(Mark 1: 4-11; Acts 19: 1-7)
My favorite scene from the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou opens with a crowd of women and men, decked out in long white robes, meandering through the woods, around trees and over rocks, all making their way to the water. They’re singing “Down The River To Pray” as they walk, in glorious four-part harmony. It’s a mass baptism that’s taking place; the preacher standing chest-high in the waters like a modern-day, much more reserved John the Baptist. There are two lines leading to him and he alternates back and forth between both, the glorious singing continuing.
Up on the riverbank and off to the side are three onlookers, and they do not fit in. Delmar, Pete, and Ulysses Everett McGill. Running from the law, as it were. Their clothes and faces are grungy, as men on the run baking in the deep summer south sun tend to be. They are caught off-guard by this strange turn of events that they’ve wandered into. Entranced by it, even.
And then, my favorite part. Ulysses is making some snide comment on the whole affair when Delmar’s face illuminates, as if some light has finally flickered inside his perpetually dim mind. He shoves his hat into Pete’s chest and plunges head-first into the river, making his way out to the preacher, totally ignoring the long line and instead positioning himself right in front. No one in the line seems to mind – they just keep singing.
We’re looking at it from above now and we see the preacher place one hand on the back of his neck and the other over his mouth, closing his nostrils. We watch as he dunks Delmar backwards, totally underwater; his eyes shut tight and his cheeks puffing out with air. We then see the preacher raise him upright, and watch as Delmar’s eyes bulge out of their sockets. He excitedly makes his way back to the shore.
Ulysses looks at him, confused: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.
Delmar does a double-take and then responds, Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that sin’s been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine!
I love that scene! In a strange-ish movie that proceeds unpredictably, like a dream almost, this moment provides a rare instance of clarity. I love it because Delmar is child-like in his wonder and awe at his own baptism. I also love it because it is a baptism so very different from my own. Well, at least as my parents tell me. I don’t remember it. No crowd of fellow baptizees singing four-part harmony and certainly no preacher in the river. No, the preacher who baptized me was standing at the front of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, decked out in his black Geneva preacher robe. My mother describes my baptism at three months old and 5 lbs, 5 oz. as “straightforward” and my disposition as “a very good baby.” No crying, no throwing up. In an email to me this past week, she wrote, I felt like it was a blessing to bestow on our newborn. I still get a tear in my eye when we have baptisms at church.
Tears of joy, I am certain. Baptisms tend to elicit them, don’t they? Perhaps Delmar had tears of joy rolling down his cheeks, blending in unnoticed with the creekwater. For there is certainly joy as one emerges from the waters into new life. Because at that moment, at least, Delmar is filled with something outside of himself. Something not of his own doing or his own making. The water may indeed be fine, as he has exclaimed, but the water is not really what he’s talking about it, is it? After all, there is nothing special about the water, it was just muddy creek water. Same with my baptism years ago, the one I can’t remember. That water came out of a faucet in a little room behind the choir loft. Simple tap water, but that’s the whole point. In baptism, we believe, God takes something as ordinary and wonderful as tap water and, through it, does something miraculous.
But what is that, exactly? If it’s not the waters of baptism that are fine, then what is?
We’re thinking about baptism, of course, because in our liturgical year today is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus. We move quickly through the first thirty years of Jesus’ life in the life of the church – just a few weeks ago he was born in a manger, and now this. Think of that same setting in O Brother, Where Art Thou, with a Middle Eastern flair. The preacher in the river this time is John the Baptist, his baptismal robe made of animal hair; his creekside the banks of the Jordan River. He is baptizing all who come to him out in the wilderness, but he is not baptizing them for himself. He is very clear about this: I baptize you with just water, John tells them, but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Interesting, isn’t it? Even John himself knows that it’s not the water. This “Holy Spirit” he speaks of. The same, one would presume, that makes its presence known when Jesus himself eventually joins John at the riverside. He is baptized just as Delmar would be. But instead of the joy emmanating from Jesus, here it comes from above – the skies open, we are told, and the Spirit like a dove descends.
The Spirit. The Greek word the writer of Mark chooses to use here is pneuma, and it’s found all over the New Testament. It’s a great little word that can mean all kinds of things – not just “spirit” but also wind, breath, air-in-motion. I think about that and it occurs to me – this is so much more than just a simple breeze, an occasional flow of oxygen. It is constant movement, it is continuous change. It is something that we know is there. But – and this is important – not because we can see it, because we can’t. We know it’s there because we can see the effect it has on that which we can see.
Now chew on that for a minute, from a scientific and theological perspective. Think of what it means to know that something exists, not because we can see it, but because we see the effect it has on that which we can see. We cannot see the breeze – but we know the breeze is there because we see the leaves sway back and forth. No one can see the sun’s rays – but we know the rays are there because we see the dew dry off the lawn and the hoods of our cars by mid-morning. We cannot see love, but we know love is there because we feel its presence when we look at our spouse, our mother and father, our sons and daughters, our neighbors and friends – all those we cherish, living or dead.
You know, of the three parts of the Trinity that we hold near and dear in our reformed tradition, the Holy Spirit can often be the most confounding. God, we can at least conceptualize. Jesus, we get him. But the Holy Spirit? Like baptismal waters slipping through a preacher’s fingers, the Spirit is often elusive, the hardest to see. And maybe that’s the problem right there. We’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe the trick to getting a grasp of the Spirit is not to try and see it, but instead the effect it has on all that is around us.
And if I had to guess, that’s precisely what happens in our second passage today. It was a challenging situation the apostle Paul found himself in in the 19th chapter of Acts – a church in Ephesus that had acquired, in his opinion, a rather surface understanding of the waters of baptism. And when Paul showed them another way, that faith community experienced revitalization – namely, we are told, “the ability to speak in tongues and prophesy.”
Now if we find ourselves cringing when we hear that word “prophesy,” it is understandable. Something a little too foreign for our mainline Protestant sensibilities; images of end times and last days and rapture glory. Except it is interesting what that word, especially in this context, really means. According to one scholar:
We tend to think that prophecy has to do with foretelling future events, but in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, to prophesy is to speak about the present; it is to speak in God’s name on behalf of God’s work in the world. This speaking is done with the Spirit’s power, it is inspired utterance, and it has the power to change the world.
That last line: inspired utterance that has the power to change the world. Words that lead to bold action, prophetic action, not for some distant day in the future, but for the here and now.
All from a Spirit that is real as it is elusive; a spirit we know is there not because we can see it but because we see the effect it has on that which we can see. All from the waters of baptism – waters that, according to our baptism expert Delmar, is fine, just fine! The joy of that moment lingering long after one emerges from the river or the baptismal pool or the baptismal font; long after clothes dried in the sun, baptismal gowns removed, three-month peach fuzz hair dried.
In Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own. And in our own baptism, we are reminded of the power of the Spirit within us to live as transformed and prophetic people in the here and the now. Not transformed for some glorious day in the future, in the sweet by and by when we meet on that glorious shore. No, transformed for right now, for 2015, for January, for this week, for this day.
Transformed to follow the lead of Jesus himself, the one in whom God was pleased, to love enemies and heal wounds and speak a good word and stand up for the voiceless and tend to the least of these. Do all of these things in our relationships with each other, in our families, in our schools and places of work, in our neighborhoods. It is the power of our collective baptism to do these things; it is the power of that very Spirit which we cannot see. To commune with a God who so desperately desires to commune with us – joining us around the baptismal font for a swim, inviting us around his table for a five-course meal.
We are filled with the Spirit, my friends. We are soaking wet from our baptism. C’mon in indeed, the water is fine!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!