Sunday, January 8, 2012

I Went Down to the River to Pray

I Went Down to the River to Pray

Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, January 8, 2012

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And people from the whole Judean countryside

and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,

and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Today is a good day to say a good word about baptism. I suppose any Sunday is really an appropriate day for a favorable word about baptism, but today we have heard scripture loaded with images of baptism, so it is a good day to speak about that which is often so close at hand that we may sometimes miss its significance.

Psalm 29 is among the psalms that use the imagery of water to declare the tremendous power of the word of God:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the LORD, over mighty waters. NRSV

In the gospel, Jesus emerges from the waters of his own baptism and hears the affirming voice of God: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” While those words are especially meaningful in the gospel about Jesus, they are also words which are spoken to us all in a way. That is the declaration made at our baptism, yours and mine. If we are baptized in infancy or childhood, before we have had a word to say either one way or the other, God has declared his pleasure in us, his utter satisfaction that his creation in us is good, is worthy, that we are God’s beloved creatures.

The voices that we hear when baptism is celebrated these days in the church are like voices that have spoken such words over the centuries: “Child of God and child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is a phrase that has been intoned in the most solemn of christenings in the highest and holiest cathedral churches of the world, and whispered at furtive services of baptism in the hidden yet faithful churches of China and ancient Rome. It has been spoken in makeshift settings by riverbanks, and beside hospital gurneys, next to tiny bowls of water and on the shores of mighty seas. It is a phrase that says and promises much more than the person saying it can possibly foresee, or the person receiving the words can fully comprehend.

I sometimes have to smile when I am asked – as I often am – whether baptism shouldn’t wait until the “age of understanding,” when a child is 10 or 12 years old and can make his or her own confession of faith. While I can appreciate the hope that a confession of faith will some day be made by all the children of the church, I smile at the thought of some coming “age of understanding,” a chronological threshold by which time we will somehow comprehend what God is up to in the whole business of baptism. Even after years of considering what we are doing in the sacrament of baptism, I don’t pretend to understand it’s mystery fully, any more than I claim to know the whole of the mind of God.

Why does baptism matter? What are the voices speaking at baptism trying to say? A little drip of water, a few mumbled words? Baptism matters because it is a reminder that we are who God says we are, regardless what anyone else may say about us. Baptismal voices remind us that our true identity is not what we may choose for ourselves or what others may ascribe to us, but what God has chosen about us, and his word about us is always, “child of the covenant...” That is one reason baptism matters.

Scholars remind us that in Genesis,[1] the opening of that great first book of the Bible is no abstract statement about the origin of the universe. Genesis was committed to writing around the sixth century B.C., and was addressed to despairing people, exiled in Babylon, words telling of the God who comes to them, who can make what is good out of what is chaotic.

Scripture gives voice to a passionate declaration that God can be trusted even against contemporary data which includes every such human experience of dislocation and abandonment: sickness, poverty, homelessness, disease, injustice, unemployment, loneliness, warfare. The opening sentence of Genesis should be read with the emphasis placed not upon the object of creation – in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – but upon the subject: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Affirming that to be true, what force could ultimately displace us?

We have all been thinking for many years now of those service men and women who continue on duty at this very moment on foreign soil, near to biblical Babylon, knowing that it takes only the slightest misstep, the merest provocation to begin an avalanche of fire raining down all over themselves and those around them. Why does baptism matter? Water baptism stands at this very time and gives voice to the truth that God is Lord, no matter to what lengths our world may go in denying it.

Does anyone else remember the film of a few years ago, called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Viewing that film was the first time I ever heard the song “I Went Down to the River to Pray” that was arranged as the choir’s anthem today.[2] Seeing the river baptism scene in the movie, or any baptism on any given Sunday, we might be given to wonder, why does baptism matter?

I recall finding one answer to that question in a Flannery O’Conner short story, “The River.” In the story, a woman named Mrs. Connin is employed to care for the son of some wealthy but distant and uncaring parents. The boy’s mother is sick one day, and so Mrs. Connin takes the boy off to a riverside baptismal service of her church. Standing on the riverbank, they hear the preacher warning the crowd that if they’ve come for an easy miracle, if they’ve come to leave their pain in the river, they’ve come for the wrong reasons. “There ain’t but one river,” he declares, “and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ blood. It’s a river of pain, itself, to be washed away slow...”

Suddenly Mrs. Connin lifts the boy up in the air and asks the preacher to pray for the boy’s mother. But then, embarrassed, she whispers to the preacher that she suspects the boy has never been baptized, and the preacher commands her to hand the boy to him. “Do you want to be baptized?” he asks him. And when the boy says yes, he responds... “You won’t be the same again. You’ll count!

Why is baptism important? It is a visible and verbal sign that we “count” to the people who stood with us, who stand behind us, for whom we stand, to all the people who name the Name by which our names matter, and most important of all, that we count to that One who was one day baptized by John into a ministry that would serve to save us all. That riverside preacher was right. When we know fully and finally what Jesus has done for us, we are never the same again. We count.

Jesus was baptized one bright day. I can hardly think that he ever again walked by the banks of the Jordan River – or any river – without thinking about that day when the skies opened and he heard the voice of God declaring his love and confidence. Today, if you happen to pass by the baptismal font, think on its water and remember that Jesus was chosen by God and baptized – and so are you; that God has chosen you, that his very word to and about you was once spoken over you “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You will never be the same again. You count.


Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Commentary series, John Knox Press, 1982, pp. 24-25.

[2] “Down To The River To Pray ,” © 2001 Lost Highway Records, a Universal Music Company, Performed by Alison Krauss.