A few months ago, Ian and I noticed some cracks in the floor of our guest bathtub. We were worried that it would leak if we continued to use it, and we knew we would have guests visiting this weekend, so we were motivated to fix the problem sooner rather than later.
Well, one thing led to the next, as it often does with home improvement projects, and before we knew it, we were redoing the whole bathroom. I found myself choosing a new paint color and then last week, spending a few evenings painting the room.
Now, I’ve done enough painting in my lifetime to know that no matter how careful you try to be when you paint a room, you still end up with paint somewhere on your clothes. I was peeling paint off the backs my arms for days. You’d think I would have learned this by now, given the number of paint-stained items of clothing I have that have been dubbed work clothes–shorts, pants, sweatshirts, all covered in various paint stains. But no, there’s always a part of me that thinks that if I’m only careful enough, I can keep clean.
But who am I kidding? It’s practically impossible to paint and not get messy.
It’s also hard to live this life of what we call faith and not get messy.
Our Gospel story today teaches us that. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. But what am I talking about? It’s a story about water and water is cleansing, right? We use water to wash, not to soil. And yes, that is all true.
But there is a big component of baptism that makes it really messy. And it has to do with the Holy Spirit.
The first thing we need to realize about Jesus’ baptism is that something changed with Jesus’ baptism. Baptism changed. Sure, John the Baptist had been baptizing people before Jesus, but it wasn’t the same. There were ritual cleansings in the Jewish faith, but those were just ritual cleansings. Sure, there were rites of initiation for converts to the faith, but those were rites of conversation nothing more.
When Jesus was baptized, though, baptism became not only a cleansing, and not only the point of entry to a specific community or faith, but a cleansing and a point of entry to a community and an anointing by the Holy Spirit. Nowhere prior to the baptism of Jesus did the Holy Spirit descend on the person being baptized and nowhere prior to Jesus’ baptism was it said to have driven that person into the wilderness.
The sign of the Spirit, of course, is the dove that rips open the heavens. We think of the dove as being a sign of peace, but this is no peaceful dove here. This is a dove who descends on Jesus and then immediately drives him into the wilderness, though the original Greek works even better here. The word is “throws him out” into the wilderness. Expels him.
I recently saw an image that was painted on the wall of colleague’s church, just above the alter. It was a dove, but this dove was scary looking. It had large talons that looked very predatory, as if it were descending on its prey to pick it up to deposit elsewhere, which is not that far off from what the dove did at Jesus’ baptism. The dove lands on Jesus and then throws him out into the wilderness, and if there’s anything that’s messy, it’s the wilderness. “Wild beasts” are messy.
Mark doesn’t really capture that mess for us, at least not as well as Luke and Matthew, who both give us a few more details of what goes on while Jesus is there in the wilderness. Instead, Mark only gives us one sentence: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and and angels waited on him.” In any case, however, the temptation is meant to distract Jesus and push Jesus off track, to make him forget his identity as God’s beloved son, and to cause him to give up on his mission of proclaiming the good news of God. It’s supposed to make him want to keep his hands from getting dirty.
Of course, Jesus was able to withstand those temptations, but I wonder if Jesus didn’t simply move on from one wilderness to the next when he began his ministry in Galilee. What can be messier, for example, than associating with outcasts or eating with sinners, or inviting children with messy diapers to sit on his lap?
Likewise, the Holy Spirit also descends on us at our baptisms. It throws us into the wilderness of temptation and anoints us for a path of following Jesus, which is a life of messy, messy faith.
We sort of live there in the wilderness permanently, don’t we, with the constant presence of temptation. And I really think that one of our greatest temptations is to stay clean by avoiding becoming involved in the nitty-gritty ministry that Jesus was involved in.
I struggle with this all the time:
Do I befriend the one who is deemed strange or odd at the risk of being labeled strange or odd myself?
Do I advocate for justice and equality at the risk of being criticized or even condemned for my actions?
How do I respond following yet another mass shooting?
What my baptism teaches me, what my faith teaches me, what Jesus teaches me is that just as it’s hard to paint without getting messy, it’s also hard to live a life of faith following Jesus without getting messy. Sometimes, you’ve just got to be prepared to get your hands dirty. I wonder if it’s not a good idea to baptize with mud baths at the same time we baptize with water because the Holy Spirit certainly sends us into some muddy situations.
I’ve always wondered why painters wear white. If they’re going to get dirty, wouldn’t a darker color hide the dirt a little better? Well, enquiring minds want to know, and so I looked it up.
Now there are tons of practical reasons: They deal with more white paint than any other color. It’s the coolest color to wear when they’re outside. It’s easy to spot, so passersby know when to expect–and avoid–wet paint.
But those are not the reasons that interest me. I’m interested in the origin of those white uniforms, which seems to date to the 19th century as a way to distinguish those who were members of a union from those who were not. Union members would even add a black bow tie to their white uniforms. If a painter came home at the end of the day with little paint on his white uniform, he was thought to be a skilled and experienced worker.
Interestingly, this concept has now shifted over the century or so. No longer are painters expected to get to the end of their day with a clean uniform. In fact, now, the paint stains themselves are a sign that a worker is experienced. Only painters who are on their first day on the job have pristine uniforms.
Dear friends, this is the way it is with baptism. Little Reed here, who I will baptize in a few moments? This is his first day on the job. He’s wearing his white uniform, which, in the early church was a symbol for baptism and purity and renewal. We’ll wrap him in a white blanket, yet another sign of such renewal. But his uniform will not–should not–remain pristine. And by that I do not mean that sin will be the cause of its grime, though sin will certainly be part of the picture. No, that uniform will become soiled by the very act of living out his baptism.
The charges of baptism are not insignificant, nor can they fit neatly into a sterile kit: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
No one–let me repeat, no one–can do those things and keep their hands from getting dirty.
For all of you who struggle with living this life of baptism, this journey is not for the faint of heart. It is a messy life. So hear this good news. God has already claimed you in the waters of baptism. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. You cannot change this. You cannot erase that mark from your foreheads. You cannot escape God’s mercy.
Let that truth sustain you in the wilderness.
Let that good news be your guiding light.