Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 10, 2010

2010.01.10 “Back to Where It All Begins” – The Baptism of the Lord

Central United Methodist Church

“Back to Where It All Begins”

The Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3: 21 – 22

January 10th, 2010

       “After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” 

– Luke 3: 21 – 22, The Message

      Somewhere right now in Afghanistan or Iraq, an American soldier clutches with affection an object from home.  Most often, it will be a photo, which might be of a husband or wife, a fiancé, a picture of the kids, mom and dad. Or it might be an object, like a wedding ring, a medal or cross, worn around the neck.

      Even though far away, even in the midst of danger and hardship, every time they look at that picture, touch that object, it serves as a reminder of who they are and what’s most important to them.  

      Though we do not face the hardship or threat that our troops do, it might be that we carry something similar. It may be photos in our billfold, a cross around our neck, or a ring on a finger. For example, while my son Chris is deployed in Iraq, I wear this bronze bracelet, which I will wear until he comes home.

      Even if we don’t have an object we carry, all of us who are baptized Christians have a powerful symbol to remind us of who we are and what is important to us.  It is our baptism.

      I know that for most of us the water has long since dried, the pastor who performed our baptism may no longer be alive, and the place where we were baptized may even have been torn down. But the promises pronounced between us and our God remain – even if we may not remember them, and I believe, even if we have not held our end of the bargain. This is why, at least once a year in church, we revisit them and remind ourselves of who we are and what’s most important about us.

      There may be others here today who have yet to be baptized.  Somehow, as you came to a stronger faith, that never happened.  But, if you’re sitting here today, God is leading you on (what we Methodists call prevenient grace) and baptism may be something in your immediate future.  I invite you to talk with me about it.

      For most of us, however, since we cannot revisit the time and place of our own baptism, how we do this is to visit the place where it all begins, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. There, once again, we hear the Voice from heaven speaking: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”

      I want to remind you that we visit Jesus’ baptism as another stop on our spiritual journey through the Christian year. We began this journey in December, and Advent, as we prepared for Jesus’ coming among us, which we celebrated at Christmas.  Now, in Epiphany, we see God’s glory in Christ revealed, first at the visit of the Magi in Bethlehem, and now at his baptism in the River Jordan.  Before we know it, it will be Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, as we walk with Christ through his sufferings, on the way toward Easter.

         The truth is, never at any point on this journey do we walk as a spectator, but always as a participant, a pilgrim.  Just as the point of Christmas is not that Christ is born in Bethlehem, but more importantly, that he be born in us, so the point of Jesus’ baptism is not to stand on the banks and hear the vision and voice spoken to Jesus alone, but also to hear it spoken of us: “You are my Child, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”  This pronouncement is the most important fact about us, and tells us, more than any other pronouncement about us, who we really are.

But there’s another good reason for revisiting our baptism, and being reminded of what’s most important about us at this time of year, and that’s because the beginning of a new year is – for most of us – a time of New Year’s resolutions, what we want to change about ourselves in a new year.  And it’s about this time of year –10 days into it – that those resolutions begin to wear thin, and appear less compelling than they were just a few days ago. So it’s a good time – maybe the best time – to review fundamental commitments.  For us as Christians, our most fundamental commitment is the one that we made or that was made for us at our baptism.

All of the Gospel authors agree on the importance of Jesus’ baptism for Jesus. Mark even skips Jesus’ birth stories and begins with Jesus’ baptism, as THE event that shaped not only Jesus’ consciousness of who he was, but marked the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus’ baptism raises many questions, which none of us can answer.  According to the most likely timetable, Jesus’ baptism occurred when he was about 30 years old. What happened in those 30 years – or, according to Luke – those 18 years since Jesus’ visit to the temple as a 12 year old? What did Jesus feel, what did he do, in those intervening years?  Then, when John began to preach, why would Jesus submit to John’s baptism of repentance?

Some have suggested that Jesus may have felt acutely the absence of an earthly father, after Joseph’s early death. Perhaps, as he was ridiculed as the illegitimate child of Mary, demonic voices have taunted him long before the wilderness: “You think you’re so special — Jesus, Son of Mary — you don’t even have a Father.”  “Who do you think you are?”

So how wonderful at his baptism to be assured exactly who his Father was; God was his Father, and of all opinions about him, had the only one that counted: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” 

Did Jesus know, at his baptism, anymore than we know at our baptism, where it was going to lead?

Baptism, whether of cute little babies or teary-eyed adults, is always a high and holy occasion, but it is the beginning, not the end of the Christian life. It may take only a moment to experience it, but it takes a lifetime to understand it, to grow into the promises made there.  In fact, many of us may only be now beginning to hear and understand it: not only that are we affirmed by God, but that we are also called by God to live up to our destiny as sons and daughters of God.  This is the same for each and every one of us – whether laity and clergy, ordained or unordained: our call to ministry. Where is the Spirit leading you in 2010?

      To clarify the deep meaning behind the vision and voice heard at Jesus’ baptism, the lectionary helps us out, by quoting the background texts that the authors of the Gospels quoted as they composed their Gospels.  As is so often the case in the Gospels, only a few lines quoted, from a Psalm or a Prophet, refers us to the entire passage. 

      For example, at Christmas, we saw how the birth and infancy stories of Jesus quote the miraculous birth of Isaac, the rescue of the infant Moses, and the birth of the prophet Samuel.  Today, we hear how the words Jesus “heard” at his baptism, quote the words of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 42 & 43, spoken over God’s suffering Servant, Israel, which Christians applied to Jesus. In their broadest application, such words came to have a triple meaning: to the nation of Israel, to Jesus at his baptism, and now, to us, who follow Jesus in baptism. 

      The Word spoken at Jesus’ baptism, which forms the background to our own baptisms, reflects God’s never-ending, ineradicable declaration of love:

             But now, GOD’s Message,

                   the God who made you in the first place . . .

                   the One who got you started . . . :

             “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.

                   I’ve called your name. You’re mine.

             When you’re in over your head,

                   I’ll be there with you.

             When you’re in rough waters,

                   you will not go down.

             When you’re between a rock and a hard place,

                   it won’t be a dead end —

             Because I am GOD, your personal God,

                   The Holy of Israel, your Savior.

                   I paid a huge price for you . . . .

             That’s how much you mean to me!

                   That’s how much I love you!

             I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,

                   trade the creation just for you.

             “So don’t be afraid: I’m with you.  (Isaiah 43: 1 – 7, The Message)

      Thirteen years ago in the Christian Century, preacher John Stendahl put it this way:

      “Our first calling, our baptismal call, is the one that simply loves and names: You are my child. I delight in you. The words embrace us and promise to hold us. This is where it begins, and this is also, we dare claim, the last word, the one that holds our future.”  (John Stendahl, The Outset, The Christian Century, Dec. 24-31, 1997, p. 1219.)

Someday, every one of us in this room will breathe our last.  If we’re fortunate, our families will be there. If we’re really fortunate, a pastor or chaplain will be there, who will make the sign of the cross on the same foreheads where we were baptized, and say something like this:

Go forth ______, on your journey from this world,

in the love of God the Father who created you,

in the mercy of Jesus who died for you

in the power of the Holy Spirit who keeps you.

May you dwell in peace and may you rest in the presence of God.

      Like those brave men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing danger, who clutch those pictures and rings and crosses so that they might never forget who they are; so let us embrace and hold tightly to the promises spoken at our baptism, which are to us the affirmation of God’s ineradicable love and our call to ministry: “You are my Son, my Daughter, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”  Amen.

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