From flood to baptism

SERMON for Lent 1, 2015 at St James, Colwall

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-end; Mark 1.9-15

The ancient near East is rich in early human history and indeed human pre-history – in other words, long before writing and history were invented. The epistle reading this morning refers to one of the earliest recorded stories, but it looks back into pre-history. It refers to the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood which we heard earlier. If you read that Flood story carefully – as though you were reading a detective story, looking for clues, noting the odd inconsistency in the account – you will see that there are actually two stories there, but they have been put together, though without too much attention to detail. That should not surprise us unduly as there are, in that region of the world, several stories of the great Flood: you may have heard of one of them that occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh translated for the first time in the nineteenth century. These stories are so reminiscent of each other that archaeologists and geologists have wondered if they arise from some folk memory of an actual catastrophic flood. A number of reputable geologists are confident that such a flood would have taken place when the land barrier between the Mediterranean Sea and an enormous low-lying plain collapsed, unleashing millions of gallons of sea water which crashed through into what we now know as the Black Sea. Or perhaps it is a folk memory of a large tsunami, known to have occurred around 5000 BC, flooding Greece and parts of Turkey; or else a memory of widespread flooding that we know followed the end of the last Ice Age. For sure, many thousands of people witnessed these extraordinary events and survived to pass the story on down the generations.

All these explanations are plausible, but, of course, we’ll never know for certain which events led to the stories we have inherited, because we have no written or contemporary records. What is certain is that catastrophic flooding figures large in several traditions in that region (as elsewhere around the world) and some of the oral traditions were later handed down to us written on clay tablets which code-crackers and scholars have been able to decipher. Catastrophes like great floods affect the way we humans think. If you’ve witnessed something like that, something that makes last year’s floods in the south-west seem like a picnic, then images of raging waters and being saved from them make a profound impression on you.

Our gentle baptismal rites where Melanie tips three little trickles of water on a baby’s forehead don’t give quite the same impression. I’m not, of course, suggesting that we should frighten little children. But I have witnessed some more vigorous adult baptisms where the candidate is pushed firmly under water three times before finally coming up for air. Some of you will remember, as I do, the vivid language of the old baptismal rite where the candidate is told “you have died to sin” – that is, you have drowned, you were symbolically dead, but now you are truly alive – you’ve come through the gateway of death into a new life through your baptism.

There is a vivid account of such a baptism service in second century Rome. It began on the Saturday night before Easter and went on through the night. Around midnight, the baptism candidates – all adults in those days, all of whom who had been through months of instruction in the Christian faith – processed, each in his or her white baptismal robe, to the river bank. There they waded out to waist or chest depth and then were dunked firmly, three times, before returning to the bank and waiting until all had been baptised. They then processed back to the church for the rest of the night during which the first Eucharist of Easter was celebrated and they received the sacramental or heavenly food of bread and wine for the first time. I imagine their robes had dried by then (April in Rome), but they went back home in their robes in the morning light. Some traditions say that they kept those robes for church use for some months: it was a bit like the P plates that some new car drivers put on their cars after passing the test and abandoning their L plates: I can drive, but I’m a bit new to it, so please cut me some slack. Being a new Christian – or indeed a person growing in Christian maturity - can be rather bewildering. After all, if you begin to see the world as God sees the world, your attitudes, your ambitions, your hopes and your priorities are bound to change. Those baptism candidates had been in deep water and had been saved from it – and by it. They had entered into a new life. The story of Noah and the Flood was a part of that service and, as our epistle reading states, it is a model of Christian initiation, of entry into the Christian life.

Our gospel reading today does not comment on these Flood stories, although we can be pretty confident that its first readers were very familiar with those traditions. What St Mark does is to show us what happened as a consequence of Jesus’ baptism. I remember vividly as a young man reading that passage in St Mark’s gospel in the original Greek. The language is more violent than our polite English translation would have us believe. Where we read the English word “drove” – “and immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness” - it would be more accurate, though less decorous, to say that “the Spirit hurled him out into the wilderness.”  The baptism story suggests that the Jordan then was a far greater river than the diminished stream it is today. The consequence of Jesus’ going through a ritual drowning and rising again from the water was his recognition that he was and is God’s child. And immediately after that, Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to come to terms with his new identity. And the rest is history – the history of God’s expression of great love for the world. The Baptist was arrested and subsequently murdered, and Jesus began his public ministry. The kingdom of God had indeed, as St Mark tells us, come near.

All of us who have been baptised have symbolically died and have entered into a new and eternal life. That is God’s offer to us, mediated through the Church. From now on not even death can separate us from God’s love. After baptism our subsequent life in the world is as God’s beloved children. We grow to see the world as God sees the world. In the company of those whom God calls, we work together to further God’s rule in the life of our working and social communities. When you have passed from death to life, even life’s greatest challenges can be faced – not on our own, of course, but in the company of all those called to God’s rule. You can live to God’s glory, because God and you are joined in God’s eternal life.