Title: Fully Alive
Date: Jan 11, 2009, the Baptism of our Lord
Texts: Gen 1:1-5; Ps 29; Mk 1:4-11
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive…”
— Irenaeus, 2nd century
Last week I finally got around to cutting out a bunch of the dead plants in my front yard—Baptisias, a Carolina Lupine, Coneflowers, a Seashore Mallow. I also wanted to collect some seeds so I could try my hand at growing new plants this spring.
As I cut down the branches and located the seedpods, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I know this may sound completely silly to you experienced gardeners, but I was overwhelmed with the seeds. There are just so many seeds. At first I tried to collect them all—not wanting to spare a single seed. But it’s impossible. They go everywhere, and they are tiny.
My parents taught me never to waste anything, so it was hard to leave all those seeds on the ground. Obviously not all them will grew on their own in the place where they fall. There was way too many of them and not enough space to grow.
Plants are so careless in their abundance and seem to be even wasteful. So many seeds, scattered about the yard, some buried, some eaten, I imagine. The future of a seed is hidden from our eyes. Who knows where they go and what they do.
The same goes for the baptism of Jesus. His baptism makes possible our baptisms. His comes first, then ours. His baptism produces the multitude of baptisms over the past two millennia—yours and mine included. The baptism of Jesus is like the plant in my front yard, producing so many seeds, too many, scattered about, carelessly, seemingly wasteful seeds. But these seeds bear life—they contribute to life, in ways the go unnoticed.
My message is simple: the point of baptism is life, life upon life. When you were baptized, you stepped into Jesus’ baptism and into Jesus’ life. Mark’s Gospel tightly connects baptism and the life of Jesus. Unlike the Mathew and Luke, Mark starts his story with Jesus’ baptism. There is no birth account—no Christmas story. At the beginning of Mark, there is baptism. Baptism is the beginning of the story of Jesus. Baptism is the context of the life of Jesus—the rest of his days on earth are the working out of his baptism.
This is the story of our baptisms as well. Sure, it happened at a specific time and place. But it also marks the beginning of a life of baptism. After baptism, our entire life becomes the overflow of those baptismal waters, which is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is how we link our lives to the life of Jesus. We bind our lives to his. And we commit to a way of life that gives life—that shines new life, that multiplies life, like Jesus did.
A few weeks ago I talked about how “all of life is baptism.” (That’s a line from Martin Luther during the 16th century Reformation.) All of life is baptism. We are always being submerged in darkness and chaos, the stuff of life that causes despair, but we are always reborn into new life through it all. All of life is baptism. It means that every painful moment that seems like a little death in our lives is also the moment of the outpouring of new life, the overflow of Jesus’ baptismal waters, the movement of the Holy Spirit. All of life is baptism means that God is always creating new possibilities out of the stuff that seems like a dead end. That is the way of our baptism. We are always on the verge of new life, no matter what kind of trouble we’re in.
This logic of new life is there at the beginning, the story of creation in our passage from Genesis 1. Creation is a baptism story. All baptisms echo with the story of the first chapter of Genesis: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit from God swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). The Spirit of God hovers over the darkness, over the formless waters. And out of that chaos, out of that void, God creates life. When life seems impossible, God makes something new and wonderful. God makes a way out of what seems to be a dead end.
This is our story too. Genesis chapter 1 is about your creation, about how God creates and re-creates you and me. God is always hovering over the chaos of our world and our life, speaking new things into existence. God is always baptizing us—making ways for new life when we can only see dead ends.
Genesis 1 isn’t a chronological account of a moment in history, about primordial beginnings. That’s just a way for us to keep it at arms length, to make it about something a long time ago and not really about our lives. The temptation is to read Genesis 1 like any other history book—you read it, get a handle on how things were, then go on with your life.
That’s not how Genesis 1 works. Not at all. It’s actually a story about you and me. Your life is a formless void, our world is darkness, but God breathes his Spirit into all of it and makes something unimaginable possible. God sees our darkness and says, “Let there be light” (v. 3). This is a poem about baptism, about the God who baptizes, who makes new life possible in the midst of darkness and hopelessness. That is our God: a God who baptizes, always making new beginnings, new chances for life.
I’m tempted to think of God as a gardener in this context. Now I’m not completely crazy in thinking that God is a gardener. First of all, God plants a garden in Genesis. Then in John’s Gospel we have the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene as a gardener.
So I want us to think of God as one of those gardeners who takes pride in her garden. God is the kind of gardener who has nothing to talk about except her garden. I knew someone like that. The first thing she wanted to show any visitor to her house was the garden—what plant was about to sprout, what she was going to plant in a new bed. Or she might take you over to the corner of the garden where she just couldn’t get a particular plant to thrive. Or she would complain about the weeds that keep coming no matter how often she uprooted them. Then she would take you to her greenhouse where she recently planted some seeds.
You can only begin to understand this person once you let her show you her garden. She doesn’t make sense without her plants and seeds and greenhouse and her struggle against the weeds. In fact, there’s nothing much to her life other than her garden. Her life is so tied up in the garden that it would be silly to think of her as anything other than a gardener.
That’s what God is like. God is that kind of gardener—not an amateur like me who spends a spare hour or two playing in the soil. God’s life is dedicated to the garden—it’s not a hobby, something to keep God busy when he has nothing better to do. God actually gives his life to the garden. That’s what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means. In Jesus, God life’s gives life to all life. The gardener and the garden are intimately involved in one another. You can’t have one without the other. The garden displays the nurturing love and care of the gardener.
This is what I think Irenaeus is getting at with his line on the front of the bulletin: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God wants his garden to thrive, to come alive, fully alive. And we are God’s garden. God is like that gardener: the one whose life is completely wrapped up in the growth of her garden. God’s glory is you and me, growing into a beautiful display of God’s love. You are God’s glory.
That’s the good news. God is a gardener who is always sowing new life, even when ours seems like it has run into a dead end. But we remember that all of life is baptism. God is always hatching new life from the depths of darkness—“Let there be light,” God says.
And this good news births all kinds of choices in our lives. God’s good news brings freedom. We no longer have to live as if we don’t have any options. We are free to believe the impossible—that God can bring life out of formless voids, out of the darkness of despair. God makes life possible. God makes it possible for us to choose life, to be fully alive.
That’s what it means to believe in the baptism of Jesus; and not just believe in it, but to do it: to be baptized, to join our life to the life of Jesus, and to choose life all along the way. And to choose to give our life so that others can live, that they too can be “human beings, fully alive,” and thus proclaim God’s glory and beauty and saving grace.
The baptism of Jesus gives life to our baptisms. Jesus is that single seed in my front yard that grew into a plant last spring—a plant that produced countless seeds. We are those seeds of life. We are scattered by the wind, producing life wherever we land. And this wind is the Holy Spirit who plants us like seeds to bear new life for the world. This is our baptism. All of life is baptism.
I had these two passages from Rowan Williams’ Token of Trust (2007) in the back of my mind as I preached:
The Church is the community of those who have been ‘immersed’ in Jesus’ life, overwhelmed by it. Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ’s love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world. (112)
Faith doesn’t try and give you an alternative theory about the mechanics of the world; it invites you to take a step further, beyond the nuts and bolts, even beyond the Big Bang, to imagine an activity so unrestricted, so supremely itself, that it depends on nothing and is constantly pouring itself out so that the reality we know depends on it. Creation isn’t a theory about how things started; as St Thomas Aquinas said, it’s a way of seeing everything in relation to God. Whatever you encounter is there because God chose that it should be there. (37)