Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany – January 14, 2018
“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And all the land of Judaea, and of Jerusalem, were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.”
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN CLEAN? I mean really clean. As little kids, we squirmed and hid from the specter of the bathtub or shower, afraid to get soap in our eyes, afraid of sinking down in the soiled water, perhaps, and not able to breathe. Or maybe, we just liked feeling dirty. The washcloth treatment scouring out our ears, the shampoo rubbed hard through our hair, then that chilly air on our dripping bare skin causing us to shiver – all these little pains made bathing difficult for us as kids. As adults, we’ve gotten steeled to those little body displeasures and have come to relish a good soak and the feeling of cleanliness.
But are we clean? We go to the dentist every several months to get our teeth cleaned, even though we brush twice a day. There’s clean, and then there’s clean. People entering a super-clean environment must either be blasted with a flash heat-pulse that burns the outer layer of epidermis with its flaky skin, hair, and ground-in dirt, then air washed half to death, or be encased in garments, hoods, booties and gloves in order to work in a clean room where they assemble computer chips. Otherwise, your body sheds its stuff into the product. A clean room is constantly being cleansed with downward cycling HEPA filtered air that falls through floor grates and takes anything else that, by chance, you’ve brought in on you, away from the environment. And still, you’re not completely clean.
Clean: it’s a concept, but is there anywhere or anyone in our world who can match a 100% absolute definition of clean. Britain’s National Health System defines cleanliness for its medical items. It says, “All parts (including underneath) should be visibly clean, with no blood or body substances, dust, dirt, debris or spillages.” Visibly clean is not clean. What we can’t see with the naked eye can be the plague virus, HIV, tuberculosis, and strep bacteria: silent killers that lurk in medical environments and need to be destroyed. But they are not visible, only deadly.
We can’t come dirty into heaven. Talk about a clean room: heaven is clean. God is clean. The saints are clean and the angels are really clean. Angels are made out of something like spiritual light. Make something out of light and now you’re talking clean. We’re made out of mud. We’re mud men. How are these bodies ever going to pass inspection with God? Well, they aren’t. But they’re not going to have to.
John the Baptist came crying in the wilderness, calling the faithful Israelites to himself with a message of repentance. Repentance means you find yourself dirty and you determine to be clean. But we’re made of mud. We are literally made out of the sullied parts of other unclean human bodies, created from dirt, and our souls have been compromised by our own sins.
When the prophet Isaiah was taken into God’s presence, he cried out that he was a man with a dirty mouth, who lived among others with dirty mouths. He was suddenly struck by the holiness of God and his first realization was that he reeked of foulness in the things he had spoken. The holy angels were crying, “Holy! Holy! Holy” and he was just crying, and sighing, “Dirty me!” But an angel saw him and took a fiery coal from the brazier in a tong, flew to Isaiah, and pushed its blazing heat into the prophet’s mouth, burning, singeing it, cauterizing his unclean lips until he was clean.
We don’t all have to get clean that way, I believe. Jesus told His Apostles at the Last Supper, “Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken to you.” Jn 15:3 Jesus can declare you clean. He has made sacraments for us to become clean.
The Baptism of John was for cleaning people from sin. It was only for repentance, but God looks on our intention and makes up the difference. John could only pray and dunk people in Jordan water. They felt the refreshment of holiness, and that came from God.
Then Jesus walked down the banks, and John knew his ministry was finished. It had all been for this moment, this transfer of leadership. John’s outward business was washing people from mud men to holy men of God. But he knew he couldn’t do it. While the people, with whom he was fabulously popular, wanted him to be Messiah, or God’s prophet for their times: John assured them, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”
To baptize means to wash. He washed with only water. The One coming would use a stronger cleanser, the Holy Spirit of God. In another place John is recorded saying that the One he awaited would be a cleansing fire, like a smelting oven, purifying with a terrifying heat that separates the ore from the silver, or like fuller’s soap, which is a caustic lye soap that bleaches out all color from linen and makes it pure white. He’s not so much saying it would be painful as that it would make us really, really clean. Better than water, better than soap, better than scrub brushes.
