stopping for directions: below the surface

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

John, we read, was in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins,
and Jesus went out to the Jordan and was baptized.
So of what did Jesus repent in order to be baptized?
Is this some kind of reflecting back on the Old Testament
affirmation of God having repented of some things?
There are, after all, eleven uses of a verb,
throughout the Old Testament translated as repents
in the King James Version with God as subject
(Genesis 6:6-7; Exodus 32:14; Judges 2:18; 1 Samuel 15:35;
2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45;
Jeremiah 26:19; Jonah 3:10; Amos 7:3, 6; Zechariah 8:14)—
translated in more modern translations as God was sorry,
or God changed God’s mind.

Matthew and Luke (let alone John and Paul)
don’t have the sense of some dramatic change
in Jesus or Jesus’ self understanding at his baptism (like Mark does),
but Luke is the one who writes of Jesus increasing in wisdom,
in years and in divine and human favor.
So is this part of Jesus’ growth?
Or did Jesus not take John’s message seriously?
Did he go out into the wilderness,
but it didn’t have anything to do with John’s proclamation
of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
Or was it something else?

At Providence Baptist Church right outside Charleston, SC
on Daniel Island, where our friend Don Flowers pastors,
they have their baptisms in the Wando River.
It can make for a wondrous early morning experience
with the sun still low on the eastern horizon—
wading out through the plouf mud,
with, at times, the dolphins cavorting.
At the baptism of ten-year-old Sarah Esker,
Don was watching from the riverbank,
and as Sarah came up out of the water,
he overheard five-year-old Grant
telling the little boy standing there next to him,
both standing next to Don,
“She’s a new person now!”

There’s no exchange between John and Jesus in Luke—
none of Matthew’s reluctance on John’s part to baptize Jesus.
In fact, John doesn’t even baptize Jesus in Luke. Look it up!
John, if we read the verses the lectionary skips, is already in prison.
So Jesus was baptized into the tradition of John
by an unknown person.

Some scholars suggest that’s because John needed to be off stage
so as to not upstage.
But it has to be more than that.
I would suggest that John’s absence, in fact,
actually makes his tradition more important not less so.
Jesus’ baptism then is about a message—a relevance—a significance
that transcends presence—
that’s more important than person or personality.

And there are no details offered about the baptism itself, are there?
It’s mentioned after it’s happened—just as having happened.
Again, some scholars suggest that’s because having Jesus baptized
was embarrassing—hard to explain—
in light of the whole repentance/sin thing.
It does raise the question so worthwhile to consider:
why’d he do it?
Let’s count the options.

Jesus was attracted to the imminence of God’s inbreaking
related to a particular kind of ethical living.
The time is now … to live transformatively in the way of God.
That, in itself, is a rewording of the prophets’ consistent message, isn’t it?
Jesus fitting into his faith heritage as a Jew—
not so much the institution of the heritage as the prophetic word of the heritage.

At Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas,
Susie baptized a young girl who had just turned ten, Alex Jones.
Susie asked Alex if she thought once she was baptized,
she would feel any different.
Alex responded, “I think it will be sort of like it was
when I had my tenth birthday.
On the day of my birthday, I woke up and didn’t feel any different,
but then I remembered I was ten, and I started acting like I was ten,
and then I was.”

And baptism itself wasn’t foreign to the Jewish faith tradition either.
From what I’ve found, within the Jewish tradition,
there was proselyte baptism (tevilah), for Gentiles,
“a regenerative rite, a new birth. A proselyte was regarded
as risen from the dead” (E.Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke
in The New Century Bible Commentary
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1974] 87).
And there was a baptism for purification (mikvah).
Both were self-administered and the purification rite regularly repeated.
The Essenes perhaps added a sense and expectation of renewal
in, again, repeated immersion.
Repentance would have been
both a part of a baptism of initiation and renewal,
and, I guess, some forms of purification—
though not necessarily all.

I’m not reading in Luke any explicit expectation
of John’s baptisms being once for always, not to be repeated.
So that must have come later.
But what is new is the idea of relationship and community
inherent to being baptized vs/ baptizing self.

Do some of you remember the Christmas day
Megan Tanner was baptized here at Woodbrook?
And we believed for her. Remember?
I suggested back then, that three things are needed
for the ordinary celebration of baptism—
four if you count water. The initiative and grace of God,
the individual’s response to the initiative and grace of God,
and the community of faith in which the baptism is celebrated … and water.
We noted that within our tradition,
the ordinary celebration of a witness of baptism
stresses the individual’s response to God’s initiative and God’s grace.
It’s certainly not that God’s initiative and grace aren’t important.
They’re foundational to any baptism.
They’re just not that upon which we tend to focus.
But that day, the foundational became the focus.
For, Megan Tanner would make no profession of faith. She couldn’t.
And Megan would make no commitment to a particular way of life
because her particular way of life is so determined—
by factors utterly beyond her control.
And so we stressed God’s initiative and God’s grace.
And we stressed the community of faith
which ordinarily is kind of taken for granted as well.
But remember the paralyzed guy let down through the roof by his friends?
His sins were forgiven. Nowhere does it say he repented.
Nowhere does it suggest that he sought forgiveness.
There is no mention of his faith.
He’s made whole because of his community.
He’s saved because his community speaks for him—acts for him.

