- Zachary Helton
"All of Our Births and Re-Births," by Zachary Helton
And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. In the course of his preaching, John said, “One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”
Baptism is a universal experience. It’s not just for the ones who grew up in church. Despite what stories might come to mind when we use the word “baptism,” whatever setting, whether it was yours or someone else’s, baptism is not owned by anyone. It is an image that goes far beyond just our tradition or our sacred stories. In the year 1994, the film The Shawshank Redemption was released in theaters across America. (Quick aside: If you’ve managed to make it 26 years without seeing The Shawshank Redemption, there are spoilers ahead, so you might want to pause, go watch the movie, (which is way better than this sermon anyway) and then come back when you get the chance.) Shawshank tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker falsely accused of killing his wife and facing two consecutive life sentences in Shawshank State Penitentiary. That is, of course, the form of the story. The spirit of the story is that of a man forced to surrender, one by one, his illusions and assumptions about who he is, how the world works, and what it really meant to be a free human being. Near the end of the film some prisoners begin to speculate, worriedly, that Dufresne is plotting to take his own life, but in the turn, we discover that Dufresne has been plotting, not his death, but his escape. Audiences watch a narrated sequence as Dufresne carves a narrow tunnel through a wall and breaks into an old sewage line. Then, with rain pouring and thunder crashing through the night, Dufresne crawls “through 500 yards of [unimaginable foulness]” before plunging from an outlet into a retaining pond, wading and stumbling as though he were walking for the first time. Then, in a frenzy, he tears away the stained and threadbare uniform that once identified him, one reduced him to inmate 81433, and stands laid bare, baptized anew by the rain cascading down his body. He had “crawled through a river of [waste] and came out clean on the other side.” The narration continues that the next day, “a man nobody ever laid eyes on before strolled into the national bank. Until that moment, he didn’t exist…” In some stories, baptism is the climactic conclusion, what it’s all led to. In other stories, it is the beginning – that which sets the ball rolling. Five years after Shawshank, in 1999 , the Wachowski siblings’ released The Matrix and it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Near the beginning of the film, computer programmer Thomas Anderson, who goes by the alias “Neo,” sits down with a notorious cybercriminal who names a truth about Neo no one else could. “You know something, [is wrong with the world]” he offers. “What you know you can’t explain, but you can feel it.” With that, he offers him a choice: go back to his normal life… or learn a truth which he can never un-learn. Neo chooses the latter, and in a quick and tense sequence is strapped to a chair surrounded by whirring electronics. The music crescendos as a change begins to overtake Neo’s body, as he begins to reflect the reality around him in a new way. He panics, and just as he approaches the brink of cardiac arrest, he opens his eyes and finds himself somewhere else, baptized in a primordial embryonic fluid connected to some great machine by a myriad of umbilical computer cords. He emerges from the mechanical womb, choking and sputtering in an unfamiliar world. The cords begin tearing away as he’s pushed out and into a blindingly clear light, a light his unused eyes have never seen. No one can watch this scene without feeling uncomfortable, because there is perhaps no other scene in cinematic history that puts the visceral and traumatic chaos of being born and born again in baptism on such full display. Sixteen years after that, the HBO series Game of Thrones was entering its sixth season, beginning a storyline following the royal lines of the Iron Islands fighting for recognition and rule. In the season’s fifth episode, one of the contenders for the throne undergoes a rite of their native religion, standing waist deep in a briny grotto as a high priest pushes him under the murky water. Officials watch intently as the priest recites his liturgy, “Let the sea wash your follies and vanities away. May who you thought you were drown. Let his lungs fill with sea water. Let the fish eat the scales off his eyes.” Then, as the man begins to thrash beneath the water, the priest finishes, “What is dead may never die, but rise again, harder and stronger.” With that, the man beneath the water goes still and limp, and others rush him back to the shore where he is resuscitated, pushing the water from his lungs, born anew into a new life. I could go on. My first language is film, but I’m sure I could list other works of literature, poetry, and visual art each illuminating this experience in a new way… but the point is this: Baptism is a universal, human experience. It’s an archetypal image far bigger than just our tradition or sacred stories. In my first year of seminary, I remember asking: where did baptism come from? It struck me as so strange that such an integral part of our tradition didn’t even show up until the beginning of the gospels, and even then, John the Baptizer seems to be using it very differently we would. What does baptism even mean in a pre-Christian world? Buried with who in baptism, raised