Jesus walked down into the Jordan river.
John was confused. His ministry was to prepare for this day, to prepare for Jesus’ coming, and then to get out of the way and have Messiah do the baptizing with water and the Spirit. But Jesus wanted John’s baptism, and He told him, “Let this happen, to fulfill the Father’s desire.” And so John baptized Jesus.
Now, John had been told in the spirit a sign that would assure him who the Messiah was going to be. He knew of the holy life his cousin had led, and probably felt pretty sure this was the One. But as Jesus rose from the waters, the sign was given and John knew for sure. The sky seemed to open and light poured down, lighting all the droplets falling from Jesus’ body with rainbow colors and diamond light. A specially bright object, very much alive, descended on Jesus, landed on Him, and stayed. It reminding John of a dove more than anything else. And then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
There was no doubt: this was the One. John told his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world! He must increase, and I will now decrease.” Some of them changed into disciples of Jesus that day.
The first element of our obedience to God in Christianity is baptism, washing, cleansing, ending our old life and beginning a new. The water is symbolic of washing, but we know we can never be clean enough for God by water washing alone. Our souls don’t get clean from water. In fact, our mud man remains mud after we become new creatures in Christ. It becomes for us a clumsy dichotomy, a clown suit at the debutant’s ball, where we feel unworthy and can’t look up for fear that everyone is staring at us, everyone knows that we shouldn’t be here.
But it’s not the water that does it. The water is the outward, visible sign of an inward grace, the grace of that Holy Spirit John told us we would be cleansed with. God’s Third Person, invisible and all-powerful, enters our beings and, quietly, gently, firmly begins the long process of spiritual regeneration and sanctification. Some of that is instantaneous. Our spirits are born anew. Some of it may take a lifetime and would take longer, but for one important change that comes, and that change is death.
Our mud men must die, and only part of that happens in baptism. Part of it happens at our death. Then we leave the mud man on the mud planet and we are truly, finally, in fact: clean.
C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful book Mere Christianity, treats the ideas of making and begetting, contrasting the Person of Christ with our own human natures. We are made, He is begotten. If you beget something, it is from your own nature and has all the characteristics of yourself. God begets the Son, who is like His Father in every detail, including the fact they are both eternal and have always been. The Son is light of light, very God of very God, and so on. We are not. We are made by God, and if we bear His image, and may someday share His likeness, yet we are not God. We are not eternal, or all knowing, or anything like that. Lewis writes:
“In our natural state we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues… Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has… Every Christian is to become a little Christ.” Mere Christianity
The nature of God is not native in us. But the wonder of God is that He shares. And when He shares, it’s to keep. God wants us with Him, and He offers true amnesty, so earnestly that He sent His Son to die that we might live forever. This fact is always the offer: believe Him and join Him. Then He gives us Christ, and Christ gives us His Spirit. We were just statues of God before, unlit by the eternal life that is in Him. But He is making us alive, sharing His nature and holy light with us, a gift never to be taken back, only to grow and keep growing in us. We will never be God, but we will have everything that is His. And one thing He possesses is complete cleanness. It will never be our holiness, as though by our invention, but His holiness in us. Never our kind of clean, but His kind of clean. Not our life, but His life. And it becomes our own, and we are His own, and the statues are coming to life.
Have you ever been clean? Maybe not, mud people, and yet the best is yet to come. We may shy at the idea of stripping bare and getting into that waterfall, or fountain, or whatever it is that washes the last vestiges of this unholy life from our beings, but I recommend that you just giggle. Giggle, and cry, and shout “Glory be to Thee, O Lord!” It’ll be okay. It won’t hurt, much. The soap won’t get in your eyes, little one. You’re going to enjoy being clean.