Poetry in Motion


"Poetry in motion" refers not to the 60's song, but to the 18th century poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is the story of a sailor who while lost at sea along with his shipmates is guided to safety by an albatross. In a wanton act of cruelty the Ancient Mariner shoots and kills the albatross with his crossbow. His crime arouses the spirits who chase the ship to seas where winds don't blow. Eventually Death takes all but the Ancient Mariner, but Death-in-life wins his soul, and he is condemned to wander the earth.

That's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and you see how the poem brings life to events. Our understanding and appreciation of today's Gospel can be aided by seeing it as poetry in motion. Particularly in the Gospels the Holy Spirit often speaks in clipped, concise phrases so that we have trouble connecting the dots. Hearing them as poetry in motion can help.

In our 2 verse text, the albatross is there. In the poem, the crew condemns the Mariner for shooting the bird that helped them to wear the dead albatross around his neck. That's where the metaphor "like an albatross around your neck" comes from. What are the sins that beset you, fret you, and you pet but albatrosses around your neck? Where's the 2009 resolution to be more patient, less worried, and not lustful? It died sometime last January and has hung around your neck ever since. How poetic the justice that labels the adulterer with a giant letter A and the albatross killer with the dead bird! What hangs about your neck? What weighs you down? Failure after failure, sin after sin, lust after lust. Covetousness which Paul says is idolatry and worry which the 1st Commandment says is unbelief.

The albatross is in our text. See it hanging about the neck of Jesus. The only ones John baptized according to Matthew and Mark were the ones "confessing their sins." That's why Matthew reports that John balked at baptizing Jesus. The Holy One of God, the Son of the Most High had no sins, but there Jesus stands in a long line of sinners to be baptized. What albatrosses hang about His holy neck? His, hers, yours, mine, ours, they are all there. The sins Jesus confesses are the sins of the world; that's why John says after baptizing Jesus, "Behold, look, the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the world."

There standing in the Jordan hung about the neck of Jesus are the sins that beset you, fret you, and you have made pets of. Ever notice how people with pets might not notice the smell they leave in their homes? That's what happens when your sins become pets. They don't seem that bad, do they? A small dead bird stinks mighty bad. Think of the stench coming from a bird whose wingspan is 12 feet and whose weight is 26 pounds. That's the pet sins you think cute, playful, only natural. How do you like them now?

If all of the motion you see in this poetry is Jesus standing in the Jordan with the albatross of your sin hung around His neck, that's not enough. Sorrow, shame, and eventually despair are all you'll get from this, and all the sorrow, shame, and despair in the world can only get you one thing: hell. Ask the sorrowful, despairing, ashamed Judas about that. Thankfully in the Baptism of Jesus atonement is here too.

Real Atonement, however, isn't in the Ancient Mariner's rhyme. The poet probably thought it was. Interestingly and "prophetically," this 18th century poet has the Mariner atone for his sin by becoming an environmentalist and an evangelist. After all his shipmates die because of his sin, he sees sea creatures he first had described as "slimy things," but now sees their beauty and utters a prayer of blessing for them. This change from being a wanton killer of animals to a lover of all life partially atones for his guilt. He begs forgiveness from a hermit on an island, but instead "this frame of mine was wrenched/ With a woeful agony,/ Which forced me to begin my tale; And then it left me free./ Since then, at an uncertain hour,/ That agony returns;/ And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns."

Is this atonement for you too? You'll repay your failures by becoming a better person? You'll tell everyone the sad lessons you've learned about sin and its consequences. This is no atonement; this is to be condemned to the Mariner's woeful agony of always remembering your sins. And the world thinks this works. "Hi, I'm Paul and I'm an alcoholic, addict, kleptomaniac, fornicator."

There's no atonement here; no peace, no hope, no real release from the albatross of sin that hangs about your neck, but in the Jordan there is. Jesus is baptized confessing your sins and immediately the battle is joined. The Holy Spirit sends His Man, the God/Man. into the wilderness to do battle with the Devil. Here's the challenge: can Jesus keep the Law of God perfectly alone in a wilderness without any food when perfect man and woman couldn't do so together in a paradise loaded with food? More about this on the First Sunday in Lent, but for now let me tell you Jesus did it. He didn't shoot the albatross; he didn't indulge that lust, that worry, that greed, that fear. Being tempted in all these things as we are, all of them floated, drifted, soared above His head but not one of them was allowed to land let alone nest there.

