Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 12, 2014

2014.01.12 “Can’t Go Back. Or Can We?” The Baptism of the Lord – Matthew 3: 21 – 22

Central United Methodist Church

Can’t Go Back. Or Can We?

Matthew 3: 21 – 22

Pastor David L. Haley

The Baptism of the Lord

January 12th, 2014


Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit — it looked like a dove — descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

– Matthew 3: 13 – 17, The Message

Is there a place in your life you go to reaffirm old commitments, and make new ones?

For many of us, such a place has often been a church. For some of us, it’s the church in which we grew up, were baptized, got married, held a loved one’s funeral, even expect to have our own funeral. For others of us, it’s a church we wandered into late in life, after years of being away. For most of us, this church – Central Church – is such a place.  Because of our associations with such places, and what they mean to us, it’s understandable that we become quite attached to them.

The congregation I served before this one, First United Methodist Church of West Chicago, Illinois, was founded by a Methodist circuit rider in 1835, when Andrew Jackson was President. The sanctuary we worshiped in was built in 1902, the fourth building (I think) in which the church had worshiped.  But because it was in an invisible part of town, inaccessible most of the time due to the adjacent train tracks, non-expandable, and had limited parking, the congregation voted to sell it, buy land and build a new church in a better location in town.

You won’t be surprised to hear that about 20% of the congregation took that as some of the worst news they’d ever heard. I understood that. After all, it was for them the church building they had grown up in, been baptized in, gotten married in, held funerals in. I understood. After all, it was the same space in which I proposed to Michele (yes, in church) and in which we were married, all four children surrounding us. The place was special to us, too.

So it was one of the hardest things we ever did, on Easter Sunday 2004, at the end of the service, when we deconsecrated that church as a United Methodist Church.  I picked up the pulpit Bible and let a solemn procession out of the church, and that was it. It’s still a church, a community church.  I haven’t been back in the building since.  I hope they never tear it down, at least in my lifetime, because I do hope to visit it again someday.  (I think we as a congregation understand.  Let me say only two words: Log Cabin.)

Because such places – even sacred ones – do sometimes close and even get torn down, and because we all have different places, we have to find new places and new ways to reaffirm old commitments and make new ones.  Today, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, is such a way and such a day, not only to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, but also our own. It is a particularly good time and way to reaffirm old commitments, and make new ones.

Even though – for us – it’s only been a week since we celebrated The Feast of Epiphany and the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, the event we remember today – Jesus’ baptism – occurs some 28 years later. (With the weather we have had, the past week may feel like 28 years!

It’s frustrating, almost inconceivable, that we know so little about what happened to Jesus during those years. Joseph and Mary moved from Bethlehem back to Mary’s hometown of Nazareth. Joseph may have worked as a tradesman in the nearby city of Sepphoris, being rebuilt during this time.  Almost certainly Jesus visited there as well. Perhaps he also visited the Sea of Galilee, 20 miles away, where maybe he met fishermen for the first time, maybe even Peter, James, and John. At some point, Joseph must have died.

And then, mysteriously, after nothing for so long, Jesus strides back into recorded history some 80 miles from Nazareth, out on the Jordan River in the desert, where John the Baptist is preaching.  This Jesus, he does get around!

Finally, this year, I can preach this sermon after having been there.  When you go to Israel, there are two sites associated with Jesus’ baptism. The first is a nice stretch of the Jordan just after it leaves the Sea of Galilee, called Yardenit, opened in 1981. So when we left our kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee, in our rental car, we checked it out.  There is a place to put on your white robe, and if you want, be baptized, like these pilgrims, while your pastor, like a modern John the Baptist, preaches to you.


Yardenit3 Yardenit 2

From there we headed south, parallel to the Jordan, through terrain that quickly becomes desert.  It is barren. I’m doing about sixty, keeping my eye on the instruments – especially the temperature gauge – when, about 6 miles southeast of Jericho, I see this sign.Qasr-el-Yahud (Sign) I hit the brakes, and try to find a place to turn around.  As we head down the road, there’s a problem: the likely baptism site of Jesus – know as Qasr-el-Yahud is across the border in Jordan.  We don’t have a visa, and I’m in a rental car.  (Oh, well; next trip!) I understand it looks like this.

Qasr-el-Yahud (BaptismSite)

Even if Jesus were to come back to visit today, he might also be disappointed, as over 2,000 years the course of the river has shifted, and the spot where he was actually baptized is likely dry ground. As the ancient Greek Heraclitus said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” If we can’t visit the actual site, at least we can still visit through the Gospels, in our imagination. As we do, we can revisit and reaffirm our own baptisms, even though that place, too, may no longer be available or accessible. If we were baptized as a child, it won’t even be so in memory.

According to the Gospels, I don’t know if Jesus knew what a revelatory experience it was going to be. And why did he do it, anyway?  It was a baptism of repentance, for forgiveness; being the Sinless One, what did he have to repent of, to be forgiven for?  But he did it, because, as he said, “It was the right thing to do.”  And then Matthew tells us what happened:  “The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit — it looked like a dove — descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

I am so glad I am nearing the end of my ministry, rather than where Heewon is – at the beginning of his – where, in order to get past the gatekeepers he has to do interviews and write papers about the “meaning of baptism.” It’s a symbolic act, people, a ritual, it can’t be explained in 25 words or 25,000 words. If it could be explained in words, we wouldn’t need the ritual.  It’s like asking what the American flag means or that kiss you give your wife or the meaning of a Beethoven symphony or the painting Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

What we learn from Jesus’ baptism, however, is that whatever baptism means, it is an affirmation of our identity and destiny as a child and servant of God.

