Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Novelist and professor David Foster Wallace began his commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College with the following story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says ‘What the heck is water?’”[i] James K.A. Smith, author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit – the book we began studying together this past Wednesday night, uses this illustration to talk about how we swim along in life unaware of how the waters we swim in influence our behaviors. More often than not we don’t even know we are in water! We are affected by the tides of our culture and common societal practices more than we realize. As Christians we often are more influenced by the waters of our culture than the waters of our baptism. Smith calls us to become aware of how the practices of our culture shape and form us, particularly how they mold us into being different types of people than the gospel calls us to be. Smith says, “We need to become aware of our immersions. ‘This is water,’ and you’ve been swimming in it your whole life. We need to recognize that our imaginations and longings are not impervious to our environments.”[ii] Our habits or repeated behaviors have more power over us that what we think or believe. As Christians who seek to follow in the way of Jesus, we must ask ourselves: What water are we swimming in?
Water is a deeply important image in our faith. The baptismal waters that Jesus gets immersed in, in our text for today, recall the story of our faith from beginning to end. The baptismal waters remind us of creation, of our God who created the heavens and the earth when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The baptismal waters remind us of recreation. We recall the cleansing waters of the flood that washed over the earth and the dove that Noah released after it was all over. We remember God parting the waters of the Red Sea for Moses as the children of Israel escaped from Egypt. We remember God parting the waters of the Jordan for Joshua when the people reached the promised land. The baptismal waters also remind us of death because in our baptisms, we die to ourselves and are raised to new life in Christ.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism presents Jesus as coming from Galilee to John at the Jordan so that he could be baptized by him. John has been preaching a baptism of repentance, saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Matthew acknowledges the confusing nature of these events. Why would Jesus who is without sin need to be baptized by John, particularly if John’s baptism is one of repentance from sin? Matthew says John argues with Jesus, questioning why Jesus has come to him, insisting that he should be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” When Jesus enters into John’s baptism, it is yet another sign of the incarnation, of the God who has come in the flesh, entering into solidarity with us. And when he enters into the waters of baptism, it is a clear sign that he enters into solidarity with sinners and works toward the fulfillment of righteousness.
What does it mean to fulfill all righteousness? Righteousness is not some fixed or static quality that one possesses; it is a way of living that aligns with God’s desires for the world. Psalm 72 describes a righteous king as one who delivers the needy when they call, and defends the cause of the poor, one who has pity on the weak and redeems the needy from oppression and violence. To fulfill all righteousness means to establish God’s reign of justice. By submitting to baptism, Jesus enters into the commitment to bring about the kingdom of God and what it values. Baptism is the beginning of his public ministry, and this baptism defines what his ministry will be all about: submitting to God’s ways and God’s kingdom and committing to living out the desires of God’s heart. Fulfilling all righteousness requires certain actions and habits; it is a way of living and being in the world; it requires changing the water we live in, making it holy and just; it means turning the waters of this world into the waters of the kingdom.
The Jewish people were familiar with regular ritual washing, but this baptism of repentance that was brought on by John is more like the practice of baptizing a new convert into the faith. This is the kind of baptism that the Jewish people would have only thought was necessary for Gentile converts to the faith. So when John declares that everyone needs to be baptized and converted, John is calling for a different kind of baptism, a baptism that everyone needed no matter what their nationality was. Jesus by submitting to this baptism and then later proclaiming a baptism of both water and Spirit showed that the baptismal waters should shape our identity more than any other identity we claim, even the identity of our nation.
When we enter into the baptismal waters, we are invited to join Jesus in fulfilling all righteousness, to choose a certain way of life. We are invited to die to ourselves and to rid ourselves of our selfish desires, and to commit to the ways of God’s kingdom. We are invited to renounce evil and sin and to define ourselves by a life of discipleship. We are invited to love and serve the Lord, to work alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ to make what God desires a reality. We are invited to receive from our mentors in the faith instruction and guidance about what kind of water we are swimming in, what kind of life Jesus calls us to lead. We are invited to live into the identity of God’s beloved. We are invited to allow that title of God’s child to take hold of our lives more than any other identity we hold.
