Well, I know that some of you celebrated the New Year by coming to church last Sunday. Maybe some of you also celebrated with a dip in the Gulf. Anybody go swimming last Sunday to welcome the New Year?
A New Year swim, the polar plunge, is a New Year’s tradition in many parts of the world. This tradition goes back centuries especially in Nordic countries. There is a famous polar plunge for the New Year in Boston and on Coney Island among other places in the US. In some places people wear costumes and tutus and festive New Year’s attire. In Denmark, there is a tradition of doing the polar plunge in a ‘state of nature’ as Winston Churchill put it. In other words, without a swimsuit, or any other kind of garb.
One woman at the Vancouver polar plunge this year declared, “It’s actually been on my bucket list for 15 years.” [Thousands partake in Vancouver’s 2023 Polar Bear Swim in English Bay, by Darrian Matassa-Fung, Global News Posted January 2, 2023 12:35 pm. Updated January 2, 2023 4:16 pm https://globalnews.ca/news/9381684/vancouver-2023-polar-bear-swim/] We expressed some of our intentions last week here at church on the chalk boards, ‘Before I Die I Am Going To. . .’ I don’t think any one admitted to wanting to take a polar plunge!
Apparently taking the plunge has great appeal, especially as a way of starting the New Year.
Laura from Coney Island says, “A dip in the ocean can make you feel so refreshed. You kind of wash off the old year in a way and it’s fun seeing how many people turn out and feel the same way each year. This year I want to be more present with friends and family and I think coming here with them is a great start to that.”
Jose tells us, “This is my second time doing the Polar Plunge and I can see it becoming a tradition for me. This year I want to be kinder to myself so that I can also be kinder to others. I think [the Polar Bear Plunge] is a good way to start that since I’m doing something fun for me but also I donated to the charities as well.” [Thousands ‘wash off the old year’ at 120th annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge, by Isabel Song Beer. Posted on January 3, 2023
Oh yes, charities. Using the polar plunge as a way to raise money for good causes seems to be something that Americans have added to the tradition and it is now popular worldwide. People actually PAY MONEY to take the plunge, as a way to help worthy causes. Actually, that does sound like a good way to start the year – practicing generosity and helping others.
So the polar plunge seems to be a way of starting the New Year afresh and taking action on your good intentions. Well this morning we heard another story about a plunge, not a polar plunge, but a baptismal plunge into the waters of the Jordan River. And it may actually have been chilly! Jesus comes to be baptized by John the Baptizer. He joins the hoards who have headed out to the desert from Jerusalem and surrounding towns to be doused in the Jordan as a way of turning back to God. This, too, is a ritual of cleansing and a way of making a fresh start.
I think we are given this story for a couple of reasons. One is to make clear who Jesus is. In this scene the heavens open, a voice is heard, the Spirit descends like a dove. All of this is to clue us in to what’s going on and who Jesus is. We are told that Jesus is God’s beloved with whom God is pleased. Jesus is being presented as the fulfillment of the preaching of the prophets, including the proclamation that we heard today from Isaiah. In this story, we are being shown that Jesus is one who will bring justice to all through gentleness and obedience to God. This story is told to make sure that people know who Jesus is and how he fits into the expectations of his religious tradition.
I think another reason we are told this story is to help us see who we are. We, too, are children of God. Stamped with the Divine Image. Incarnations of eternal Love. Also empowered by the Spirit. Called to love and to serve. To embody justice and gentleness like Jesus.
In our Christian tradition, baptism is a celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. And it is a sign of the person’s acceptance of their child-of-Godness and their call to love and to serve. Like the baptism of Jesus, it is a way of expressing awareness of the reality of God. It is an affirmation of what already is.
Often we think of the water of baptism as washing away sin. We are given the impression, usually by some expression of the church, that we have been bad, awful, heinous people, born in sin, and so we need to be baptized to be forgiven and redeemed.
