The Holy Spirit’s Landing Pad
I often wonder why the lectionary committee has selected, based on historical practice, this text for Jesus’ baptism. It certainly must be to connect the waters of baptism with the waters of Creation, swept by the same Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.” The Creator “speaks” the cosmos into existence. Just last week we were reminded of the Word that is in the beginning with God and through whom all things are made. That Word is enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. At his baptism, he is spoken into his role as God’s beloved Son, the Messiah and Lord of all.
Baptism into Christ is not only rooted in the act of Creation. Baptism is (New) Creation. I want to take this opportunity to talk at greater length about baptism from our Lutheran perspective. In light of this first reading, we can think together about the relationship between God’s Word and the water. When God speaks, the waters of chaos are brought to order. It’s nothing in the water itself but is rather the creative power of God’s Word. So, Luther can write in the Small Catechism, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead,” he says, “it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.”
Kirsi Stjerne describes this as “heavenly water for the Holy Spirit’s landing.” This is one of the ways that our baptism is similar to and rooted in Jesus’ baptism. She notes that Luther insists that just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in baptism, so that same Spirit comes to rest upon us as well. I would remind us that this is the Spirit that hovered over the face of the deep at Creation and brought light and life to the Cosmos.
Lois Tverberg connects some of these scriptural dots as she reflects on rabbinic methods of textual interpretation. The Spirit of God broods over the waters of chaos and Creation happens. In Genesis 8, we read that God causes a wind/spirit/breath to move over the earth and the flood waters subside. “More than one rabbi has noted that this replay of the first creation scene is telling us,” Tverberg writes, “how God was, in effect, creating the world anew after the flood” (Kindle Location 2594). At the Red Sea, God drives the waters back with a strong east wind (Exodus 14:21). And, of course, we see the Spirit descending on Jesus in the midst of the waters of the Jordan. Creation and New Creation are one thing.
Luther certainly makes this connection is his wonderful “Flood Prayer” which is incorporated into our ELW baptismal liturgy. “We give you thanks, O God,” the presider prays, “for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 230). For Luther, the watery connections begin with Creation and extend through nearly every mention of water in the Hebrew scriptures.
That is especially the case with the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus. The Flood Prayer directly connects that crossing to both Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his death and resurrection. So the Creation of out of nothing in Genesis 1, the rescue of the fleeing slaves, and our own participation in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism are the same act of Creation spoken by God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Flood Prayer concludes with a petition that the one who is baptized will receive that same gift of New Creation. “Pour out your Holy Spirit,” the presider prays, “the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life.” Creation, redemption, and sanctification are all the singular act of the one God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death.
“Baptism, then, signifies two things – death and resurrection,” Luther writes in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, “that is, full and complete justification” (page 70). He refers us to Paul’s words on baptism in Romans 6, the passage that concludes with our walking “in newness of life.” The God who creates with the Word by the power of the Spirit redeems the dead sinner into new life and empowers that life for daily discipleship. “This death and resurrection,” Luther concludes, “we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth” (page 70).
Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrates to us how Creation actually “works.” In baptism, for the sake of Jesus God fills us with the Holy Spirit. In this way we are growing into what God made us to be from the beginning. Just as God fills us with light and life, so God fills all of Creation with that same Spirit of life and light. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Psalm 29 is a celebration of the glory, power, and beauty of the Creator shining through the Creator’s work. This psalm might serve well as a call to worship at this service. It is a glimpse of the heavens torn open and the glory of the Lord revealed. The image of the Lord enthroned over the flood in verse 10 is especially potent in connection with the first reading from Genesis 1. And it is another touch point with Luther’s baptismal prayer.
Baptism shows us God’s heart and character in Creation. The finite is able by Divine mystery to encompass the infinite. We call that Incarnation. In baptism, we also become “containers” of the infinite Spirit of love in Christ. By analogy we can see the same thing happening in all of Creation. In many congregations on this day, worshippers will remember their own baptisms. It may be powerful to help them connect their individual washings with the Spirit that fills and animates the whole cosmos.
In the same way that this creative event was not visible to everyone at the baptism of Jesus, so for us the impact of baptism may have a certain hidden element. “A certain hiddenness remains with baptism and how it conveys God and God’s grace,” Stjerna writes. “We receive this grace invisibly,” she continues, “but this does not mean its fruits should remain invisible” (page 44). The fruits of the New Creation are acts of love for the neighbor.
The Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith by grace for the sake of Jesus. And we respond with acts of loving service that overflow our full hearts. “Is it possible,” Stjerna asks rhetorically, “that the fruits of lives transformed by such grace could remain hidden?” No, it is not. “For our whole life should be baptism,” Luther writes in the Captivity, “and the fulfilling of the sign or sacrament of baptism, since we have been set free from all else and given over to baptism alone, that is, to death and resurrection” (page 72).
References and Resources
Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).
Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.
Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/
Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/
Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.
Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.
Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.