” I wonder, could the Living Word be speaking to us in a new way? Could this promise mean that the boundaries we have set up mean nothing to God—that God moves past the boundaries of nations and our tribes and our denominations so that, no matter who we are or where we come from—as God calls us from the east and the west and the north and the south, we might actually see each other as children of God?
Today, we lift up the baptism of our Lord—who got into the water with us so that we no longer see what divides us but what makes us all one.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church