The Baptism of Our Lord

Everything about being human – vision and imagination; our health; politics; family; mysticism, poetry and the arts; our economic well-being; religion; joy; social structures – everything and any thing about human health and wholeness is derivative. That is to say that our human wholeness is dependent upon something else. Human health is not a possibility without the health and wholeness of our planet. That’s the something else. And now, for the first time in the 14 billion years of the universe’s evolution, the opposite is also true. The Earth’s health and viability is now dependent upon human choices.

Scientist’s have called the last 11,000 years the “Holocene.” The term “Holocene” comes from two Greek words, ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new). It means “entirely new.” The Holocene is the epoch from the end of the great Ice Age to the present time. Humans existed long before the Holocene, but one might say we really didn’t become culturally or religiously “us” until this time.

Before the Holocene was a period known as the Pleistocene. Pleistocene means “mostly new” and refers more to rocks than people. The Pleisocene is what we mostly think of as the “Ice Age.” You had to be a  mammoth, mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, woolly rhinoceros or something like that to live in those days. (Homo-erectus stood up in the Pleistocene, as did some other homo-wannabes, but they all died off. Only Homo-sapiens made it into the present age.)

The chart below makes the point I want to get to. Do you see the blue portion of the line in the bottom half of the graph? The line is global temperature, and the blue portion is the Holocene. Humanity flourished, grew and developed in these years as the Earth provided us with climate stability. Culture erupted. Agriculture was developed. The great religions all had their birth. With this blue line came the “entirely new.”

Now, here’s the problem. The problem is the rest of the graph.

Scientists say that the world moved out of the Holocene and into what we might call the “Anthropocene” somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Loosely translated “Anthropocene” means the “human controlled new.”

Humans now move more rock and soil every year than all the volcanoes, earthquakes and erosion events combined. Essentially every major river system in the world has now had its flow or path altered by humans. Humans are responsible for the fastest period of species extinction the world has ever know. And then there’s the climate, right? You’ve seen graphs like this before. What follows the blue band above is skyrocketing global temperature projections which are already deconstructing the beautiful Earth God has entrusted to us.

But, “What does this have to do with the Baptism of Our Lord?” you ask.

A vital part of our Judeo-Christian tradition is the prophetic voice. Throughout the Old Testament God sent prophets to critique human behavior. “If you continue to do that . . .” say the prophets “. . . then this will most certainly follow!”  Human health and wholeness is derivative. The world that I, as a Holocene era grandpa, am leaving to my Anthropocene era grandchildren, will once again prove the prophets right. It is now written. With great effort we might minimize Earth damage, but we can no longer prevent it.

Yet, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (which we read this year) is interesting. Luke pictures John the Baptist as the last of the classical, Old Testament prophets. His “You brood of vipers!” issues an invitation to baptism, and in Luke John’s voice (and so all just Old Testament style prophecy) is silenced as Jesus steps into the water.

Jesus’ baptism is not what I think of as Christian baptism. My baptism, at 5 weeks old, claimed me as a child of God. I was taught that it bound my soul to the promise of salvation and that I would be resurrected from the dead and go to heaven just as surely as I had been drawn back out of the font and put back into my mother’s arms. Luke reports a voice from heaven at the baptism of Jesus, which also proclaims that Jesus is God’s, but this has already been made clear. What is new is a word of affirmation. “With you I am well pleased!” 

Jesus’ baptism is different from what I was taught about my baptism. Jesus’ baptism was a) intentional, and b) public. The same could – and should – be said about my baptism, but the emphasis has already been on a different sylabbel. My baptism was a ‘Holocene baptism.’ It assumed stability, a compassionate status quo, opportunity, a basis of certainty upon which to live my life. I was taught that I could never undo what the Spirit had done for me. Jesus’ baptism, though, was an ‘Anthropocene baptism.’ God knew Jesus was headed into a hellish unknown and what was important is that Jesus took up the reigns of his calling and did so publicly – publicly meaning he would be accountable to his vow. With this God was well pleased.

John, the prophet, railed about a crisis. Jesus, the incarnate, joined a movement. Luke, a follower of the Way, proclaimed a shift in God’s presence for the World. This is what I mean when I say Jesus’ baptism was an “Anthropocene” baptism. God incarnate has given the choice to us. Life or death? Jesus chose life, although doing so meant his death. He had faith.

In Luke’s sequel to the Gospel, the Book of Acts, God descends not just on Jesus but on all of us. And God is seen not as a dove, but as fire. Pentecost is Anthropocene. The choice, the power, the possibility, the trust, the hope, the means, are all given to us. This is Luke’s larger assertion. The prophet loses his voice. Jesus takes the reigns. And now we – the human family – stand on the pivot point of history. All that we are is derivative, and that which our humanity is dependent upon is now (today) keyed to our choices and our actions. What has God done?!

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
the heaven was opened, 
and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A Holocene baptism is a misunderstanding. With Luke in this year of 2019 I will seek to reclaim a baptism like that for which Jesus stepped forward. The Christian life must be a) intentional, and b) public. No more fear. Jesus’ journey as a public figure of intention was also a) costly, and b) misunderstood. I’m trying to get ready for that. Luke will have more to say on this in the weeks to come, but for now . . . for now Jesus has my attention.

My Baptism is an anchor for me. It offers me peace, purpose and a place. God is pleased with me – and you – not because of anything we’ve done or said, but simply because God chooses love. In this love I can look at the graph I’ve shared above. In this love I can acknowledge and grieve what I am leaving to my grandchildren. But in this love I can also choose to risk obedience and hope. This is the part of my baptism I wish to reclaim and in which I wish to walk in 2019.

Lord God, let me never deny the brokenness of which I am author and actor.
But also let me never deny the promise and power of the Spirit
who goes where I cannot go and works miracles I cannot imagine.

Back into the water I go.

Bp. Dave Brauer-Rieke
Oregon Synod – ELCA