So I asked y’all, as followers of Jesus,
who came to speak for those with no voice—I asked y’all
if you affirmed Jesus Christ as y’alls and as Megan’s Lord and Savior?
And you said “We do.” Remember?

What is also new is an emphasis on a baptism of repentance not of faith,
ie/ John baptized people not into a faith,
or explicitly as part of a faith tradition,
but into a state of being—of repenting—
of some sense of inadequacy, failure, short-coming/falling—
that is also a deep longing/yearning/hoping
as we’re taken below a superficial sense of self
into a deep and vulnerable honesty.
This, for John was not necessarily faith-based.
We make that assumption. It may well be legitimate.
But John’s message while certainly God-based isn’t explicitly of a faith.
And what is new is that John baptized Jews, sons and daughters of Abraham.
No heritage absolves anyone from the need to repent
and live in the way of God,
and nothing stands in the way of anyone coming home.

In the late 1980s, dad was meeting with Lebanese baptist leaders in Beirut
and attended worship at Badaro Street Baptist Church one Sunday.
There it was the custom for baptismal candidates to enter the water
and share a word about their conversion experiences.
That Sunday a young man was to be baptized—a big man, strong, fit,
who had been a member of one of the militias.
Once, he said, he didn’t consider another’s life valuable,
and he had taken lives.
He had killed.
“Now I have been given new life,
and I want to help others find life.”

So John takes rituals, ideas, words, and priorities
of the Jewish faith heritage and tradition
and makes some significant changes—
which is to say, out of the old, comes the new.
Is that, in and of itself, part of the attraction for Jesus?
See I am about to do a new thing …
that still comes out of the ancient tradition,
yet is not defined by it—
that seeks the always relevant, ever unfolding word of God,
but defies past expressions that claim a fullness no words/rituals can—
that stresses community, yes,
and stresses repentance, yes—
that constitutes an invitation to the experiential reality
of not wanting what is—
I don’t want what is.
I don’t want what I’ve done.
I don’t want how I’ve been,
but something else—
with some sense that it’s my living that’s a key to that.
And so rebirth, a living that can arise from a dying—
initiation, purification, renewal—
starting, starting over, starting again.

Jesus saw that out in the wilderness
John had taken of the old,
added new,
and created energy and excitement.

Yes. But more.
Thinking about this experientially—
baptism is the experience of being taken
below the surface—
pushed beneath the apparent—
forced beyond the superficial.
We are baptized into deep truth.

Amy Mears, one of the c-pastors at Glendale Baptist in Nashville,
was up at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.
she was with a group at some 9,000’ above sea level
at glacier-fed Lake Louise
where the tradition is to cannonball in (once!).
Amy was positioned knee deep in a trough
helping people down to the jump off place
also there to help people out.
She said, “You don’t stay in this water, not even for 15 seconds.
You blast it, come up stunned and absolutely breathless—
not even yelling—and flail for the rock, and my hand.
It wasn’t until I looked up, my hand extended
to help Mia (my 12-year-old) navigate down the boulder
to the jump-off point, that I had an absolute epiphany.
‘Holy smokes!’ I said, ‘Not being Baptist, y’all don’t realize
the dramatic moment of muscle-memory that I’m experiencing!
Helping people into the water!’”
It is so very physical this experience—so very incarnational,
it creates muscle memory.

But it’s more than even all that.
Even more basic—more fundamental—experiential.
We live so much of life on the horizontal plane.
I think that’s why I love the vertical.
As a child I loved, at the beach or a pool,
diving down under the water
pretending to be a seal or an otter that embraced the vertical
along with the horizontal.
I love to fly, but it’s the take-offs and landings I love—
not so much the feeling horizontal again up in the air.
It’s part of what I love about downhill skiing—
that combination into one experience of the two planes—
horizontal and vertical.
Fish and birds fascinate me—
monkeys and mountain goats,
because they combine both into their normal.
I think, too, of swings and slides and climbing trees.

So it’s not just about what’s deep and below the surface,
but about a way of moving that’s not as natural for us—
that doesn’t come as easy,
but that brings another dimension to life.
And it’s community, and it’s commitment to others through it all,
and it’s joy.

Abanda Zafoa came from Cameroon to Waco, Texas
and in Waco to Lakeshore Baptist Church.
He came to study criminal justice at the community college,
and worked as a security guard at a grocery store—
living in the Salvation Army apartments in Waco—
definitely a lower income complex
in which you would be, honestly, scared of your neighbors.
Well, he decided he wanted to be baptized
and planned a party the day of his baptism—
a cook out in the courtyard of that apartment complex.
And not only did he invite the people he knew,
he went around the apartment complex knocking on every door:
“I was baptized today and I’d like to invite you to celebrate with me.”
Lakeshore’s an introverted kind of church
with very much of a don’t press yourself on others ethos
(sound familiar?!),
and his exuberance was a gift to that church they still celebrate.
Abanda, by the way, is now a deacon at Lakeshore.

