Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Jan 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matt 3:13-17
There’s something about the year 2020 that feels good. There is a symmetry when you write it; a chant when you say it. If you Google the meaning of 2020, you will find all sorts of upbeat, double blessing prophecies. It suggests clear vision that brings both 20/20 hindsight and foresight. We look back to look ahead.
In the thriving churches that I visited, most were drawing upon the power of ancient traditions of the church and translating them into today’s context. They look back to look ahead. Today, our liturgical calendar takes us back to Jesus’ baptism, which then fast forwards us to our own. Now most of us were baptized as infants and can’t remember very much about it. But if we draw on our collective memory, we will know that when we were baptized, we received what I call an extra dollop of God’s grace. We were surrounded and held in love. And not only the love of God, but the love of community, for we were baptized into the universal church. Baptism brings us into this union of those who have preceded us over the centuries, those who are around us right now and those who are yet to come.
There is another meaning of baptism which we don’t often refer to. It is highlighted in today’s gospel lesson, when John baptized people for the forgiveness of sins. This has led some to say that if we are not baptized, we will stand outside of God’s grace and not receive forgiveness or eternal peace with God. This is NOT what the United Church believes. We believe that we all stand in God’s grace. But there is an aspect to John’s teaching about baptism that calls us into a closer relationship with God.
It actually connects with the year 2020. There are two “0”s in this year. When I turned 60, my spiritual guide suggested to me that I was entering a year of nothing. The “zero” suggested that this was the time to divest and empty whatever was superfluous or no longer needed. This might be a good spiritual practice for anyone entering a new decade of their life.
Collectively, we are entering a new decade of the 20s. The double zero of 2020 suggests that divestment might be a doubly good idea. As we prepare to welcome whatever this decade brings, we may want to take a spiritual inventory. What is bringing us life? What is allowing us to bring life to others? And what is hindering this? Or, in the words of AA, what is the exact nature of our wrongs and defects of character? Are we willing to admit these and ask God to remove them?
John the Baptist felt keenly that he and his people were entering a new age. He believed that the long-awaited Messiah would soon come that he needed to help people prepare for this momentous time. How best to prepare? He asked everyone who came to him to take a spiritual inventory and make a 180° turn from anything that was hindering their preparation. That is what repentance means—it doesn’t just mean to say you’re sorry for something you’ve done. It means to divest yourself of your defects of character and make a conscious decision to turn your life around, with the help of God. John baptized those who sincerely repented by making a 180° life-turn. For John, baptism was a symbolic cleansing from their sins.
This is the setting for today’s Gospel lesson, when Jesus then comes to John for baptism. John protests, saying that he should be baptised by Jesus, but Jesus insists. Why would he request John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins when most Christians don’t believe Jesus was guilty of any sin? This has been debated by scholars for over two millennia. Most agree that Jesus wanted to be baptized in this public manner to indicate his submission and obedience to God. According to Philippians 2, he was divesting and emptying himself of anything that might be considered status or power. In this manner of humility, Jesus began his ministry, inspired by the vision of Isaiah, “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Jesus’ baptism was the impetus for the first followers of Jesus to begin baptizing new believers in running water, if possible, and if not with a generous amount of water poured over their heads.
Our sacraments of baptism and of Holy Communion use tangible elements of water, bread and wine—in our case grape juice—because our faith is not simply symbolic. It is grounded in the reality of the here and now. The body matters. The earth matters. God is present within our very bodies. God was present within Jesus’ very body. God is incarnate in the flesh and these physical elements of our sacraments indicate this groundedness.
These elements are also imbued with God’s grace. When we pray for a blessing over the waters of baptism and over the elements of Holy Communion, something happens. When we dedicate prayer shawls or bikes or anything else for which we ask God’s blessing, something happens. The recipients of prayer shawls tell me time and time again that they feel the comfort of God and the care of this congregation when they wrap the shawls around their shoulders—shawls that are doubly blessed by the prayer shawl group and the congregation. When we are baptized, we don’t just go through a symbolic act. God’s grace flows through the baptismal waters.
Water, in itself, is powerful. It is a conductor of energy and its molecules are sensitive to its surroundings. When we pollute the air and the earth, we pollute the waters. And when we pollute the waters, we pollute ourselves. We are, after all, 60% water. Our brains and our hearts are composed of 73% water. That’s a lot of pollution inside us!
But even if we eat organic food and filter our water, our watery bodies are very sensitive to energy both outside and inside us. Our very cells are like tiny batteries that carry electrical charges. The water we drink enables the connection and conductivity of these charges. When we are dehydrated, our energy can become stuck, making us vulnerable to sickness and disease. Prune Harris, a Natural Health and Energy Expert, explains that our hydration affects the electro-magnetic flow of our energy fields. If we remain hydrated, we will better be able to flush out our toxins and release the flow of energy. My father is just beginning palliative chemo and he has been instructed to drink as much water as possible to help flush out the toxins to reduce the side effects. An oncology doctor has developed the practice of holding the chemo cocktail in his hand for a few breaths of healing energy before administering it and he has found that when he does this, the side effects decrease.
Prune Harris teaches that the composition of water can change if we bring our consciousness to it. We can hold a cup of water, send healing energy into it for a few breaths and the molecules will respond. This might explain how we, who are comprised mostly of water, can receive healing energy from various types of energy practices, including prayer, Reiki, and Healing Touch. The very molecules of our body respond to energetic fields because our watery composition is a conductor of energy.
Now—let’s take this back to our sacraments. When we pray over the water and the communion elements, and ask God to bless them, healing energy is being sent into them. God infuses them with grace. We now have holy water, holy bread and holy juice. In the mainline Protestant denominations, we don’t believe that the bread and juice become the actual body and blood of Christ. But we do believe that they carry an extra type of energy called grace. St. Augustine called the sacraments “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”
The waters of Jesus’ baptism were infused with grace. When he was baptized, people around him sensed the power of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit and through an affirmation that he was the Beloved in whom God was well pleased. In this act of baptism, the Trinity became known.
In our baptisms, we each received the blessing of God, filled with grace and love. In addition, if we were baptized as children, our parents answered questions of faith on our behalf, which we later could confirm as adults. One of these questions refers to a commitment to seek justice and resist oppression and evil. The older liturgies ask us to turn from the forces of evil and renounce their power. This is the meaning of repentance preached by John the Baptist. It is not enough to simply apologize. We must actively turn from that which harms ourselves, one another and indeed all of Creation.
Today, we will be practicing an ancient tradition of the church called asperging. You may feel the sprinkles of the holy water of life on your faces as we renew our baptismal vows. Let it remind us of the power of our baptism that generously enwraps us in grace. At the end of the service, I will carry the bowl of baptismal water out to the door of sanctuary, where you are invited to bless yourself with the water when you leave. As we are strengthened by this grace of these baptismal waters, may we have the courage to admit our wrongs, empty ourselves of anything that is not of God and commit ourselves to a walking a new path into a new decade. Let’s see with new eyes a clarity of 20/20 vision.
 Luke 4:18-19