February 18, 2024

Baptism and the Flood

This sermon was preached at St. Mary Magdalene, Richmond on the First Sunday of Lent, 2024

“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you.”

May I speak in the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This year, the RNLI celebrates its bicentenary. Since its formation, the charity has saved over 144,000 lives at sea. In 2022, they saved 389. Still, millennia after the the composition of today’s Bible readings, and after our recent eras of massive growth in maritime technology, and health and safety, the sea is a mighty adversary to be feared. An agent of chaos which cares not as it indiscriminately claims the lives of sailors, refugees, and holidaymakers.

But wait. Why am I speaking of lifeboats? And why is the Bible reading about the flood? This is the first Sunday of Lent! Aren’t we expecting Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild? Where does the flood come into it?

Well, this year, the gospel reading about Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness comes from St. Mark, who devotes only two sentences to the story, both beginning with the word “and.” To me, St. Mark often sounds like an over-excited four-year old trying to tell a story about their day, catching their breath and tripping over their words saying “and then… and then…”

So, for St. Mark, it is important to get to the point. Unlike the other gospel writers, he sees no need open with metaphysics, or a birth narrative, or childhood stories, or even any mention of Our Lady. Rather, he seems desperate in his Gospel to get straight to the gospel in question. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Setting up this proclamation in such a rush then, we must attend to what St. Mark does choose to include, because it must be of vital importance to the gospel of Jesus. These are: the proclamation of Jesus by John the Baptizer, the baptism of Jesus, and fasting in the wilderness.

So what is this baptism that is so important?

I’m sure most of us know about baptism, indeed we all walked past a font to get into the building today, and maybe marked ourselves with some water from it to remind ourselves of our own baptism. Perhaps we think of baptism as a washing in the waters of life. But in today’s epistle, it seems that isn’t the case. For St. Peter, it is the flood which prefigures baptism. And the flood waters are far from the waters of life. The flood waters are, for all but the occupants of the ark, the waters of death.

So, we have our image of baptism. The waters of baptism cleanse us like the flood cleansed the earth of all but the eight righteous humans and the animals they took with them. All that is unrighteous in us is drowned, washed away, and what remains of us is the righteous eight. But no. That isn’t what St. Peter says. Baptism is not just a removal of dirt, but an appeal to God through the resurrection of Christ. In baptism, we are not one of the eight righteous people, but one of the innumerable, unrighteous drowned in the flood, in the chaos of the sea. It is through resurrection, not our own righteousness, that we live again.

To get the most out of the flood narrative, it is important to have some context. Much in the same way knowledge of Shakespeare improves The Lion King, and knowledge of early US History improves Hamilton, so knowledge of the Mesopotamian myth: the tale of Tiamat and Marduk improves our understanding of the Genesis creation narrative.

Tiamat was the goddess of the primordial waters, of the chaos and the sea. Marduk, the storm God, blew his winds over the surface of her waters and irritated her. A war ensued, which concluded with Marduk fatally shooting an arrow into Tiamat’s throat. Marduk split Tiamat’s body in two and used one half to create the sky, and one to create the earth. To symbolise his victory, he hung his bow in the sky and that sign is the rainbow.

So, for ancient hearers of Genesis, this myth and the parallels with the creation and flood narratives will have been prominent. In both stories a rainbow is hung in the sky, in both stories the waters are split to create heaven and earth, and in both stories a wind blows over the waters. In the Biblical narrative: the explicit violence of war and dismemberment is re-expressed as powerful creation and subduing of chaos; the fatal weapon of victory hung for all to see is re-expressed as a symbol of covenant and a promise of peace; and the wind that blows over the waters in the beginning is transformed from an irritant to a creative, dynamic force.

This primal wind, this Spirit of God which hovers over the waters, appears again in the gospel reading. As Christ emerges from the water, so the Spirit of God descends and blows. The wind that blows creation into being blows Christ from the Jordan into his wilderness fast and into his proclamation of the gospel with all the urgency of St. Mark’s breathless four-year old. And this same wind blows us.

The Holy Spirit, the initiating breath of the universe, is the very same wind which blows us from our baptism, through the wilderness, into proclamation.

It is easy, particularly for us ordinands and curates, to think of ordination as the sacrament that initiates ministry, but this is simply wrong. Baptism is the sacrament which initiates ministry. All of us from the moment of our baptism are called and blown to walk with Christ through the wildernesses of life and to proclaim his message. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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