We live in a world where things can be holy. Such a concept may not seem real to some, or terribly modern, but that doesn’t really matter. You can go back a long time and observe that humans have always sensed that certain things in this universe, things around them—tangible, visible things, things that actually take up space and time—have been visited by some divine presence. Such things are then holy, sacred, designated for use by God, who is the embodiment of holy.
For some folks, it is a stretch to even conceive of a God, a Creator, in the first place. You can see that it is even harder for many to comprehend that the Creator of all that is, the source of all life and energy, would descend to associate him or her or itself with certain objects, places, and people, especially considering how filthy objects, places, and people can be on this troubled planet. And yet, we have holy things, sacred moments, hallowed ground, and they command special attention, a turning aside.
That is, I as see it, one of the main issues at play in the tragic shootings in France this week. In the eyes of a violent few, the satirists of one publication routinely disregarded the holy things of another people by depicting something they hold to be sacred in image form, not to mention hurtful and insulting. Granted, the great majority of us do not believe that violent retaliation is the appropriate response to blasphemy, which is the term for doing something improper with things that are holy. But the fact still remains that, regardless of what a government policy is, and regardless of what the prevailing public opinion is about equality among people or the truth of religion, some people among us maintain that certain things have been set aside by God and are therefore holy, blessed, just as many believe the right to blaspheme it is also, somehow, holy.
There are no easy answers to this issue and other ones like it, which I fear are in our future, other than condemning violence when we can, speaking up for the innocent and oppressed, and comforting the grieving, but perhaps one way forward is to acknowledge and respect the presence of holiness among us, even if these things are nothing you personally would designate as holy, as something that God’s own self has touched or associated himself with.
It is worth noting, then, that when this man from Nazareth steps into the water in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, a holy moment is occurring. The divine, in all its glory, in all its total other-ness from creation, is associating itself with this particular figure, Jesus. The Creator, with all that power and splendor, is visiting those particular waters at that very ordinary moment. In fact, when Jesus comes up out of the water, he notices that the heavens are torn apart, which is a big cumulus clue that anything separating God from humans is being ripped away. Just as at the beginning of creation when chaos started to give way to order because God spoke right into the messy mix of it all, now God is descending again to say, “Enough of this separation. My holy will mix with your commonplace.”
We’ve probably all seen the heavens open up at some point. It doesn’t happen all that often, because the sky and the sun have to be just right, but occasionally the clouds part in such a way that only a little bit of sun streams through. When that happens, the beams of sunlight look a lot like a spotlight from God, or maybe even the bright, outstretched arm of the Creator. This is what I imagine occurs right over top of Jesus, right there in that river that separates the wilderness on one side and the Promised Land on the other. This tearing apart of the heavens is what happens right there as John the baptizer wades out into the muddy water, offering people a new beginning, a chance to pause, turn around, and look aside because God is moving in their midst. There are holy things to be revered.
The baptism of Jesus is one of those moments—and for Mark, the gospel-writer, it is THE moment—when God decides to get directly involved in creation, to sanctify the lives of humankind, to boldly declare as “blessed” the relative obscurity of human life. Who is this man? Where is he from? For as long as it has been around, the gospel has maintained this crazy thought: that God himself ripped the boundary between God’s heaven and God’s earth and entered human history in the life of a specific person.
This is important because the tendency is always to base an experience with God all on our ability to attain some spiritual nirvana, to tap into some divine wireless access point of our brain or tune into the right frequency. We acknowledge that crucial separation between us and God, but then make it all about us reaching in that direction. This is not the gospel. Ultimately, we learn that the truth is the other way around, beginning with Jesus’ baptism: we know God and experience the holy only because God first comes to us. Ultimately we only ever touch the divine because God showed up on the banks of the Jordan River about 2000 years ago over the life of this man from a backwater town about 40 miles to the north and effectively pointed to him and said, “Him. He is holy.”
As we learn, this will be Jesus’ mission: to make all humankind holy, each and every human life, especially the most forlorn and obscure. It will be a powerful thing that he does, full of vigor and might. He will address evil head-on. He will even be forceful at times, dealing in a strong and direct way with the powers and principalities that enslave and corrupt human beings, but he will never be violent. He will never avenge or need to be avenged because that is not how God will work in him. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, not a drone. He will demonstrate the unstoppable influence of love and peace when one offers his life as a ransom for many. Wherever he goes he will be like the heavens torn apart right there, with the holy otherness of God shining through. In him we will see that God’s holy kingdom belongs here on earth, too, not just in some realm we go to after we die. And through him, by the power of that same Spirit, we will be included in moments of his peaceful, powerful kingdom throughout our lives.
On their test last semester on the Lord’s Prayer, the confirmands were asked to describe a time in their life when they experienced God’s kingdom coming. Their responses were uplifting to read. They spoke of feeding the hungry and working with at-risk and special needs children. One said the kingdom of heaven was like the feeling she gets when she knows she can call her mom to come pick her up from a party where people are doing dangerous things. One confirmand answered, very perceptively, “Experiencing God’s kingdom can happen whether you realize it or not,” and a couple of others mentioned that they were not sure they ever had been a part of God’s kingdom. Quite frankly, that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? That’s the miracle we see in Jesus’ baptism: that God’s holiness can pop up even in our murky lives, with our unclear vision and slippery grips.
And so this inauspicious Jordan River entrance is where God chooses to rip open the heavens and let his holiness descend. This man from Nazareth is the person God is designating as most holy, most blessed, most well-pleased. Sad to say, in our own messiness, in our own muddiness, we eventually reject him and blaspheme him and hang him out to die. Unable to handle holiness in such plain human attire, we reject it, we execute it. Like some of those confirmands are bold enough to admit, I don’t think we ever fully grasp that God’s holiness breaks in around us, and claims us as a part of it. In our brokenness, we never fully grasp that in Christ, each person bears the image of the divine. Each living being is a cartoon, if you will, of God the Maker. And each person, because of Christ’s appearance among us, can be an instance where the heavens open up and let the light of God shine through. That’s the real wonder of God’s grace.
Carrie Underwood, God love her, is on the radio with a new song. Over and over she sings “There must be something in the water.” If you listen, you can tell it’s a song about baptism, about the wonder of God’s grace, about the miracle of order being brought from chaos. Our response to Ms. Underwood this festival of our Lord’s baptism is that, yes, there is something in the water, even this old ordinary water. The something is Jesus, Son of God and holy Beloved, the Word, full of power and ready to change the world by even dying for it.
There is something in the water, and in his baptism he gives creation a fresh new beginning, free from its sin and chaos. In his death he claims you and he claims me and he claims each and every kind of person on this planet. And in our baptism, the public sign of that claiming, God bestows us with the same promise that his Father bestows on him: “You are my child.”
“You—yes you—can consider yourself sacred because you may show forth ME. My cross will be on your brow.”
Therefore, John the baptizer’s call rings ever true: Stop. Turn around, and look aside. Treat each other with love and respect. We live in a world where things—and people—can be holy.