Archive for October, 2011


When we left our hero, John the Baptizer, he was standing in the Jordan River that runs between present-day Israel and Jordan. John and his followers immersed people in river water as a symbol of their desire to repent of past sins (see ” ‘Wash Me’  – and a Whole Lot More”). There was more to John’s ministry than dunking people in brown river water (yes, I’ve been to the region and seen the Jordan River, and it’s as brown as the land around it).

His preaching urged people not only to seek forgiveness for their past sins, but to commit themselves to living in new ways more in line with the ten rules that scripture says God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews call these rules the Law; Christians refer to them as the Ten Commandments (the real thing, not Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner and a cast of hundreds).

Repentance was not new, because Jewish priests, prophets and sages had been promoting turning away from selfish, greedy, idolatrous lifestyles among their people for centuries. By the time of Jesus, there were thousands of interpretations of the Law by priests, rabbis and other learned men (yes, they were all men, as women were not included in scholarly pursuits at that time). However, Luke 3:3-6 likens John’s mission to one foretold in the book of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “

Whoa! That’s some serious imagery, isn’t it? But what does it mean?

As I said at the outset of this series, it’s hard to understand the mindset of people who lived thousands of years ago. For one thing, most of us in the 21st century live very urban lives, so landscapes don’t always capture our imaginations the way they did when the world’s population was mostly rural. Back then, people who lived in villages, towns and great cities like Jerusalem knew what it was like to travel down through valleys and up over hills and mountains. No planes, trains or automobiles to keep them detached from the physical world around them.

Yet to the Jews, Isaiah’s words had enormous significance beyond a staggering visual image. The text comes from Isaiah 40:3-5, in which God tells the people of Israel that they will be saved from their enemies. “Preparing the way of the Lord” can mean to perform the literal acts described in the passage, but it also has connotations of personal repentance, improving one’s own behaviors and those of the community. In other words, the balancing of geography described in Isaiah’s poetry also has been interpreted to signify the restoration of relationships between individuals, in society and with God.

Here’s where John’s mission turned dangerous, because Luke 3:7-20 speak of the Forerunner’s explicit preaching. John wasn’t the moderate, benign preacher of most boulevard churches; he was confrontational, and he didn’t care whose feelings he might offend. Listen to John preaching to those who came to him to be baptized (Luke 3:7-9, NRSV*):

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

 Boy, howdy, that’s some preachin’, as we say in Texas where I live. Can we understand today what he was saying? To some extent, yes, but only with a little effort. As we noted earlier, being washed clean from prior sins was only the first part of Baptism in John’s ministry. His exhortation to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” was a clear instruction that those who sought Baptism couldn’t get away with going back to their old habits. If they kept on cheating their customers and business associates, lying to their spouses, coveting their neighbors’ lands, and failing to care for the poor and helpless, then the effect of their Baptism was nullified, according to John.

What’s more, John told them, they weren’t protected from the consequences of their sins just because they were Jews, members of God’s Chosen People. As he goes on, John  gives specific instructions to certain groups of people on how to get right with their neighbors, and thus with God. He’s blunt about it: if the ritual act of Baptism didn’t affect the ways they lived as well, their effort was worthless.

Several meanings have been given to phrases such as “flee from the wrath to come” and “the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” In some cases, these predictions of a dire future have been given terrible anti-Semitic interpretations that have led to persecutions of Jews for centuries, thanks to the (horrible to say) Christian idea that Jews who rejected Jesus were collectively condemned to hell unless they converted. Recounting the millions of ways that Christians have sinned against their spiritual elder siblings, the Jews, would take another blog. Suffice it to say that, IMHO, John’s words should not be interpreted as a license for Christians to feel in any way superior to Jews (or anyone else, for that matter). Too often we forget that Jesus was a Jew, and saw his mission in a Jewish, not Christian, context.

So back to John the Baptizer. His powerful preaching had an immediate effect on his listeners. They begged him to tell them how to live, and John was quick to respond:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)

Think about this. Most of us have pretty good wardrobes, often including several sweaters, jackets and coats. Have we ever given our extras to people who have none? Have we even considered our abundance of clothing as “extra?” And what about our food? Many churches sponsor food pantries or contribute to food distribution ministries, and churchwomen for generations have taken food to sick, hungry and grieving people. Yet how often do we question why we continue to allow economic systems that force people into poverty and hunger?

Good examples of this idea are the “Occupy” demonstrations going on now around the United States and elsewhere.  Until recently, there was little evidence of faith-based support, but now that has changed. Churches and synagogues and mosques are on board with the Occupy groups because religious leaders have recognized that their primary aim, equalizing the unjust American economic system, aligns perfectly with their own religion’s teachings.