What Jesus learned that day at his baptism, right there at the start of his mission, was exactly what he most needed to hear. Think about it: all those years of being the bastard son of Joseph, the son of Mary, the boy without a father, the looks, the sneers, the whispered asides.  Now he knew WHO his father was, and that he was chosen and marked by his love, the delight of his life.  God was proud of him! As someone once said, “If God has a refrigerator, Jesus’ picture would be on it.”

It is no less for us. So I never get tired of quoting the late Henri Nouwen, who in his book, Life Of The Beloved, says that these words spoken by God over Jesus at his baptism, are also the most important words spoken about us, and reflect the most intimate truth about us: “You are my child, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.” If God has a refrigerator, maybe we are on it?”

There are so many voices in life seeking to tell us who we are, to label us, and with that label, to set our destiny. Perhaps the most critical of these are our parents. Did they tell us – can we still hear them telling us? – that we are gifted and smart and loved, or worthless and stupid and unloved? If the latter was the case, for some of us these are fatal pronouncements we never escape.

Beyond our parents, there are others who seek to label us: by our ethnicity or skin color or age or class or sexual orientation, by how much money we have or don’t have. With these labels they try to put us in a box, shaping our destiny, putting us in our place, never to escape it or rise above it. Sadly, some of these people are in church, and are Christians.

So how wonderful to break through all this noise and to hear the truest word spoken about us, this Word which God speaks. In a sermon preached 14 years ago on the Protestant Hour, the Rev. Rosemary Brown said:

“For us to hear God’s voice speaking those words in the deepest core of our being, as the deepest truth about us, more indelible than the most corrosive comments anyone can make, can be one of the most powerful and formative experiences of our life, and can bring about a greater degree of peace, trust, and intimacy with God than we have ever known. To hear those words spoken of us, to know this truth about us, renders our life in a new perspective, it provides the only true motivation for a lifetime of discipleship and service.” (The Rev. Rosemary Brown, “The Apple of My Eye,” sermon preached on the Protestant Hour, March 12, 2000)

In addition to being an affirmation of his identity, it was also an affirmation of his destiny, a commissioning to the work God called him. No wonder each year we read the story of Jesus’ baptism, we also read from the ancient book of Isaiah the prophet, to give it the meaning the Gospels writers gave to the event, and the message they give to us:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations . . .

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,

I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,

a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness.

– Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 (selected)

It is no less for us.  God has not called us in baptism simply to self-affirmation, but to witness and service as a servant of God.  We are baptized, commissioned, called to a destiny, called to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, to shine light upon those who sit in darkness. Next Sunday, it seems fitting that we will celebrate the life of one who took his baptism seriously, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fulfilled the destiny of his baptism in a mighty way.  We may not be able to do so in such a mighty way as Dr. King did, but in smaller ways, day by day, as we open ourselves – as Jesus did at his baptism in the Jordan – to being a servant of God.

We may not be able to go back to the place, either of Jesus’ baptism or our own, but through the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, we can celebrate our own. It is a time and a way to reaffirm old commitments and make new ones, especially at the beginning of this new year.  Let us do that now.


A New Service of Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant


Sisters and brothers in Christ: through the sacrament of baptism God’s Spirit has been poured out upon water, water poured over and immersing us, water that flows freely for all who will receive it, water from the streams of God’s saving power and justice, water that brings hope to all who thirst for righteousness, water that refreshes life, nurtures growth, and offers new birth.

Today, we come to the waters, to renew our commitments in each other’s presence to Christ who has raised us, the Spirit who has birthed us, and the Creator who is making all things new.

Renunciation of Sin/Profession of Faith

And so I ask you, will you turn away from the powers of sin and death?

We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin!

Will you let the Spirit use you as prophets to the powers that be?

We accept the freedom and power God give us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves!

Will you proclaim the good news and live as disciples of Jesus Christ, his body on earth?

We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races!

Will you be living witnesses to the gospel, individually and together, wherever you are, and in all that you do?

We will remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.

Will you receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?

We affirm and teach the faith of the whole church as we put our trust in God, the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and in the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.

Thanksgiving Over the Water

The spirit of the Lord is with us.

       Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Let us pray: Almighty God, the life you birthed in us by baptism into Jesus Christ will never die. Your justice never fails.  Your mercy is everlasting.

Your healing river flows. Your Spirit blows where you will. We cannot stop you, God!

But sometimes we try.  We try to block the flow, we redirect the winds of the Spirit, or we walk so far away from the life-giving Stream that we do not hear its sound, and we forget its power.  We parch ourselves.

We are dry and thirsty, O God. Come, refresh us!

Come upon us, Holy Spirit!

         Come upon us, Holy Spirit!

Come upon these waters.

         Come upon these waters.

Let these waters be to us drops of your mercy.

         Let these waters remind us of your righteousness and justice.

Let these waters renew in us the resurrection power of Jesus.

Let these waters make us long for your coming reign.

Most Holy God, Abba, Father!

Glory to you!

Spirit of fire, Spirit over the waters, Spirit of holiness!

Glory to you!

Eternal God, One in Three and Three in One!

         All glory is yours, now and forever.  Amen!


[“A New Service of Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant,” by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Copyright 2007, The General Board of Discipleship. Used with permission.”]




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