We swim in all other types of water besides the water of our faith, but just like those two young fish swimming along, we often don’t realize we’re in the water. It’s become so much a part of our lives that we don’t think of it as water that changes temperature and ebbs and flows, pulling us in and out of its tide. Often the waters of the world give us an identity that holds more sway over who we are and how we live in the world. Think about all the different waters that we swim in. We swim in the water of our educational system and universities that tells us that what matters most is what we know and identifies us as smart, average, or challenged. We swim in the water of our nation that tells us that the ultimate good life is one of freedom and happiness and defines our worth by how responsible of a citizen we are, how much we contribute to the stabilization of our societal systems. This water tells us that some lives are more valuable than other lives. We swim in the water of consumerism that tells us that things will make us happy and give us a good life; it’s water that identifies us as entities that make transactions, as bodies who are in need of certain things to be made whole. We swim in the water of our occupation that tells us our worth is based on our productivity and the level of our output. It values us based on our willingness to sacrifice everything else for the sake of being a better employee. We swim in the water of our families who have certain expectations of us and often label us in ways that don’t free us to grow or to change. As we swim in different types of waters than the waters of our faith, we must ask ourselves: “What does this water tell me about who I am? What does this water say about how I am to act in the world? How does this water define what a good life is? How is the story this water tells different from the story told by the water of our faith?”
Rachel Held Evans says, “The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough. In baptism, the Christian stands naked and unashamed before…all these impulses and temptations, sins and failures, empty sales pitches and screwy labels – and says, ‘I am a beloved child of God and I renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise’.”[iii] The waters of our world say – you are your intellect, your IQ; you are what you buy; you are what I’ve already labeled you to be; you are good if you follow the rules of society; you are good if you contribute to the economy; you are beautiful if you look like a movie star; you are loved if you make everyone happy; you are important if you have a respectable job; your worth is defined by your bank account. But the waters of our faith tell us a totally different story about who we are. The waters of our faith say – you are beloved; you are forgiven; you are called; you are cared for; you are salt; you are light; you have passed through the waters of death and risen to new life; you belong. You belong and so do all of God’s children so you too are invited to come alongside Jesus to fulfill all righteousness by immersing yourself in the kingdom of God, in the kingdom of justice, in the kingdom that delivers the needy when they call and defends the cause of the poor.
How’s the water? Have we immersed ourselves all the way in? Or do we keep jumping in and out of different pools? What water are we swimming in? Have we bathed in the water of our faith long enough for it to have truly changed how we live? Have we died to the old water and been risen to the newness of life in Christ? When we think about examples of people who’ve tried to immerse themselves in the waters of our faith, we often think about people who’ve joined monastic orders, like monks or nuns. When Benedict wrote his rule or order of living for monasteries in the sixth century, he included instructions for how a new monk would be received into the community. The new monk would enter a room to make his vows of stability, fidelity, and obedience, and then he would say, “Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope.” Benedict would then tell the new monk to pull off his street clothes and put on the habit of the monks. Of course, we would expect this, but the next instruction is odd: Benedict would then have the monk leave his old street clothes in his closet so that every morning the monk would be confronted with two options – to put on the habit of the monk or to put on his street clothes and leave the monastery. He had to keep choosing what he had chosen.[iv]
As Baptists we believe in the priesthood of believers, and thus we believe that each of us is responsible for living faithful lives and being leaders in our faith. We all have to keep choosing what we’ve chosen. We all have to ask ourselves: what water are we swimming in? We all have to recognize when we’ve put back on our street clothes, when we are swimming in the wrong pool, and put back on the clothes of faith and immerse ourselves again into the baptismal waters. The same Spirit of God who descended upon us in our baptisms remains with us and will continue to provoke and challenge us to keep choosing what we’ve chosen, to keep living in ways that align our desires with God’s desires, and to keep being immersed into the waters of our faith. What water are we swimming in? Amen.
[ii] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, 38.
[iii] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, 19-20.
[iv] M. Craig Barnes, “Boxed In” – Christian Century; August 15, 2013.