Toorak Uniting Church

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The Mingling of Water and Spirit

Mark 1:1-8
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Advent 2
7 December 2014

When your life is filled with the desire to see wholeness in everyday life, something magical happens: ordinary life becomes extraordinary, and the very process of life begins to nourish your soul!
~Rabbi Harold Kushner

I don’t want to labour the point, but once again in this story the Biblical narrator takes the natural world - something from the landscape that is common to everyday life, in this case it is water - and calls us to see through it to a deeper reality - a greater truth - in fact to see reality. Mark uses the words, "I have baptised you with water; but the one who comes after me will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."

Now it’s important to realise that the symbol of baptism is in fact just that, it is a symbol. But for symbols to have power that must point to a reality beyond themselves. We know when we have baptisms in this church it is not the water, nor the words and not even the minister, that makes this a "sacrament" (a sacred moment), it is that the ritual of baptism points beyond itself to an immersion in the life-giving water of the Spirit.

Now I am not trying to return to my Baptist lineage here, but the word Baptism is a transliteration from the Greek word, âáðôßæù (baptizó) which means to immerse or to dip under. But for me it is not the physical act of immersion in the water that is central to baptism, it is, as the Gospel of Mark suggests, a symbolic immersion into the life of the Spirit of God.

"I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."

Here is my paraphrase of the words of the author of Mark’s gospel:

"I have immersed you only in water, but the one who comes after me will plunge you into the life of the Spirit."

Water and Spirit – Matter and Inner Life
The water and the person of John the wilderness preacher and Baptiser are symbols of the tangible world of matter. I love the fact that John comes from the desert; that harsh landscape that shows that both beauty and bareness can exist together. It is a place of reflection and contemplation and yet it is also a place of danger and death.

John emerges from this desert landscape with a clear message and bold assertion. He doesn’t have the best dress sense or eating habits. But he is a man who knows that his life, his way of being, points beyond itself to something greater.

In the passage read earlier in our service, John seems to be challenging his followers and of course us, the potential readers of this narrative, to step into another, a new way of seeing the world. Mark puts into the mouth of John the words:

"There is one who is more powerful than I am who is coming after me; I am not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals."

There is a new way coming, a new experience and understanding of the human condition, and John is saying "I am just the finger pointing to that new day, to that deeper reality". But of course that is a difficult message to convey. Most of us are comfortable in our present reality – if not comfortable there then uncomfortable about having to change our view or the world.

Warren Buffett, the great financial entrepreneur, once said, "What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact."

The old dispensation was a way of seeing just the physical thing - staying just on the surface. The physical water was just that, water. But now it can be seen, by those who have eyes to see, as a pathway to the Water of Life. We stop and contemplate. We reflect on this natural phenomenon at a much deeper level. We see the water as a finger pointing to something beyond itself and slowly it begins to shape and reshape our lives.

It was Roger Housden in his book Keeping Faith Without Religion (p29) who wrote:

"…for those with spiritual sensibility, the unknowable, mysterious and often invisible forces in life are not only inherent in existence, but they also continue to infuse existence with meaning."

"I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."
"I have immersed you only in water, but he will plunge you into the life of the Spirit."

First-Hand and Second-Hand Experiences of Life
It is that being plunged into the life of the spirit that I think is one of the most important things in life. It means that we live by first-hand experiences and do not have all our reality filtered through the lives of others. We know that for generations that is what the Christian church did. Beliefs were prescribed; morals were monitored and personal experiences were OK, provided they matched the tenets of the institution which were regarded as acceptable.

But in more recent years, theologians like Val Webb have encouraged all of us to do our own ‘theology’, to think about the Christian faith from our own personal experience and perspective. Now, and this is important, it does not mean we are bounded by our own idiosyncratic personal tastes, prejudices and opinions. Certainly not! The role of wise leaders, teachers and the community is paramount in the spiritual life of each of us. But we can trust our inner experience of life. That inner teacher of which the Quakers speak; or the true self that the contemplative Thomas Merton wrote about.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker scholar, tells the story of being in a reflective group. He recalls that when he spoke everyone listened. When someone in the group who appeared to be knowledgeable spoke, most listened. But, he goes on to say, seldom do people listen to themselves, to what they say. In fact, they are often apologetic when they reveal their inner reflections – their own first-hand experiences of life. When we are young we all need the voices of others to guide and teach us. But as we mature, it is our own voice that is most significant because that is most often the place where we meet God.

This is echoed in Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey (adapted):

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice. And though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. "Mend your life!" each voice cried.

But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, even though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations; though their melancholy was terrible.

It was already late enough; a wild night with the road full of fallen branches and stones.

But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognised as your own that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do.

Determined to save the only life you could save.

John’s water baptism points beyond itself to the inner life of the Spirit. He calls his followers to look beyond what they can see with their eyes; touch with their hands and taste with their mouths and realise that there is an encounter waiting for them that is first-hand, personal and deeper than their current experience when they see the symbol pointing beyond itself.

"I have immersed you only in water, but he will plunge you into the life of the Spirit."

In this Advent season we observe so many symbols pointing in the one direction and that is to the Christ child, the one who will grow to be the one who will himself be plunged into the life of the Spirit and will be a model for our inner spiritual life.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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