to walk in newness like… who? At the time, my professor talked through how it may have been a tradition that cropped up during the period between the testaments and how the seeds of it were around in other cleansing rituals… but looking back, that question now strikes me as funny, if not arrogant. Birth and re-birth through the chaos of the waters, like we’ve just seen in these films… these are show up everywhere in the written collective experience we call the Hebrew Scriptures, because they show up everywhere people talk about what it means to be human. In the beginning, the Spirit of God sweeps across the face of the deep waters and begins to call forth new life from the chaos and the dark. Centuries later, after a long and violent struggle, the children of Israel cross, on foot, through the piled waters of the Sea of Reeds, baptized into a new life of liberation on the far shore. Following a long sojourn in the desert, the wanderers finally cross through those sacred waters of the Jordan River, and as they do, they are baptized anew as a rooted people, a storied people in a new nation. Again, many years later those banks watch as Elisha the apprentice crossed through those same waters after his master was taken up into heaven. They watched as he was baptized anew Elisha the Prophet. Naaman the Syrian, the dignitary, the proud, the leper… travels from afar to the waters of the Jordan to be healed of his illness, but as he dips into those waters seven times, healed first of his pride, then his separation from the rest of humanity, and only later, his leprosy… the scriptures tell us he emerges from his baptism with the skin and mind like that of a newly born child. It’s not a new image. It has deep roots. It is a well-established stage onto which Jesus walks. It is a truth recognized by every midwife and every anxious parent that has ever stepped foot in a birthing room that to have new life, we have no choice but to pass through the messy, chaotic waters of birth, our first baptism… and it is a truth recognized by every spiritually aware adult that we will pass through those same waters again and again, that the process of being born will happen many times in one life. Baptism is a perfect image for that which we all experience. But then, there’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. It falls squarely into this grand human baptism story… but then offers something new. John the Baptizer stands in cool water in front of hot crowds waiting on the ancient banks of the Jordan River, the same banks that welcomed the first Judeans into their new lives. John gestures for the next in line to come forward, a man unimpressive by any traditional standards with an faded robe brushed with sawdust. This man is known by some as the Son of Mary, born into the stigma and shame of what the ignorant might call “illegitimacy,” into a life of suspicion and untouchability that would pelt his self-worth like stones… yet the waters embrace him all the same. The Baptizer raises his hand, placing it on the man’s scraggly head, and as he’s done so many times before, he guides him down, down into the womb of the earth. Jesus the Son of Mary plunges into a darkness that stings his eyes and a density that stops his breath. The waters touch every part of him, the parts everyone can see and the parts of which he’s always been ashamed. He loses track of how long he’s been below, how long he’s been entombed in the water. It might’ve been three seconds. It might’ve been three days. But then, when John pulls him back up into the dazzling light, Jesus gasps a long, deep breath that felt like his very first, and that’s when he understands. That’s when he knows the Spirit for the first time. That’s when he hears the voice. It’s a voice that’s been speaking to him, to all of us, since our first birth, had been drowned out by so many other calls and shouts. Like an unignorable clap of thunder, strong and clear, the voice says, “You are my child, beloved, just as you are. You are the delight of my life.” And with that, like a wave realizing it is the whole ocean, the Son of Mary became the Son of God. Baptism may be a universal, human experience… but all of our births, deaths, and re-births… they lead to this: Knowing the truth about what we really are: Beloved, without condition. This Baptism Sunday, as we stand on the edge of the Lenten wilderness, may we see ourselves in this story. We enter the desert to face ourselves, to face all of the false voices that tell us we are anything other than beloved children of God, all the false voices that convince us we need to believe, think, act otherwise. But like Andy Dufrense, like Neo, like Israel, Elisha, Naaman, John, or Jesus… we stand in the long human story of death and re-birth, and at the end of all of our deaths and all of our re-births, we find the truth of who we are - the truth spoken like thunder on the day of Jesus’ baptism. In the weeks to come, in the discomfort of the desert, may this voice be our sustenance. May it be promise which calls us forward. “You are my child, beloved, just as you are. You are the delight of my life.” Amen.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
Many of us see ourselves as having as permanent and having a defined self, but how have you changed and been re-born over the years? How have you been baptized?
Where do you sense constriction or tightness in your life? The invitation to be born anew?
How clearly do you hear “the voice?” How do you keep your ears and heart open to it?