Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 10, 2020
“A Polar Plunge Baptism”
Mark 1: 4-12 – The Message
John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.
7-8 As he preached, he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”
9-11 At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”
12-13 At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested.
When you picture a baptism, what do you see? Maybe memories of a smiling family, the pastor sprinkling a few drops of water, perhaps enough for a little to run down the face. I can picture a cooing baby, to which we respond with awes, or screaming, to which we laugh. Most baptisms in our tradition are of infants, perhaps young children, and occasionally adults, like Lily last year and Shaun. They are delightful occasions. Covid baptisms have included humorous suggestions that pastors should stand across the room with super soakers to maintain social distance.
Some of you may have been present for baptisms by immersion – perhaps even some of you were baptized by immersion. It’s a much more dramatic representation of dying and rising to new life. And I would imagine it would take a little more consideration, and for me, trepidation. I don’t like when my head goes below water – when it gets in my ears and nose. And I would definitely emerge from the water coughing and gasping for air a little more dramatically than necessary.
Some years ago, a Connecticut pastor suggested that baptism should involve something terror inducing – like skydiving. After making your vows, step out of a plane thousands of feet in the air and free fall plummet to the earth before pulling a cord to land safely on solid ground. To kiss the ground and cry Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Or some other equally frightening activity. Like bungee jumping off a bridge. I suspect he wasn’t suggesting that for infants but rather adults about to be baptized.
If that were the case, everyone in the church would have had a shared experience of overcoming sheer terror as part of their common Christian experience. Young people would look at their elders with walkers and canes and marvel that they too once jumped from a plane. What if baptism meant confronting your fears?
Of course, standing here next to freezing water gives me another idea. A polar plunge baptism!
(Note: This is recorded in Rocky Mountain National Park next to freezing/frozen water)
When David Aromin moved from Philadelphia to Anchorage, he jumped into 32-degree water. He and some fellow transplants did it as part of a fundraiser for Special Olympics. He said, "I'm new to Alaska, and this is one way to be baptized." Interesting choice of words for this signature Alaskan experience. Of course, Special Olympics holds polar plunge fundraisers all over the country. One of the most famous in Chicago, however, like many other things this year, will be entirely virtual. They suggest jumping into a snowbank instead of Lake Michigan or running through a sprinkler in the back yard, which sounds pretty lame in comparison.
Remember the ice-bucket challenge? One of the co-creators of the challenge died last month. That viral sensation raised $220 million worldwide for ALS research since 2014. Among the participants were George W. Bush and Britany Spears. And I’ll give credit where credit is due, pre-president, Donald Trump did it too.
What if we made this a baptismal rite? No more droplets and dribbles, but do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able? Yes? Then, here, pour this bucket of ice and water over your head as a symbol of your vows. Or jump out the door of this plane. Or plunge into this freezing water.
There’s some rhyme to my reason – or reason to my rhyme. Michele’s reading from the Gospel of Mark said that when Jesus came up out of the water, “he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down upon him.” I can picture the clouds parting, revealing the rays of the sun and a gentle dove descending, landing sweetly on his shoulder, cooing a lovely song. But that’s not what’s going on here.
This is one passage where Eugene Peterson’s translation doesn’t quite capture the whole message. In the New Revised Standard Version, it says, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove.” The dove still sounds like a gentle breeze rather than, more appropriately, one of those birds that divebombs for fish. That’s because the words “torn apart” mean much more than we give credit. The Greek word Mark used here is skhizein. (sky-zen) Some translations say, “ripped apart” or “torn open.” There’s something almost violent in its imagery. It should get our attention.
This word is used as a bookend to the life of Jesus. You may recall that Mark doesn’t tell a birth story. Mark just plunges right in and by chapter 1, verse 9, Jesus is already emerging from the water of his baptism. At that moment, the heavens were “torn apart.” It’s not like the heavens opened and the sun emerged after a thunder storm. It’s skhizein. The only other time Mark uses that specific word is when Jesus hung from a cross and took his last breath. At that very moment, the curtain of the Temple was torn apart, skhizein, ripped from top to bottom. Matthew adds an earthquake. But ripping the Temple curtain wasn’t like pulling a bed sheet apart. The curtain that hung in the Temple was as thick as a rug or as dense as tapestry. Human hands could have never torn it apart. Only with God could such a thing be accomplished.
What does it mean that Mark equalizes the exact moments of his baptism and his death in this way? It’s really a disconnect from most of our images of baptism.
I suggest that baptism calls us to confront our fears – not necessarily skydiving, polar-plunging, but rather: Our fear that to actually follow the call of Jesus is to really, literally, resist oppression and hatred. It is to really, literally, show love and justice. Like two of my modern Christian heroes – Bree Newsome and Colin Kaepernick.
Bree Newsome is a devout Christian, daughter of the longtime Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. Following the murder of the Mother Emmanuel Nine in 2015, she climbed up a flagpole on the capitol grounds in South Carolina to rip down the Confederate flag. As she descended holding the ultimate symbol of white supremacy, she quoted scripture, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” She said, “I refuse to be ruled by fear. How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?”
Just like my Christian hero, Colin Kaepernick, enacting his faith every time he took a knee. Did you know that among his tattoos are scripture passages? On his left bicep, Kaepernick inked Psalm 27:3: “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear and though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” Baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, his meek non-violent act of kneeling makes the mighty and powerful feel threatened. He is a beautiful living representation of Mary’s Magnificat and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Polar plunging, skydiving, climbing a flagpole, taking a knee against injustice at the risk of everything. These may come to mind as dare devil activities, something beyond our grasp. But I want to suggest something even scarier. What would it mean for you to take a risk for love? For example, against whom are you holding a grudge? In this new year, dare you forgive, or seek forgiveness? Even forgiving yourself. What if baptism really did mean confronting fears like that? Not for the sake of a thrill but to stand for something or stand up for someone. What would that be for you? You’re capable of more than you think. Look at the year you’ve just been through.
So, get your water ready and I’m going to ask you to reaffirm your baptismal vows again: “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?”
If that frightens you, remember what Bree Newsome said: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
As Colin Kaepernick said, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear and though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
So, this year, as we remember the baptism of Jesus and our own, touch your forehead with water and repeat after me: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
 Maxwell Grant on day1.org
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