Most church members are uncomfortable with these kinds of witness because they require a personal stand. These aren’t the kinds of encounters that we can write a check for and feel we’ve done our charitable best. Knowing the needs of others, and our own responsibility for any social system that results in oppression, poverty, hunger and the like, requires that we know the people around us. We must establish relationships with people in order to know how we can serve them.

Awareness and actions such as these are the kinds of “fruits worthy of repentance” that John insisted should be the direct result of Baptism. These concepts weren’t unknown to the Jews; they can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible that we Christians call the Old Testament. However, their practice clearly had declined by John’s lifetime; otherwise he wouldn’t have called attention to them.

John’s call for other-oriented compassionate living in community has stuck to our understanding of Baptism ever since. Today, though, it seems that we practice it as erratically as it was practiced in John’s era. What’s more, preaching this understanding of the responsibilities of Baptism to American Christians has become as dangerous these days as it became for John. We’ll find out more about that in the next post.

All Scripture quotations on this blog are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Copyright 1989 by the Christian Education Committee of the National Council of Churches. Used by permission.

Photo Credit: Bumper Sticker from Northern Sun.

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Ever written “Wash Me” with a finger on the window or body of an especially grimy car? For many people, “Wash Me” sums up the nature of the Christian sacrament of Baptism, and there’s no denying that purification is essential to the act. Yet there’s so much more to both the practice and the ideas behind it.

To understand Baptism’s significance better, we need to go back to Christianity’s sacred sources. This means recalling stories that were first shared more than 2,000 years ago. It’s hard to get into the minds and cultures of ancient peoples, but we’re going to try our best.

A quick word about method: Some readers will know these stories well and some may never have heard them at all. Sophisticated Bible readers who practice the historical-critical method of reading scripture may find these essays lacking in interpretive substance. They also may seem a bit too irreverent and anti-intellectual. I’ve chosen to proceed as though my readers have little or no scriptural knowledge because recent biblical literacy studies have shown that a majority of Americans have almost no experience reading the Bible. That goes for church members as well as those without religious affiliation. What’s more, the people in these stories are our spiritual ancestors; do we talk about Granny and Gramps in formal, touch-me-not ways? I don’t think so.

So consider this approach an affectionate, affective way to introduce a serious topic. Let’s dive in (expect more bad puns as things progress. Sorry about that).

For Christians, the earliest concept of Baptism and its application come from a man we’ve named John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer. He’s the guy who gave Baptism its good name in the New Testament (Mark 1:4,5). John himself was probably kind of scary-looking, as biblical prophets often are. The Bible reports that he dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey (something that people in rural African areas still do).

Some versions of the New Testament say John was “like a Nazarite,” a designation meaning “set apart” or “consecrated.” These people drank no wine, often didn’t cut their hair and followed ascetic practices. (The famed strongman, Samson, was a Nazarite until Delilah became his hairdresser in Judges 16:4-19). These days I imagine John like a combination of two British actors, Gerard Butler in “300” (for the ultra-fit body) and Albert Finney in “The Dresser” (for the deep, booming voice).

Luke 1:5-24 tells John’s story. He was the late-in-life son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were of the clan of Levites, hereditary priests of Israel. Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, Zack and Lizzie had no children, a state that was considered disastrous among Jews because they relied on a high birth rate to perpetuate their covenant with God. Zack had a good gig as one of the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem. Lizzie was a homemaker (NOT a “housewife.” There’s no such thing as a “housewife.” Women aren’t married to houses, they’re married to spouses, and sometimes their occupation is homemaker).

One day, it was Zack’s turn to act as high priest, burning incense in the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. This time, however, Zack got the shock of his life: Gabriel, God’s top messenger, showed up to tell Zack that he and Lizzie would soon have a son. What’s more, their son wasn’t just any baby, but the Forerunner of the Son of God. In other words, John was the guy to announce the coming of Jesus.

Zack was skeptical, not surprisingly, which rankled the great angel. (Would YOU have the guts to contradict a messenger of God? Not me, but I guess Zack figured it was a priestly right). Angelically ticked off that Zack would question the message of God’s intentions (although people did it all the time back then, and still do), Gabriel struck Zack mute until his son was born. Only when he responded to the question of what to name the infant by writing “he is to be called John,” was Zechariah able to speak again (Luke 1:63).

