January 8: The Baptism of Our Lord

The sermon for Sunday, January 8, 2023 was preached by the Most Rev. Melissa Skelton. Archbishop Skelton is the bishop provisional of the Diocese of Olympia. She is the retired Archbishop of British Columbia and Yukon and Bishop of New Westminster. The sermon for Baptism of the Lord was preached from the following manuscript as a response to the proper texts for the day.

So, there I was some years ago in a class with two adults preparing to be baptized in the full-immersion font we had at St. Paul’s, Seattle. There I was discussing what baptism meant and describing the mechanics of when it would happen in the liturgy and what the words and actions would be. There I was wrapping up our last session, with the question that always get asked at the end:

“So, do you have any final questions?” I asked. I was, of course, hoping that one of them would come out with some zinger or some stumper of a question that would make me either gasp or praise God that I would get to have a chance to answer it.

But, instead, instead, there was silence, a looooong silence.

And then finally, finally, one of the soon-to-be-baptized, a young man, said this: “I do have one last question. The question is this: Will the water be warm or cold?”

Now you may think that I was disappointed or amused (as you were) at this last question in that, well, it’s such a practical question for the person being baptized.
But, for me, it was a question that went far beyond the practical. It was, in fact, deeply theological.

For baptism, Jesus’ baptism, the event we remember today, and our baptisms can be understood differently depending on whether the water is warm or cold. Let me say more.

Baptism is, as we know, full initiation into the Christian life with God and with others. But how do we understand what that life is? I would suggest (and here I am speaking metaphorically) that if the water is warm, it suggests one thing about the Christian life. And, if the water is cold, it suggests another and different thing about the Christian life.

And, of course, these are important things to explore today in that we have people being received and confirmed today, we have a not so new rector being “installed” today—and the thing that both these things point back to is baptism.

And so, go with me into the water for a moment, and let’s look at what temperature might have to suggest about our relationship with God and with one another.

First—imagine the water of our baptism, the water of our initiation into the Christian life is warm. Imagine: Warm.

Within this warm experience, God is like a parent who eases us down into a warm bath, a warm bath like the first waters that held us, that enfolded us in the womb. God is like the mother who nursed us, or the father who fed us warm food, or the parent who wrapped us up in a warm blanket. This warmth, then, is where we, if we were lucky enough, first found comfort and nurture. And then flowing out from this first warmth, are all the warm places of nurture and comfort we’ve been gifted with in our lives—the homes that have sheltered us, the warm food that has been served to us, the warm clothes that have been provided us, the warm handshakes extended to us, the warm expressions that have greeted us, the warm embraces that have enfolded us. All these kinds of warmth tell the same story, say the same things: that we are accepted and cared for and beloved. That we are worthy of a fire to draw near to, of candles on the table and a warm meal on lovely dishes, of community in a world that can at times lack warmth and beauty and hospitality.

Within this image of warmth, our Christian God is the one who claims us as God’s own and invites us into companionship. The God of warm water is the God of the 23rd Psalm, the God of Jesus at table with his friends—the tax collectors, peasants, women and folk down on their luck. The God of warm water is the God who in baptism calls us beloved and calls us to declare to those who are baptized: “We receive you into the household of God.”

And this is the very kind of thing the God of warm water asks us to bring to the world: the warmth of good hearts when the world has lost heart, the warmth of hands reaching out when the world is conflicted and withdrawn, the warmth of hope when the world is cynical or despairing.

But what if the water is cold? Go with me now into the cold water. Imagine: Cold.

Oh, my goodness. Cold water is the place that wakes us up, that shocks us into consciousness, that gives us clear eyes to see the world anew and that sends us energized into it.

The God of cold water is the God of all creation, the One who made all the fresh, cold and dangerous life-giving waters of the earth.To encounter this God is to stand in the presence of immensity, freshness, mystery—awesome and forbidding.

The God of cold water is the God of our Psalm today–the God who moves on the mighty waters and who breaks the cedars of Lebanon. The God of cold water calls the Israelites out of bondage into freedom. The God of cold water is the God of the prophets who calls the people away from idolatry and back to the source of life. The God of cold water is Jesus throwing cold water on his disciples’ small mindedness. At the same time, the God of cold water is Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman asking for a drink but, after conversing with Jesus, leaving, filled the brim, with the water of life, ready to tell the world about it.

The God of cold water awakens us to ourselves, to the realities of the world and to the claims of the Gospel. The God of cold water calls us to wake up the world to what is really going on and to awaken ourselves to what we can do about it.

Imagine Warm. Imagine Cold.

Now Imagine Jesus.

Imagine Jesus—Jesus, born of a woman and held in the warm embrace of a family, but who today we see wading out away from them into the cool waters of the Jordan River. Jesus offering himself for baptism like everyone else, not holding onto any privileged position that would exempt him from being baptized. Imagine Jesus letting John guide him under the water where he would meet all of us: the mighty and the humble, the well fed and the hungry, the well put together and the raggedy, the lucky and the down on their luck. In the waters of baptism Jesus meets all of us and all parts of us there.

The truth of the matter, People of St. Hilda and St. Patrick, is that we don’t have to choose between the God of warm water and the God of cold water, for Jesus encompasses it all and gives it all to us in Baptism. For Baptism is the forging of a warm, if not white-hot, indissoluble bond between God and us. And at the same time baptism is a wake-up call to the responsibility we bear for our siblings in Christ, for the creatures of the earth and for creation itself.

And, so welcome, Joseph Peters-Mathews, priest of the Church, even if it’s embarrassingly late, to the ministry of St Hilda St Patrick. And, welcome St Hilda St Patrick, to your ministry with your not-so-new priest.

Welcome, Valerie and Tyson into the Episcopal Church, a church focused on baptismal identity and purpose and made up of the mighty and the humble, the well-fed and the hungry, the well put together and the raggedy, the lucky and the down on their luck.

Welcome to a household that holds two things together for us in the Christian life: nurture with challenge, refuge with risk-taking and warm water with cold!

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