Baptism of our Lord.19 “Dead Reckoning” Luke 3:15-22/Rom. 6:1-11
I was asked in bible class looking at our Gospel on the Baptism of our Lord: “Pastor: why do we just apply the water in Baptism to the head?” And I said “because Christianity is a head thing that only gradually trickles down to become a heart and body thing.” In our pastor’s conference on Thursday a similar discussion on Baptism arose, one of the pastors asking how we’d deal with a parishioner of his who complained that “Baptism hasn’t really done anything for me—I don’t feel any different. I don’t really act any different. It didn’t seem to take.” We were (naturally, for this group) looking not at the Gospel but the Epistle lesson from Romans. I was grateful we were (unusually!) looking at the Bible and the appointed lectionary at all 🙂 So, I just pointed to the last line where Paul says that ultimately baptism is a matter of dead reckoning—considering ourselves, thinking, imagining ourselves to be something Other than what we feel and seem to be. Reckoning ourselves dead indeed to sin (though we sin daily and much!) and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord through Baptism…
It has been impressed upon me over the years in ministry by parishioners and other pastors that Baptism doesn’t take with lots of people. Many of us don’t get how Jesus’ Baptism helps us much at all. The standard modern view of Baptism seems to be pretty much as Flannery O’Connor described: “it’s a minor tribal ritual on the level with taking kids to Macy’s to see Santa”. Miss O’Connor had a much more… athletic view of the Thing. Which is why she wrote stories like “The River” where a little boy goes back to the swift flowing river where he was baptized by a Pentecostal street preacher a few days before. He’s angry. Flannery writes: “He intended not to fool with preachers anymore but to Baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.” Figuring Baptism was “another joke” the world played on children, he kicks at the water, enraged; hears the shout of old Mr. Paradise bounding into the river like a giant pig, to grab him. But then the current catches him, pulls him away and out and under. “For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.” Flannery thought most don’t get Baptism, wrote like this because: “For the nearly deaf you have to shout. For the nearly blind you must draw large, startling pictures.”
What keeps so many of us from getting Baptism, I would say, is a problem with dead reckoning. I mean the double entendre, here. “Dead Reckoning” is a euphemism for navigating without maps, compass, VOR, GPS, or weather information. It means you use only your head and imagination to guide you. Having been forced to use this method once or twice on cross country solo flights as a teenager, I can tell you it’s a scary way to fly! I think they call it “dead” reckoning because that’s how many people who employ this method of navigation end up!
St. Paul has a little different use of the term, but not so different! He says that Baptism really does drown us with Christ(!), as God drowned the evil world in the Flood and brought believing Noah and family safe through the waters. Baptism buries us with Christ into His death, that just as Christ is raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so we too should walk in newness of Life. Therefore we must “reckon ourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s the ultimate “dead reckoning”! It means we reckon—think, consider, see ourselves as really dead with Jesus in His tomb, and at the same time risen with Him to glorious new life. Reckoning ourselves dead indeed to sin is a thrilling (though usually scary!) Way to navigate through this world. Paul commends it highly.
But it is very difficult for us to practice “dead reckoning”. We much prefer to have maps, instruments, directions, GPS—at least a star to guide us like the Magi, on our Journey! To be guided only by a Word, a wing, a prayer—scary! To consider ourselves dead from the start seems defeatist! It’s like we’ve given up on arriving safely before we even set out! No, we’d much prefer “live reckoning”—feeling ourselves, strong, lively, feet firmly on the right path with plenty of signs and stars to guide us and make us always feel safe. We’d prefer to work with a net, I think, on any high flights…
Dead Reckoning depends on the Word—hearing that Jesus has taken on not flesh in general, but your flesh and my very flesh and bones and by dying has destroyed our sin, death, and hell in His Body, on the Cross; and by rising from the Dead the Third Day has brought life and immortality to light for us all—just because He says so!!! Dead Reckoning means we are guided only by this Word of Jesus—that because He died, we died too, with Him on that cross outside Jerusalem’s old walls that Friday in April, 30 AD. That all our sin and death and hell bit the Big One with Him that dark afternoon. That the current in Baptism really did catch us just like Bevel in the River and has swept us away, under, out, and on into the Kingdom of Christ. That Baptism really gets us somewhere…
The challenge with Dead Reckoning—in all senses of the term!—is that you feel quite lost, alone, and on the brink of annihilation when you’re Dead Reckoning. It feels like the end of you, I can vouch, whether by yourself (with an eighth of a tank of gas) at the controls of a Cessna 150 lost over featureless Midwest corn fields, no airfield in sight; or on your knees in a cold, stone church saying the words of a Liturgy you barely comprehend. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel strong, or safe, or that you’re getting somewhere you really want to go at all.
Americans have mostly convinced ourselves (as most of the modern world) over the last couple centuries that Christianity is an affair of the heart first and foremost. That we feel the love of Jesus in our hearts, feel convicted by His example, inspired by His Spirit and that these new feelings: of strength, power, and joy are what really save us, make us new creations. So when we’re not really feeling it, we think Baptism didn’t work, that it’s not getting us anywhere.
The Bible never suggests Christianity’s an affair of the heart that bubbles up, warmly, emotionally, to our heads. No. Scriptures say it’s completely the Other Way—a total Head Thing that trickles down into our hearts, body, bones. And I get that. I feel you on that. I often like Bevel when I don’t feel I’m getting anywhere get discouraged feel like Baptism didn’t take with me. And that’s when Dead Reckoning saves us. Feelings and works will always let you down. But he Word of God endures forever. He plants it in our minds and Paul says it’s not the renewing of our hearts or lives that saves, but the renewal of our minds that does the Trick.
Dead Reckoning is a head thing before it is ever anything else. And it’s not a thing we do. It is a change of mind done to us by the Word and Sacraments—by Jesus. It is simply believing ourselves to be what Jesus is—what He says we are by Word and faith alone—despite all we feel and see, dead to sin, alive to Christ with Peace surpassing understanding, guarding, guiding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.