One other curious thing happened before John was born. Around the time of Lizzie’s sixth month of pregnancy, her young cousin, Mary of Nazareth, came for a visit (Luke 1:39-45). As soon as Lizzie heard her cousin’s greeting, the baby in her womb “leaped for joy.” In that instant, Elizabeth knew that Mary was also pregnant, carrying Jesus, before Mary said anything. Lizzie then blessed Mary, exclaiming, “why has the mother of my Lord come to me?” I imagine this was a pretty awesome encounter between the two women, and I wish we had more details about it.

Thus John comes to adulthood with a family history of sacred duty and mystical encounters, such as his father’s prophecy in Luke 1:67-79 (look it up; it’s really inspiring). John’s family heritage combined with lifelong instruction in the Jewish faith, including the Jewish concepts and practices of purification. This is significant, because purity was one of the things that set Jews apart from the followers of pagan religions around them.

For example, Jewish dietary laws of kashrut, known today as “keeping kosher,” were strict about which foods observant Jews could eat. Ancient rabbinic texts dealing with Jewish mysticism cautioned those who sought divine encounters to purify themselves for long stretches of time by practices such as avoiding onions and garlic, so that they didn’t smell like humans when they entered into heavenly realms. Unlike their neighbors, Jews washed their hands before every meal. Jewish women were required to purify themselves after their menstrual periods in baths known as mikvahs (that’s why Bathsheba was getting naked on her patio when King David spied on her from his palace).

So John was surrounded by both tradition and contemporary practice of using water for spiritual purification. Fortified with the foreknowledge of Jesus’ coming, it wasn’t surprising that the desert prophet developed a ministry of washing people in water for the repentance of the sins. John was convinced that the Son of God was on his way; he just didn’t know where or when he would appear. As the descendent of a long line of Jewish priests, John was going to make sure that as many of his people as possible were spiritually fit to receive their new messiah.

So far, so good. John’s primary ministry represents the “repent” part of Baptism. To repent literally means “to turn around” or “turn away” from going in a wrong direction. It’s the spiritual equivalent of “wash me.” Today we get that idea, because there’s hardly a person today who passes up an opportunity get clean. Being physically clean is such a good feeling. Getting clean in mind and soul is also a good feeling, but it’s a lot harder, because we often won’t let go of those attitudes and actions that muddied us up in the first place.

However, getting cleaned of past sins was only part of John the Baptist’s task, and it’s only part of the meaning of Baptism. The next part, convincing people to change their behaviors, was a lot harder and ultimately more dangerous, as we’ll see in the next post.

Find scriptural passages online at Oremus Bible Browser.

Gerard Butler photo courtesy of Warner Brothers. Albert Finney photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Salvation and baptism have been linked since John the Baptist started soaking people (including Jesus) in the Jordan River. There’s lots to be said about that relationship, but for today, there’s an essay on the full nature of baptism that no thinking Christian should miss.

My OSL brother, the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, has posted a simply superb exposition at his Emerging UMC blog on the topic, Can We Still Talk about… Salvation? (Part 4 of the Series). I’m not going to try to summarize it here, because it’s too good to be truncated. Go, read. Now. Later we’ll talk.

Anyone who’s ever been to Sea World recognizes the title. After all, when a two-ton orca splashes out of a tank, the laws of physics require displacing some serious water. Likewise when it comes to baptism, a few humble drops of water carry some awesome spiritual power.

Baptism — the ritual act of sprinkling with, pouring on or immersing in water — is a lot like sitting in one of the first five rows at the aquatic park. There’s some water, but we don’t always appreciate the whole idea of what’s going on.

Shamu leaps. Photo courtesy Sea World-San Antonio

Like many Christians, I don’t remember being baptized. I was about six months old when it happened in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, PA. (No, I won’t tell you what year it occurred). There are a couple of black and white photos of my parents and me all dressed up for church to document the day I was baptized. Somewhere in the same album is the document that my late mother said was even more important than my birth certificate — my certificate of baptism.

Many Protestant Christians who aren’t Baptists have similar stories (and right there is a rift that will take many posts to explain). That’s unfortunate, because baptism is one of the most powerful things that happens to anyone who follows Jesus. Unlike Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Protestants don’t make a fuss over baptism, so its full significance passes by unnoticed.

So here’s my deal: This blog will be devoted to exploring baptism in multiple dimensions: what it is, how it’s done, what it means, and most of all, how Christians ought to be inspired and energized by their baptism to be about God’s work of transforming in the world. In fact, our baptism ought to make us capable of seeking and seeing God at work in life through acts of kindness, courage, caring and comfort, and to shout that good news into the din of mayhem and madness that swirl about us.

Yes, we’re about to mount the log flume over the foaming waves. Get ready for a wild, wacky and wonderful ride of “living wet” as a follower of Jesus.