Jesus doesn't do what the Mariner did or we do, so He is guiltless, no albatross of original or actual sin hangs about His neck, but still He bears the albatrosses of our sins. And God promised death for sins and that eternal, so Jesus is lead relentlessly to the cross. Bearing our guilt, the heaven that opened widely on the day of His Baptism will slam shut in His face. The Father that is so pleased with His Son today for taking on our obligations, our debts, our sins will be pleased to crush Him on the cross says Isaiah. And in those dark, brutal, hellish days the Son will pray even as He does today in the Jordan. But the Holy Spirit won't show up then but only great drops of bloody sweat pressed out of Him by anguish and an angel. That angel will strengthen Jesus so He can swallow every last drop of God's wrath and judgment so He can tell you, promise you, "It is finished."

In this "Rime of the Beautiful Savior" we have the albatross and we have the atonement, and we also have the water. Naturally a rhyme about a mariner will feature water prominently. The famous line "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink," comes from this poem. Well water is everywhere in our text and it's fit for much more than drinking.

Our sermon hymn from an early church father understood this. We sang that the Lamb of God standing in the water "sinless sanctifies the wave." Another church father says, "The Savior willed to be baptized for this reason not that He might cleanse Himself but that He might cleanse the waters for our sake" (Maximus of Turin, Ancient Christian Commentary, NT, III, 67). As the sick who touched Jesus got health, the dead got life, the demonized got freedom, so the waters that He touched, which after 2000 years of a closed water cycle are around the world, have been sanctified, set aside for holy use. After Holy Jesus pays off the debt of sin we owed, after the Holy Father raises Jesus from the dead to show He has fully accepted that payment, Jesus commands us to use ordinary water to baptize all nations into the Father who spoke at the Jordan, into the Holy Ghost who descended as a dove there, and into the Son who claimed your sins as His own there.

This water that is made special, powerful, forgiving, and life-giving by adding the name of the Triune God is literally everywhere, and though 99% of it is undrinkable 100% of it can be used to baptize. Even in landlocked Austin you see water everywhere. Lady Bird Lake, Lake Travis, Lake Austin water, water everywhere. In Noah's day God sent water to destroy the world; in Moses' day He sent water to drowned His enemies. In Jesus' day He sends water to save the world including those who count Him an enemy.

Your baptism whether as a baby, a young person, or an adult did what you see happening today in the Jordan. It opened heaven to you; it gave you the Holy Spirit, and the Father's approval. Don't believe me? Think this is poetic license on my part? What does I Peter 3:21 say? "Baptism does also now save us." If Baptism saves, than it certainly opens heaven to you. What about giving the Holy Spirit? What did Peter promise the Pentecost crowd in Acts 2:38? "Repent and be baptized, every one of you And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit landed on you in your Baptism no less than it landed on Jesus. And what about having the Father's approval? What does Galatians 3:27 say? "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Clothed in Christ, God doesn't see what you use to be, He sees Jesus, and He is well pleased with Him.

Let every drop of water on your windshield, from your sprinkler, out of your faucet preach to you of the power, the promise, the permanence of your Baptism. Water, water everywhere and not a drop that doesn't preach, teach, remind, and assure. When rain falls to the point of drumming on your roof may every drop drum into your soul how in Baptism Jesus got your sins while in yours you got His holiness. After a long dry spell when even a little rain turns brown to green, may you think, "If ordinary water can do that, what power to change, to enliven, to resurrect must God's Water of Baptism have!"

In The Rime the Mariner laments, "Instead of the cross, the albatross/ About my neck was hung." Luther recommended, and some Lutherans still do, make the sign of the cross on themselves as a reminder that baptized into the name of the Triune God a cross of atonement not an albatross of sin marks them. Signing yourself in such a way is poetry in motion, and a comforting poem it is. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Baptism of Our Lord (20100110); Luke 3: 21-22