On the first Sunday of Lent the readings turn to a very baptismal theme. It makes sense, for it is common on this Sunday in many places that the catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election wherein he recognizes them as elect (chosen) of God in these final weeks before their baptism.
In today’s readings there are many themes that form the kind of “spokes” of a wagon wheel, and baptism is the central hub around which they turn. And arching over it all is the great image of the rainbow in the sky, the great sign of God’s love and mercy upon us all. Even in Lent as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined and even at time unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky.
More of this in a moment. But for now lets look at the baptismal theme of these readings from two perspectives.
I. The PORTRAIT of Baptism -It will be noted that both the first and second readings make mention of Noah and the Ark in which they were delivered from the flood. The second reading says, God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now (1 Peter 3:19-20).
Note however, while we quickly think of water as a symbol for baptism, the image is really a double image of WOOD and WATER. For if it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed Noah’s family. And thus for us too, the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the cross.
Indeed, by God’s plan we might be so bold as to say: “Wood and Water Work Wonders!” And note, there are numerous places in the Scriptures where where wood and water, not just water alone, manifest God’s saving love. Note five incidents:
- Cleansing Flood– We begin with today’s image and one of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world, the flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literally wash it clean. And you think its bad now! God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. Build an Ark of Gopher wood Noah! Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. Now you have to really trust God to do all that work. And then gather the animals two pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals. More trust more time and lots of wood. But then God troubled the waters and the waters of the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing. But first Noah had to wade on in. Through the wood of the ark and water God worked wonders! (cf Gen 6-9)
- Trouble at the Red Sea– Many Centuries later, Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt after 400 years of slavery. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. But God would win through for them. How? By troubling the waters: God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21) Now you and I know the end of the story but the people that day did not. With water like two walls on either side they had to go forth, they had to wade, if you will, in the waters. They had to trust God that the waters would hold. And God brought them through and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? With God, Wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom.
- Trouble in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23) So once again, with God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
- More Trouble in the Desert! But yet again as they journeyed further, more thirst. And God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6). From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert.
- At the River Jordan– After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross. But once again God had a plan and was going to trouble those waters. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. They also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today. And the text says: And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15) So again, with God, Wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land.
And these Old Testament prefigurements bring us to the wood of the true cross. And on that wooden cross, the waters of our baptism come forth from the side of Christ. With Jesus our Lord and God, wood and water work the wonder of eternal salvation. We’re not just being freed from an army, or from thirst or a flood, we’re being freed from sin and offered eternal salvation. The waters of our baptism are given the power to save by our Lord Jesus and what he did on the wood of the cross. You might as well say it, With God Wood and Water Work Wonders!
II. The POWER of Baptism – Here we encounter more of the spokes of the wagon wheel radiating out from the hub which is baptism. And we largely collect these spokes of teaching form the second reading (1 Peter 3:17-22). The spokes speak of the power and gifts that radiate from baptism. Let’s look at them.
A. Salvation – the text says, baptism…saves you now. The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei) and means to be delivered from present danger. Yes we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan who seeks to devour us.
The Book of Psalms says, If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped (Psalm 124).
St. Paul says, of Jesus, he rescued us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:4).
And old Gospel hymn says, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!
Yes, through baptism, and the faith it confers, we have been saved by the outstretched arm of our God. And if we hold to God’s unchanging hand, heaven will be ours.
B. Sonship – The text says, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Yes, Jesus has opened the way to the Father. He has reconciled us to God the Father by his precious blood.
In baptism we become the children of God. Isaiah says, For we like sheep had gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6).
And we were angry and fearful of God, unable to endure his presence and his love. But Jesus, as a Good Shepherd has gathered us and restored us to grace.
One of the great gifts baptism gives us is the grace to experience a tender affection for God the Father and experience him as Abba (cf Gal 4:6, Rom 8). And as we grow in the grace of our baptism, so does our tender love and affection for the Father.
Jesus, through baptism and the indwelling Holy Spirit, causes us to experience increasing trust of the Father and to obey him out of deep love rather than servile fear.
C. Serenity – The text says baptism….is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Baptism, while it touches the body, has for its current goal the soul, the inner man or woman. In effect this text speaks to us of the new mind and heart that Jesus, through baptism, confers on us.
In the Gospel today, Jesus refers to this new mind when he says “Repent!” The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.”
Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart. A whole new way of thinking; new priorities, new visions, new understandings, goals and vision.
So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not mean “brain” per se, but rather, that deepest inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with our self and our God. And through baptism the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day.
And as our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience, confident and loving before God.
D. Spirit! – The text says of Jesus, Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. As God, Jesus did not need or acquire the Holy Spirit, He was always one with the Holy Spirit. But as man he does acquire the Holy Spirit for us.
And who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the very life of God, the love of God, the joy of God, the holiness of God! To receive the Holy Spirit is to come to a totally new and transformed life.
When Jesus rose, it was not merely that his corpse was resuscitated. It was truly his body that rose, but he took up a wholly transformed human life and offers this to us.
In baptism we die with him and rise to this new life. If we are faithful to our baptismal commitments, we become ever more fully alive; sins are put to death, and innumerable graces come forth. Yes, new life, Life in the Spirit comes to those who are baptized and remain faithful to their baptismal life.
Do you see what God has Done? He has put a rainbow in the sky! When we were spiritually dead in our sins, hostile to God, God would never forsake us. He remembered the rainbow he promised Noah. With you I can say that I have been, unworthy, unrighteous, unmerciful and unreachable. I have been unteachable, unwilling, undesirable, unwise, undone, and unsure. But I can say, because of you O Lord, I have never been unloved. I’ve been unamended, uneasy, unapproachable, unemotional, unexceptional, undecided, unqualified, unaware, unfair and unfit. But even I can see, the sacrifice God made for me, to show that I have never been unloved.
Yes, when it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.
And do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism, and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water: the rainbow in the sky. The sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.
God put a rainbow in the sky!