But Jesus’ baptism was not to wash away sin. He was supposedly sinless. It was more of a confirmation of his identity for others. So I think we can also think of baptism more as a recognition of who we are. It’s like a beautiful painting or work of art that becomes dulled over the years. The expert restorer delicately cleans off the particles of dust from the air that have accumulated. Other debris is carefully removed. And the fresh vibrant original colors are revealed once again. Sometimes tiny details come into view that had been hidden. Perhaps we can think of baptism like that – a revealing of our best selves, that calls forth our child-of-Godness that has always been there but that can become covered over, buried. We can think of returning our lives to God as a clearing away of the behaviors, and distractions, and assumptions that have dulled or even hidden our true nature as people of love and compassion and forgiveness. Maybe we can think of returning our lives to God as a restoration, a revealing of what has been there all along.
And, of course, in the story of the baptism of Jesus, we are told of the presence of the Spirit. This is a reminder that there is power in our true nature. To restore ourselves to God is not just about appearances. It is about recognizing the power of love – to heal, to reconcile, to establish justice, to create
community, to transform not only individual lives but the world. The power of eternal, unconditional, universal Love is coursing through us seeking to be unleashed in the world. Look at Jesus to see what that is all about. That love gave Jesus the power to stand up to every form of evil without compromise. That power enabled Jesus to free people from all that held them captive. We have that power, too. That same Love with all of its power that we see in Jesus is embracing us and is imbued in us.
In the ancient church, the renewal of baptism was practiced four times a year: at Easter, at Pentecost, on All Saints Day, and after Christmas. Four times a year, people were reminded of the power of the Love that gave them life. Why? Because that power is constantly being challenged and tested in our lives. We are constantly being lured by distractions and alternatives. We are constantly being tempted by apathy and those who want us to believe that we are powerless. We are constantly receiving messaging about who we should be – thinner, richer, more stylish, having more fun. It can be hard to stand up to that. It wears you down.
And loving, trying to be a person of love and compassion toward oneself and others, that can take a toll. It’s not easy to give your life away for the good of the world. It’s not easy to embody compassion for yourself and for others, especially those who are on the fringes and forgotten. Look at Jesus. Love took him to the cross. So four times a year people were reminded of baptism – Who are we? We are children of God. Why are we here? To love and serve. How can this be? By the power of a Love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and is within us.
Despite all the temptations we face today, arguably more pervasive than in any time in the past, we typically only remember baptism once a year. This story of Jesus’ baptism is always placed right after Christmas, in conjunction with with the New Year. It’s a time to revisit our new beginnings. To reconfirm our intentions. To get ourselves back on track. To slough off the pain, the hurt, the low expectations, the self absorption, the apathy, and all the other conditions that build up over the course of time and to entrust ourselves once again to the eternal love of God. For some, this renewal can mean a pretty drastic change of orientation. Well, that’s what faith, the church, and the power of love are all about: Life – abundant and joyful. Whatever it takes.
Now, this polar plunge, to me it sounds like torture. But when you look at the pictures, the people are smiling and laughing. They are eager. They are excited, exhilarated and triumphant.
Wade Anderson, who took the plunge this year says, ”All I can say is, this experience is a life-changing event for many people. People set New Year’s resolutions. But there’s nothing to set your intentions like a cleansing in Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day.” [New Year’s Day polar plunge in Lake Michigan touted as ‘life-changing experience,’ Joseph S. Pete Dec 31, 2022
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another view:
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which claims to be the oldest “winter bathing” organization in the United States, was founded in 1903 by publisher Bernarr MacFadden, who believed swimming in the ocean in the wintertime was “a boon to one’s stamina, virility and immunity.” [Are polar bear plunges good for you? by Olivia B. Waxman, TIME.com Updated 10:15 AM EST, Mon January 1, 2018 https://www.cnn.com/2013/01/17/health/polar-bear-plunges/index.html]
Stamina, virility, and immunity. Well, I don’t know about the virility, but I’ll take the stamina and immunity. The stamina to keep on loving no matter what. No matter how much we want to give up. No matter how angry we are. No matter much we hurt. And immunity, I’ll take immunity. From everything that tries to distract us and dissuade us away from the power of love including consumer capitalism.
So, let’s take the plunge, as this New Year begins. Accept that we are beloved, that we are a source of delight and pleasure, and that we are incredibly powerful because of the Love that is coursing through us. Amen.