When it comes to baptisms,
there’s nothing magic about the water.
We know that. We affirm that.
Nothing magic about the words.
Nothing magic about the actions,
but it can be a miraculous experience.

Some say it’s integral to salvation—
that we can’t be saved without it,
while, always at the same time,
asserting that it does not itself—
does not itself effect salvation.
It doesn’t save us,
but we can’t be saved without it—
some say.
Always love the things people say God can’t do.

Our friends at Park Road Baptist in Charlotte
have a non-compulsory baptism policy.
That is, you can join the fellowship without being baptized.
Unusual for Baptists.
Molly Caldwell was a single mother in their weekday early education center
who needed financial help and received it.
Amy then invited her to church, and Molly came,
initially, out of a sense of obligation.
But then she got involved.
Eventually Amy suggested she join the church.
Molly said, “I don’t know enough to be baptized.”
And Amy said, “You just keep coming.
You be with us. Worship with us. Study and learn with us.
You get to know us, let us get to know you.
And later, when the time is right,
we’ll talk about going through the waters.”
Well, after worship one Sunday, during which Russ baptized a couple of youth,
Molly said at the door, “I’m ready
for that conversation about going through the waters.”
And she was baptized.
And it was a profoundly moving celebration at Park Road,
and it meant more than if she had been baptized earlier just because she had to.
When was Molly saved?
That’s a stupid question.
She was saved.
She is saved.

And that’s the experience, I believe—
as holistic as real experience is.
Jesus’ experience, yes, yes.
The experience of others out there on the Jordan.
Ours too—here at Woodbrook
and at Park Road and Lakeshore,
and Badaro Street and Glendale—
at Seventh & James and Providence—
all tied together in shared experience and story.

And what is it—that experience?
It’s getting wet—
in water so cold either at 9,000 feet
or in a baptistry with a broken water heater
that it makes you go “hhhh!” when you get in.
It’s going below the surface.
It’s being pushed below the surface by someone else.
It’s someone putting us in an environment in which we can’t survive
that means our death but then being brought back.
It’s the vertical introduced to our horizontal.
It’s all that.

And so it’s the stories—all the stories.
Every church has its stories.
Every christian their memories.
You have yours, yes?
Baptism is incredibly important.
that’s why we want everyone to remember their baptism.

For we are connected to each other not just in community,
not just in story, also in experience—
to others in this community and to others in other communities—
to a story that unfolded many years ago in a land far away.
We share in meaningful experience with Jesus—
we experience in baptism what Jesus did,
and what followers of Jesus through the centuries have.

So John didn’t baptize Jesus here in Luke and does there.
And the shepherds don’t come to the manger in Matthew, but do here.
And the magi do the opposite.
And the story is different—so very different.
And who Jesus is—how Jesus is—named and described, so different.
And maybe the affirmation to make
is that there’s nothing more important than this story—
except—except for your experience of this story.
Now hear me carefully—that doesn’t make your experience
more important than this story,
just your experience of this story.
And so the story is different.
And yet the story is the same.

So when it comes to baptism,
what would it be like to have a policy—
an official policy that states our baptism policy
comes from our baptist heritage—
a believer’s baptism by full immersion
with some sense of an age of accountability.
But what if that official policy went on to explicitly affirm
that based on our understanding of Scripture,
our understanding of Jesus’ own baptism, and
our respect for the uniqueness of experience and story,
if you come to us with an experience of baptism
that is meaningful and important to you—
that has something to do with being born into community,
something to do with having been raised from death to life
and into a new way of being informed by love,
then our official policy is that that’s more important
than our official policy,
that that is our policy—
that we believe in a story bigger than the one we tell.

And we’re new people—reborn.
We were dead and are yet alive.
Do you know that? Do you know that in your bones?
It’s a muscle memory—an experience remembered.
It’s life valued—life you want to share.
It’s community with those you know and love
and those you don’t know who scare you.
It’s an exuberant party—
not because someone made you do it,
but because within community,
it was an experience you chose and embraced.

And we remember that we were baptized,
and then we start acting like we were baptized—
like we are God’s children of whom God is so very proud,
and we are.


Profound thank you’s for the shared memories
of Isam Ballenger; Susie Ballenger, former Minister to Youth and Children,
Seventh & James Baptist Church, Waco, TX;
Dorisanne Cooper, Pastor, Lakeshore Baptist Church, Waco, Texas;
Russ Dean, Pastor, Park Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC;
Don Flowers, Pastor, Providence Baptist Church, Charleston, SC;
and Amy Mears, Pastor, Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, TN.


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