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Baptized with a flood

March 4th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Tile: Baptized with a flood
Text: Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15, 1 Peter 3:18-22
Date: Feb 26, 2012, First Sunday of Lent
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

“[A] Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism,
once begun and ever continued.”

~ Martin Luther, 16th century[1]

My garden is coming back to life — crocuses, daffodils, Georgia blue speedwell, all flowering. The blue birds are back, darting in and out of their little house in my front yard, preparing a nest.

It makes sense to celebrate Lent during the spring, as we watch the earth come back to life. Lent is a season of for welcoming new life, a time set aside to make room for the new creation — and that’s what spring is all about, the beginning of new life, a new creation coming out of the old.

This is the story of Noah in Genesis 9 — new creation, new life out of the old. Usually, when we hear this story, we put ourselves in the ark, with Noah and his family, and the animals. That’s the take on the story we hear in 1 Peter 3, where Noah and the ark prefigures our baptism. The point in 1 Peter is that God saves us through the water and from the water. God saves us through baptism, where we pass from death to life, to resurrected life in Jesus, just like God saves the people and animals with Noah in the ark.

But what happens when we read ourselves into the story by identifying ourselves with the earth, the land that is destroyed by the flood — the adamah, to use the Hebrew word: adamah, the ground, the mud out of which God creates the human being, the adam. From the start, at the beginning of the story of Genesis, humans are tied to the humus; earthlings are formed from the earth. So, why not identify ourselves with the earth, with the soil that is our flesh? Why not read ourselves in solidarity with the rest of creation that is washed away in the flood?

After all, baptism is about being submerged into the waters, washed away by a flood of waters, dying with Jesus, and being resurrected through the Spirit. Baptism is a dying to an old self, and being raised into a new creation. That’s what happens to the land, the earth, in the story of the flood. The waters cover the land, “everything,” it says in Genesis 7, “everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died” (Gen 7:22).

This is the baptism of the earth, submerged in the waters of chaos, to be raised again through God’s Spirit — the Holy Spirit, as the dove that Noah releases from the ark, the dove who hovers over the deep, the same Spirit who hovers over the waters at the beginning of the creation story, this same Spirit is the one who enlivens all things with God’s breath, with the life of God. This is the spirit of life after baptism, life after the flood: the spirit of Christ’s resurrection, the God of the new creation, the God who comes to us again and again, here and now, in our celebration of Communion — the Holy Spirit who is our communion with God, our sharing in God’s life.

This is what I’m trying to say, with this story of the flood: I think the danger is, when we read ourselves into the ark, into Noah’s ark, the danger is that we somehow think baptism means we can escape death, that we are promised a safe passage through this story called life, a safe passage as we watch the rest of the world be destroyed all around us. But we don’t escape death, no one does. You don’t need me to remind you of this. Many of you are more familiar with death than I am. I’ve heard it in your prayers — so many friends and loved ones with cancer, with illnesses that threaten us with death. And not just death with a capital D, but all the little deaths as well — the pain that comes with loss, with division, the loss of a friendship, a relationship, the heartache, the desolation that gnaws at our souls when everything that could go wrong actually does go wrong, and we’re left drowning in a flood. You see, death is always finding ways to leak into our lives, trying to choke out our hope.

No, we’re not in an ark; because we’ve been marked with a cross; we are with the ashes, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; we are being drawn into the soil, the land — earthlings with the earth, humans with the humus, washed away with the flood. We have been marked by this baptism. And during Lent we are drawn further into this baptism, baptized with a flood. Not an escape from all the ways that death overflows into our world, but baptism as total immersion into the flood; baptism as solidarity with all who suffer from the powers of death; baptism as turning toward the cross as it reappears wherever scapegoats are killed, wherever we hand over people to the power of death — the crucified, here and now, inviting us to tend to the wounds of Christ, the one who, as Blaise Pascal wrote, will be in agony until the end of the world.

As I mentioned at our Ash Wednesday service this past week, Lent has traditionally been a time for converts to prepare for their baptism, which takes place on Easter — forty days of preparation for baptism. The season of Lent is a season of baptism, a time to remember our baptisms, to anticipate baptism, to let the baptismal waters flow through us and draw us into new life, life with Jesus. It’s Jesus, after all, who enters into the flood, when John baptizes him in the Jordan. And when Jesus enters into the flood, it says in Mark’s Gospel, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends like a dove.

This time, with Jesus, when the heavens are opened up, it’s not a sign of destruction like it was during the time of Noah, as the waters from above crashed onto the land. This time, with Jesus, when the heavens are torn open, the Holy Spirit is released into the world, as a dove, a dove, perhaps the same dove that Noah released from the ark to find dry land, the dove who hovered for so long, trying to find the new creation, the dove that never returned, until now, as it rests on Jesus, the one who inaugurates the new creation in our midst.[2] Jesus is the new creation, creation restored, breathing new life into what has been dead for so long, recreating us, restoring the world, through the Holy Spirit, God’s breath, the life of God.

To be baptized in the flood is to be joined to Jesus, the one who draws all humanity into himself. To be baptized is to be drawn into the solidarity of Jesus, the one who seeks out the lost, who heals the broken, who comforts the oppressed, who sets the captives free, who brings good news to the poor.

I love the way Augustine of Hippo puts it, the way he talks about Jesus as God’s solidarity with humanity. Augustine says that humanity was fundamentally wounded after the fall, broken into pieces and spread throughout the world; but in Jesus, he says, “the Divine Mercy gathered up the fragments and forged them in the fire of love and welded into one what had been broken.”[3] I love that way of putting it: in Jesus is gathered up all the fragments, the fragments of our lives, the brokenness that leads to hostility; in Jesus we are forged with the fire of love.

This love is what we celebrate when we come to the Lord’s Table, as we receive Communion. The early Christians called this the agape meal, the lovefeast, where the Holy Spirit joined them together, in Jesus. It’s a meal of solidarity: gathered as one body, being united in Christ’s love, yet letting that love flow through us, drawing us into all the world, into the brokenness all around us, because we are sustained by the life of Jesus, the one who poured out his life, his love, for the world.

Every celebration of Communion is an invitation into this kind of life; it’s an invitation to be caught up in the new creation, caught up in Jesus. And when we are caught up in Jesus, we find ourselves at the mercy of the Spirit, the Spirit who drives us into the lonely places, into the desolation of the world around us, the places where Satan dwells, where the powers of evil continue to destroy creation, where they continue to crucify.

After Jesus is baptized, it says, the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, in a confrontation with Satan. These are the forty days of Lent, our time in the wilderness, with the wild beasts, and also the angels, who sustain us.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mk 1:15)


[1] The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, trans. Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958), 89

[2] I’m am indebted to Mark Schloneger, pastor of Springdale Mennonite Church, for this way of reading the dove in the story of Noah’s ark, which reappears at Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel.

[3] St. Augustine, On Psalm 195, n. 15, in Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), 376.

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