January 13, 2013 – 1 Epiphany C
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Growing up in the Episcopal Church is something I have always considered a blessing. It has provided me with so much and given me such rich imagery for the love of God that holds us all. But, in growing up in the Episcopal Church, I have missed something. It’s something I’ve never experienced nor have I even seen it done. Many of you have experienced what I am referring to and probably most of you have seen it. What I speak of is being baptized by total immersion. I have never waded into a pool or a river and surrendered my body to someone who put a hand over my face and then physically laid me into the water below, once, twice, and a third time. I have never yielded myself to someone else in just that way and the imagery of that yielding is fascinating to me. What must it feel like to lay into the arms of a figure of religious authority and let him take control of my body and immerse me and then pull me up and out of that water? What does it feel like literally to yield, to surrender?
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, we celebrate our own baptisms into the death and resurrection of Christ, and today we can consider what it is like to yield, to surrender, to the God who holds us, the God who saves us.
Over the years I have observed a phenomenon in baptism which is fascinating to me and it has to do with peoples’ ability to yield and surrender. Hundreds of times now, I have presided at baptisms. Normally they are the baptisms of infants and, to defend our practice of infant baptism, I remind you that baptism is the proclamation that the candidate is a child of God and that such is due to the grace of God rather than the worthiness of the candidate. An infant is as much a child of God as an adult is, and the imagery of infant baptism most accurately connotes the grace of God saving us rather than our own efforts to be saved. It is meet and right that we baptize infants.
As I have presided at these events, so many parents have extended their precious children to my grasp and allowed me to do this baptizing. So many parents have yielded and surrendered their most loved gift. And so far my record is intact: I have never dropped a baptismal candidate. And I’m always fascinated with the manner in which the various children either yield themselves or struggle for control. Typically the younger the child, the more easily he yields. Remember what is done in baptism. I take the child and lay him in my arms and then I bend toward that fount. To be laid on one’s back and then to have one’s feet rise above one’s head is a most vulnerable position. Sometimes a dentist will lay us back in his chair and it is a feeling of being out of control. When animals fight, the one who is weaker may submit by lying down and putting his legs into the air, exposing his throat as an admission of surrender. To be in that position is to say that the next thing that happens is totally up to the other.
Typically the younger the child, the more easily he surrenders. Infants are usually most trusting, though there are exceptions to that. Perhaps some infants are just more trusting than others, perhaps some have had a more difficult time getting here and already have come to the point where they feel they must struggle against such vulnerability. Perhaps on certain days I am easier to trust than on other days. But usually the very young infant will completely yield, without a muscle in his body tensing up. Often, since I’m used to doing this, I am more relaxed than the parent who has been holding the child and he may feel that relaxation as I hold him and relax a little more himself.
But after a child reaches a certain point, usually several months old, the child will often struggle against that yielding. Some will arch their backs and try to roll over. Some will dig in their heels. Some will quickly twist their heads to see where it is I am taking them. Some cry out. After a certain point in development, it’s very hard for people to yield to baptism. When once we’ve experienced a little bit of control of our lives, it’s very hard to surrender that control to another.
I’ve learned not to fight with those who resist. Usually I can tell fairly quickly how yielding a child will be and the one who isn’t comfortable being so vulnerable as to be on his back with his head below his feet, for such a child what I will do is turn him over on his stomach. If he needs to see where he’s going, I’ll show him, and usually that brings about a relaxation in that little body. Perhaps it gives him a sense of having some control and I’ve learned that baptism, if not life in general, goes better when I don’t wrestle control away from another. A minor part of what happens in baptism, this phenomenon, but it has given me an opportunity to look more closely at this matter of yielding and surrendering that we do, or are called to do in our spiritual journeys.
Jesus yields and surrenders to baptism. Quite frankly that didn’t make much sense to his followers. Why would someone who was the Messiah submit to a baptism, particularly a baptism of repentance that John administered? The Messiah would have no need of repentance, of changing, of starting a new life. But Jesus, at the very outset of his ministry, chooses to be baptized. He puts himself into the hands of this John who takes him and lays him into the water and then brings him out. He yields and surrenders. He allows himself not to be in control, even though by now he has experienced within himself the ability to control so very much.
This image of Jesus yielding and surrendering is carried out time and time again in his life, ultimately on the cross where, though he could wrestle himself free, he yields and surrenders completely, even unto death. The mystical power of Christ Jesus is not in his ability to manipulate and control his environment. It is rather in his ability to yield and to surrender. The very first thing we see of him in his public ministry is this yielding; the very last thing we see of him has to do with surrendering; and everything in between has its power in this yielding and surrendering. Notice in Luke’s account how Jesus is praying after the baptism. Not only does he yield his body in baptism; he also yields his soul, chooses to trust his Father.
We are put here to learn how to yield and surrender to the Lord. A very complicating factor for us is that we are given so great an ability ourselves to control what happens to us. God gives us a choice and it is a real choice. We are to learn what it is to be able to control yet yield such control. We are to learn what it is to be powerful yet surrender our power.
As Jesus does precisely this, the Spirit descends and a voice proclaims, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. In that moment and repeatedly in his life, because he yields, Jesus experiences the truth that he is loved as a child of God. We too are put here to learn that God loves us, chooses us as his beloved. All sinfulness, all that is wrong with the world, all that is evil and destructive, it all has at its core the not knowing that we are chosen by God as his beloved. And the only way to know such love is to yield and surrender, to admit your vulnerability as a human being, to expose your throat to the Almighty God, to lay back and put ourselves in his hands, to acknowledge that what happens next is up to that God. And that is not easy to do.
As long as I choose my own power and my own control, I will never experience that healthy dependence on a saving God. As long as I choose my power and my control, I will believe that outcomes are mine to determine, that what I get in life is commensurate with my effort, that my life is only what I make of it, all of which takes us far from the matter of love, the matter of God choosing us. As long as I have a need to choose my power and my control, God will never wrestle away such a need. As long as we hold on to that need for control, God will let us keep it. But when we are ready to yield, that is when the true life of grace will begin. That is when we will be able to know that we too are chosen as children of God. Christ Jesus puts before us, not a life of power and control, but a life of yielding and surrender, and it is there where we too will find salvation.