Sermon, Jan 8, 2017
If you need evidence that God is moving in this place, here at FCUCC… When Stephanie and Dylan and I worked out the day to baptize Silas, I had no idea that the lectionary scripture for this week was about Christs’ baptism. That was God, working out His synchronicity here in our community. But what a wonderful opportunity to talk about baptism – all of our baptisms!
Many of us are baptized as children, with our parents, godparents and grandparents present to pledge their commitment to our well-being. Others are baptized as adults. I was baptized at age 13. During my internship I become Godmother to a woman in her baptism - who was only 6 months younger than me. She and her three children, aged 16, 12 and 6 were all being baptized on the same day.
John the Baptist was baptizing people in the River Jordan, calling on people to repent. Now, in my quest to drop tidbits about Israel into all my sermons until Jared visits in February, I want to put this in geographical context. Last week I mentioned that the Sea of Galilee, as we hear about sometimes in scripture where Jesus did a lot of his ministry, is not a Sea at all but a lake. In Hebrew, the lake is named the Kinnerit - in the region known as the Galilee. This lake, the Kinnerit, is actually a part of the Jordan River in the Jordan River Valley. The Jordan flows into this lake and flows out of it on the other side.
This lake is the lowest freshwater body on earth (the Dead Sea is actually the lowest body of water on earth, but it is salt-water). The Sea of Galilee is situated near a fissure in the techtonic plates. There are 17 hot springs surrounding the Western side of this lake, with water as hot as 140 degrees F and full of minerals. The area has been used for healing baths for centuries, and this could be is why Jesus centered his ministry in this area – because there were a preponderance of sick people in need of healing.
John wasn’t just using any water for his Baptism. This was the mighty River Jordan; symbolically the last body of water the Israelites had to cross to escape the oppressive conditions of Egypt. When they crossed the Jordan to find their promised land from God, they entered into a new communal life to be shaped by God’s will instead of oppressive Egyptian power.
What does this new communal life look like? Well, we know it is not what was happening in Egypt. It does not exploit the slave or worker and does not exalt violence. It shelters the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. It embraces hospitality for the stranger and respect for the other. It involves loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The prophet Isaiah describes a servant of God who will bring a new covenant to the people – but will do it without raising his voice, without breaking even a reed. This perfect servant will be God’s delight. This perfect servant is Jesus.
John, like the prophets before him, felt that Israel had wandered away from these values and its mission as a just society serving God. In his Baptisms, John’s idea of repentance was less about renouncing our sinful natures, but more about turning towards God and aligning ourselves with God’s will. It’s not ‘come and confess your sins’, it’s ‘change your hearts and lives’. Baptism was an outward ritual to signify this change of heart, a commitment to live into God’s will.
Our Baptisms hold this promise. Baptism proclaims we are starting out on a journey to live within God’s community. It’s the public pledge that we take for ourselves, or for our children – that we will strive to understand God’s mission for us in our lives; that we may also become servants of God. We pledge that will strive to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, all our being and all our strength. And that we will love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s why here, in the UCC, our baptisms include the congregation; this congregation – this family – commits to hold Silas in this web of loving community. Baptism is about taking responsibility for each other’s growth and well-being. We make this promise to each other.
In THIS moment, however, this moment with John and Jesus, it goes beyond repentance. When John recognizes Jesus, he recognizes one who is already aligned with God. This moment of Baptism becomes the one where Jesus publicly commits to do the work God would have him do. This is the start of Jesus’ ministry; in the book of Matthew, all that we’ve been hearing about since Christmas – his birth, the visit from the Magi, the flight to Egypt, and his return to be baptized –all this takes place before Jesus begins God’s work. This is where Jesus accepts his charge as God’s servant.
When Jesus submits to this Baptism, God’s voice is heard across the waters. Heaven opens up, and Jesus sees the spirit of God descend upon him. God’s voice rings out; “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is something powerful about seeing greatness in someone before that person even realizes how great they are.
This is the moment when Jesus is claimed by God. Jesus is claimed, and named – my son, the beloved. Jesus is given an identity and a purpose. According to Matthew's gospel, before Jesus performed any miracles . . . before he intervened on behalf of the weak and the afflicted . . . before he taught in the temple and had a following . . . before he went to the cross . . . Jesus was affirmed by God. And the power of that affirmation prior to Jesus' mission is precisely what guided Jesus' mission. It becomes clear to all who are present that this is a relationship that is so intimate and so profound that it will propel every action and every decision. From here, Jesus sets out on God’s path. Jesus presents himself to this commitment, and God reciprocates that commitment by equipping Jesus for ministry. Through his spirit Jesus will reveal a part of God to us. He will fulfill the scripture and reveal the Gospel to all humanity.
Our baptisms are the same. Just as this baptism is the moment when Jesus is claimed by God, our baptism into the Body of Christ – into this fabric of a loving community - it is the same. With our baptism, we are affirmed as a beloved child of God, already blessed and cherished by our Creator and by our parents, godparents, grandparents, and the extended family here of this church. With our Baptism, we are claimed, we are named by God as one of God’s children. With our baptism, we are given belonging in this community, in the wider this body of Christ, and sent on a path of service to God.
Today, celebrating this baptism gives us cause to remember our own. And remembering our baptism is about remembering whom we belong to – and to what we are called to do. If you are taking this journey of faith, it needs a beginning, and baptism is that beginning. If you are taking this journey of faith, you need to know you are pleasing to your Creator – and baptism is that recognition. If you are taking this journey of faith, you need the support of other pilgrims with you on the journey, to affirm your value and your service to God – baptism is that affirmation. If you are taking this journey of faith, you need time and space to turn back to God and remember to whom you belong – remembering our baptism provides that opportunity.
Our Baptism is a good reminder of our own commitment to be that servant – to our community, to each other, and to God. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are beloved, touched by God and held in the loving web of a congregation. Sometimes we need a nudge to have us turn back towards God. And that’s what John the Baptists’ repentance is about – it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing, it’s a constant effort to align ourselves with God’s will – God’s will for us and for our community.
Jesus taught us that realizing God's kingdom is all about recognizing what God has placed within us. And in learning that, learning how we serve God, we are able to better learn and remember our own identity.
For us, it’s the same. Like Jesus, we are claimed by God. Like Jesus, we are set on a path understanding we are God’s children. And like Jesus, it is in the acting out that purpose that we know who we are.
You are a beloved child of God, turning towards God again and again, and with you God is well-pleased.