Baptism as Revolutionary Hope

Message by Jason Storbakken

Second Week of Epiphany

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We are in the second week of Epiphany – the season of illuminating discovery and immanent yet transcendent revelation.

Last week, the magi, those Eastern mystics who were a blend of learned scientist and cultic astrologer, arrived at Mary and Joseph’s home to meet and bless and worship the Christ-child.

The magi have long since departed Judea. The Holy Family sojourned in Egypt, asylum-seekers, who escaped the infanticide in Bethlehem – have returned to Nazareth where Jesus spent his formative years.

There are 18 years of silence between a brief biblical account of 12 year old Jesus in the temple and his arrival as a 30 year old at the banks of the Jordan River.

There is a continual unfolding of Jesus of Nazareth’s identity.

In today’s reading as well as in this month in the history of our Anabaptist tradition, the sacrament of baptism shines forth as an act of nonviolent resistance and revolutionary hope.

The story begins with John the Baptist – who appears in all four Gospel accounts – an incredibly important figure in the biblical narrative.

John, the “lone voice crying in the wilderness, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”!

John, clothed with camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey.

Saint John of the Wild proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Saint John who castigates the wealthy religious elites, “You brood of vipers!” Snakes. Who told you of this baptism? And tells them plainly to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Repentance precedes the new life, and baptism is the symbol of that change of mind and change or heart and change of social engagement.

John’s message deeply resonates with Jesus who walks from Nazareth to the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, where he is baptized by John.

Jesus and John, cousins, first met in their mothers’ wombs when Mary, fearful because of her scandalous pregnancy, took refuge with Elizabeth. And it was there that the Spirit fell upon the household and Mary prophesied, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” She is speaking into the promise. It is done, although seemingly not yet.

And now, as Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, this same Spirit, now in the form of a dove alights upon him – the dove, a symbol of the Spirit, but also a symbol of purity; to us, the Spirit might come as fire to burn up iniquity, to bring renewed conviction, but there is nothing within Jesus that needs to be burned up, and so the Spirit sets ever-so gently on Jesus in the form of a dove.

The Prince of Peace, Mighty God, anointed with the Holy Spirit.

And then God – proud parent, life-giver, the first person of the Trinity – tears open the heavens and says, “That’s my son. I love you. And I’m proud of you.”

And with that the same Spirit that alighted on Jesus in the form of a dove it now drives him deeper into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan and wild beasts, but angels are also with him. He is tested and tempted, but overcomes.

Jesus returns from his wilderness experience where he has battled the devil and won! When he returns to the community of the baptized, he learns that John has been arrested. He is serving time and will soon be executed.

And it is at this moment, that Jesus begins to preach: Repent, and believe the Good News. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. In some sense, he has taken up John’s mantle.

While most are surely grieving the loss of the Baptist, Jesus is preaching Good News. He is telling the people to Believe. He is preaching repentance, but he is also preaching resistance and revolution. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! This is regime change.

This is hope preached in the direst of circumstances. Jesus understands that hope is a resource that fuels resistance. And resistance, like resilience, propels us to persevere, and eventually enter into God’s promise.

Jesus’ baptism, his Gospel proclamation and prophetic critique of the dominant culture; his promise of hope in the midst of an oppressive social and economic system, reverberates throughout the centuries, which brings us to January 21, 1525.

Birth of Radical Reformation

On January 21, 1525 the Radical Reformation was born. A disputation broke out among religious reformers in Zurich, Switzerland, on the topic of civil government and infant baptism. Zwingli, the leader of the main branch of Reformers in Zurich, argued in support of the local council, while three radicals – Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock – sought religious freedom for the people.

Zwingli and the Zurich council refused to allow these subversives to perform adult baptisms. For one, the baptismal certificate in those days was akin to today’s birth certificate. And thus infants were baptized simultaneously into the church and the state. The Zurich council suppressed these radicals and stated that all children must be baptized within 8 days and if parents do not consent they must leave Zurich.

Shortly thereafter, at an illegal meeting in Felix Manz’s home, Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him. And Blaurock in turn baptized the others present. Each newly baptized person left the little gathering full of zeal to encourage others to follow their example.

These were the first adult baptisms (Anabaptist) and the birth of the Radical Reformation.

Within two years, Manz was executed – he was the first martyr of the new church. Soon after, a wave of persecutions and executions followed this movement. And it was during this time that the church grew immensely.