The Baptism of Jesus
8x10 Oil on Panel
On February 25th, I had the opportunity to preach a homily on the very passage that inspired this painting.
(After) the Baptism of Jesus
One of the joys of working with the Confirmation class is the opportunity to teach powerful theological concepts like the sacrament of baptism. In one of our first meetings, the confirmands and their covenant partners gather around the font. They are reminded of the promises made in baptism. The promises God makes, the promises the parents make, and the promises the congregation makes. Everyone is encouraged to touch the water and mark their foreheads. It is a beautiful moment of exploration with the sacred symbol. In class, we teach that Baptism is a visible sign of an invisible reality. It is a sign that points to the nature and work of God. It is also a seal, a guarantee that God keeps God’s promises. We remind the students that in baptism, we are claimed as God’s own children, unconditionally loved, and called to live a life in gratitude to God’s amazing grace. The middle schoolers spend a year of reflection, study, and questioning. They create their own statement of faith and share their faith journeys with members of the Session. On Confirmation Sunday, the confirmands lead us all in worship. Recently, we’ve added a processional to that service. In the processional, the confirmands bring a beautiful, blue silk banner into the sanctuary and place it under the font. It makes the font look like a cascading stream that stretches all the way to the back of the sanctuary. It brings the confirmands back, full circle, to the font—the central reminder of their identity and purpose.
Water has always been a sacred substance used by God to wash and heal the world. Genesis records that in the very beginning of creation, the spirit of God was moving over water. Later, God saved creation, and humanity though a flood and an ark. In Exodus, God liberated God’s people by parting the red sea. In Joshua, the river Jordan was parted to bring the people of God into the Promised Land. And then there is the mystery of baptism—where water is used for the cleansing of the soul. As the Confirmation curriculum puts it, “In a world that says ‘You made the mess, you clean it up,’ God washes away sin and makes all things new.” And according to our Reformed tradition, God always acts first, while we are just little babies, before we even know right from wrong. And the rest of our days are lived out in response to that act.
Which brings us to this story in Mark. If there ever was a gospel written for today’s culture, it’s the gospel of Mark. We live in such a fast-paced time of twitter, you tube & vine—all feeding our ever-shortening attention spans. We multi-task, over schedule, and cram as much into our day as we can. It’s enough to make our lives feel at times like an uncontrollable crazy train going exponentially faster and faster. Mark’s rapid narrative speaks to this culture. He wastes no time with unnecessary information. He sticks to the essence of the message in each story and then instantly teleports Jesus to another place, miles away for the next marvel of grace. So in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the event is only a couple of sentences long. “Jesus comes out of the water, he sees the sky tear apart. He see’s God’s spirit descending upon him like a dove. He hears God’s covenantal words, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
It’s a scene that been portrayed time and time again in art. There are countless paintings of Jesus standing waist deep in the river, looking up to heaven and seeing the Spirit dove. Complete with light beams and halos. As an artist, I love looking at paintings of Bible stories. I love even more taking my own shot at painting bible stories. And As I thought about how to envision this story, I was not lead to paint that all too familiar scene. I felt lead to paint to what happened next—after the baptism of Jesus.
What happened next was quite unexpected. After the Jesus’ baptism, there were no celebrations, no baptismal certificates, no luncheons with family and friends. After Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness—for 40 days of solitude and fasting. Immediately, says Mark, without so much as a hug or a pat on the back from John the Baptist, The Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness, or As Pastor Chris so eloquently puts it, into the wild. Without change of clothes or even a towel, Jesus walks off the stage.
The painting in you see here depicts that moment where Jesus steps out of the water and walks off for a wilderness journey, soaking wet, following the spirit’s call. If we really think about our life after baptism, Jesus’ experience doesn’t seem all that uncommon. Let’s face it. After baptism, there is a lifetime full of survival, suffering, journeying, temptation and uncertainty. We are very clear to communicate to our confirmands that, after we are baptized, there is still life, which can be a wilderness at times, full of confusion, disappointment, pain & loneliness. God’s grace does not spare us from hard times, but it does help us deal with it. Though we feel so alone at times, we can take comfort that we are not alone. Like Jesus after baptism, we have the Holy Spirit as our companion and guide. We have the assistance of angels, from simple smiles and random acts of kindness to a loving and care-giving community of faith. And if we listen, we can still hear the echo of God’s baptismal claim skipping across the distant water, “Your are my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
The confirmation curriculum has an interesting activity to help teach baptism. It’s called “Walking Wet.” The activity involves using watercolor to paint pictures of what it means to live out a baptized life. The watercolors themselves lead to a free-flowing expression in color. Students can express emotions and feelings. The medium allows you to mix color with water, blend colors by adding water and There’s even a technique were you lay down water first before applying color. It allows the color to spread and flow in pre-determined tracks marked by the clear water. And while the painting is going on, the concept of walking wet—living a life in response to God’s grace is explored.
And speaking of water and color, perhaps you’re wondering why the painting before you is mostly focused on the reflection in the water. About 3 quarters of the painting is water & reflection. In the rippling water you can see a distorted image of Jesus and a hint of the spirit dove leading him away. Is it not like how we see Jesus today—though fragments, short stories, and parables? We can catch reflections of Jesus in other people’s acts of charity, love, and sacrifice. Like Paul, looking through a mirror dimly, the church has never had a definitive, crystal clear understanding of Jesus. There is plenty about Jesus that is an unsolvable mystery.
But we should not be discouraged about this uncertainty. I contend that it actually strengthens our faith. It demands that we look harder—to find the reflections. It keeps us looking for more glimpses of the living Christ in the here and now, we can find reflections right here, tonight, in this very room, at this table and at this font. From this very font, there are gleaming reflections of Christ that ripple on like a cascading stream flowing all the way to the back—and out the door.
At the end of worship on confirmation Sunday, the confirmands remove the blue silk banner and take it out through the back doors—into the wild of life. You see, sometimes wilderness moments just happen. And other times, God’s spirit leads us to it—to serve as angels, soaking wet with gratitude and grace. As followers of Christ, we should let our colors follow the water right out the door and take the wilderness head-on. And it doesn’t stop there. Like Mark’s Jesus, we should allow ourselves to be transported from this place to the Galilee, to our workplaces, our schools, our marketplaces, and the streets. We are called to walk wet in our hectic, fast-paced, crazy train lives. We are called to proclaim Good News in those places and be reflections of the living Christ. That’s how God continues to wash and heal the world—with the water—dripping off of a claimed and called people walking wet.
May we dare to walk wet in this world. Amen.