January 12, 2014
“Wild Goose Christianity”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Down the street from my house there is a farm that has a flock of domesticated geese. Most of the year this flock of geese can be seen wondering around and hanging in the farm pond next to the road. Occasionally at that same pond a flock of wild geese will land, and the two groups will mingle and co-exist for a day or more.
But there is an important difference. The wild geese are wild – they move with the wind, they follow the seasons, they are here one day and gone the next, they are unpredictable.
The domesticated geese, on the other hand, spend a lot of time, very predictably, camped out in the road, not moving, when cars come, and it doesn’t work out so well for them.
In the passage today we have the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John tries to stop him. John’s understanding of baptism, we can tell from his preaching, is about the cleansing of sins. Something physical and something spiritual is happening at the very same moment.
In Presbyterian circles we don’t tend to fully immerse those seeking baptism unless we happen to be near a nice, big accessible body of water.
We make it more symbolic – less water, more imagery. I had a seminary professor who wanted to make sure we don’t “dry clean” the baby – so I still use a good bit of water – the wetter the better). One of the benefits of a solid immersion is that it seems to demonstrate the point with more gusto.
After Jesus death and resurrection, baptism took on the symbolism of dying and rising with Christ – plunging into the dark waters of death, without air or sound or light, being drawn out of death into the bright sunlight of life. But when John was doing it, and we still use this imagery as well, you went in dirty spiritually, and came out clean before God.
So Jesus comes up to John to be baptized and John somehow knows who it is – in John’s understanding, Jesus, who was God’s own, would not require baptism – it wouldn’t be needed. But Jesus insists – he says, “let it be so now” – this is meant to be part of the story.
And what happens next points to an important aspect of baptism that we so often forget after it is all said and done. The heavens open and Jesus sees the Holy Spirit descend like a dove and alight upon him, and he heard God’s voice affirming that this is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.
A couple important things here:
The Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in this faith business.
In Celtic spirituality the Holy Spirit is depicted not as a gentle white dove, but a big, honking, demanding, wild goose who is unpredictable and exciting and terrifying.
For those of you who have been on a wild goose chase, chasing after the Holy Spirit, you know this to be true – it is exciting and terrifying – chasing after adopting or fostering children, making and serving a meal to strangers, talking to strangers even, giving away a little more money, changing careers because God is leading you somewhere else, opening your life up to new friendships.
We are not following after a domestic goose who tells us to enjoy our seat on the road. We are following after a wild goose who wakes us up and takes us to new territories.
We are all on a wild goose chase.
Second important thing from this passage, is that Jesus’ baptism, and ours as well, is identity-giving.
Before baptism, I was Maren, after, I am Maren, child of the covenant, marked as Christ’s own forever.
Jesus hears from God, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased” and the world was never the same. That is the identity of our baptism, “you are my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Close your eyes and hear these words for you, “you are my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
If only we could just hold onto that, what would that mean for us and for our church and for our families and for our world?
If we truly believed that and lived it, would we chase so desperately after approval from others, or bow down with such devotion to our wallets or our friends or our TVs?
Would we try to find love in food or sex? Would we be less afraid and more willing to trust and hope and take a risk for the sake of the gospel? What makes the baptismal name, Beloved, powerful for us, is how and when we share it and what struggles it gets us through.
When you wash your face, remember your baptism. When you run through the rain, remember your baptism. When you confess your sins, remember your baptism.
You are invited, only if you choose, to come forward and wash your hands in the water, remember your baptism and your baptismal name, “Beloved”, and pray that God would give the courage to go on a wild goose chase.