Hot and Cold

Stephanie and I were recently in a cab in London on the way to Paddington Station. The cabbie was half driver half tour guide, in a entertaining way. We drove past a corner of Hyde Park, and he said that it was what the locals called ‘Hot and Cold Corner.’ What does that mean? It turns out it was where the National Geographic Society building, with two statues on the front wall looking out on the corner in question. The first one, Hot, is David Livingstone, doctor-missionary-activist-explorer through east Africa, in the mid-19th century, and the second, Ernest Shackleford, sailor and trekker in the Antarctic a generation later. I want you to think of them as two kinds of courage, two ways to stand up to adversity.  The first is combat. Livingstone in his travels throughout east Africa was shocked by the carnage and cruelty of the slave trade, which he saw at ground level.  He was determined to combat, which he did, not with a rifle, but with a pen. His dispatches back to the press in England created a sensation, as a result of which pressure built for change.  (And the conflict and eventual regime change in Buganda resulted, as well as the birth of one of the great Anglican Churches in the world).  He finally died on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, where his porters shellacked him, but him in a suitcase, and carried him eight hundred miles to Dar, and then on the Westminster Abbey, where he was buried.  You might say that Livingstone went down into the waters and wrestled a crocodile to its death.  By contrast Shackleford’s fame came from endurance. His ship, aptly so named.  sank, he and his men camped on the ice in sub sub zero weather, until finally they began their trek of 22 miles, which may not sound like a lot but it was. It would take 18 months for him finally to retrieve his crew members whom he had left on the shore. And he realized his goal- Not A Man Lost.

Shackleford was like someone who went down into the icy water so as the freeze alongside his comrades, until rescue was possible.

This morning we are celebrating the feast of the baptism of Jesus.  The story itself is basically the same in Gospellers. Jesus undergoes the baptism of John, which is for the forgiveness of sins, all of which is odd since he has none. He is submerged. Coming up from the water, two descend from heaven- the voice of the Father and the Holy Spirit. He is thereby confirmed as the one promised by the prophets (‘in whom I am well pleased’ from Isaiah) and by the royal psalm of David (‘this is my beloved Son’).  On these elements there is agreement. Mark alone has this commissioning, ordination, consecration leading directly to His being driven out into the desert. 

One more preliminary.   And what does the immersion itself speak to us of?  It is certainly meant to represent cleansing. But it also conveys full participation- it is in the full condition of the human that the immersed partakes. Finally it suggests death by drowning. These are related of course, since immersion is our condition implies drowning. 

But what is the significance of that baptism? Let us start with the Shackleton/ Ice side of the equation.  Jesus was, and by the resurrection is, the solidarity of God with us in our suffering, isolation, extremity. He suffered with part of his crew on the trek, and kept his promise to rescue the rest.  God dwelt with us says John, and we need to feel how radical that statement is, and how different from what we might readily assume about what it means to be a god.  Now the punch in this claim lies in the fact that He is indeed God, the one who created everything. A God who can reign on high and humble himself low is a God who, upon much more reflection, turns out to be triune. 

What about hot baptism, baptism as battle?  Look again at where the event comes from, and where it is going.  On the one hand John is the last prophet, the greatest, calling for justice and warning of the coming fire of God’s final judgment, before which human being scuttle and scurry as if before a fire burning off a field.  John the unrelenting. And on the other side, Jesus driven into the desert to be tempted. The devil, after that prelude, will next reappear at this betrayal, trial, and passion. And in between is the drowning itself, foretold in the psalms- the waters has come up to my neck. Of course the victory of which we speak commences on the cross and is complete at the resurrection, in anticipation of which Jesus cries out, hot with agony, ‘it is finished, perfect, complete, victorious.’

And what does all this mean for us, who are here this morning to make a promise as a follower of God’s Son, or else to pray in support of such a promise.  On the cold side it is means patience, endurance, long-suffering, loyalty, solidarity with the suffering. These Jesu showed to an extent we cannot match, though we can follow on that road of sanctification, however haltingly. But this stands in contrast to the hot side, for what we cannot do is go down into the flood, into the twisted undergrowth and strangle the ancient serpent.  And so our part is gratitude, wonder, sharing, story-telling.  The Hot road he walks alone, we his witnesses and celebrants, the old road we appears upon toward Emmaus and we have been walking with him since. 

The baptism of Jesus reminds us of our churchly baptism, itself of water, like John’s, were it not by grace for the descent of the Holy Spirit from Jesus. We do not have a baptism this morning, but our confirmations and receptions are enfolded in His baptismal ministry, as is all of our life together. Praise God for its summons, hot and cold, to each and all of us. Amen.    

Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.