This is the sermon I preached at Westfield Church on Sunday, January 13th.
I feel as though we’ve been running a marathon for the last month and a half! It started in the beginning of December with the first Sunday in Advent. We waited and kept watch through those four Sundays until Christmas–which we all thought was the finish line. Then, we were reminded last Sunday that Christmas is actually a season, not just a date. A season that ends at Epiphany when we celebrate God’s manifestation in the world through Christ.
In the early organized church, the feast of Epiphany actually celebrated three occurrences in scripture: the arrival of the wise men which symbolizes Christ coming for all people; the baptism of Christ that reminds us of Christ’s Divine nature; and the wedding at Cana (our scripture for next week) that celebrates Jesus’ first miracle–his Divine nature made manifest in acts. In the 4th century the celebrations were separated out, and we begin to see Epiphany and the days following it celebrated much as they are today.
Scripturally, we’ve made it through a lot by now. We’ve heard the birth of John the Baptist foretold, then of the Angel visiting Mary. We’ve visited Elizabeth along with Mary then heard Mary’s song–the Magnificat. Jesus was born; there were shepherds and more angels. Jesus was presented at the Temple then suddenly is twelve! He returns to the temple and beings teaching the teachers. And then, we hear John the Baptist preaching and find him baptizing.
We’re told that John was causing quite a stir; many among him wondered if he were the Messiah. John tried to clear that confusion up: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I think we need to start like John–with water. In the 2003 film, Big Fish a grown son returns home during his fathers final days to figure out one thing: were all the stories he had grown up hearing true. His father, Edward, was, you see, not just a storyteller, but a Southern storyteller–known for his tall tales. Tales, we find out through the movie, that include giants, hidden towns, witches, and one particularly big fish. It’s really a beautiful film–both visually and in the way that it speaks to the human condition and searches for an answer that we still search for now–what is truth? More on that in another sermon.
Toward the end of the film, as the father’s death approaches, there’s a poignant scene where he’s lying in a bathtub full of water in his pajamas–completely submerged. He finally comes up for air when he opens his eyes to find his dear wife looking at him through the waters. “I was drying out,” he says to her.
When we were watching this movie in our Jesus and Film study, one of the ideas we talked about was the way this movie points to baptism. There’s the obvious connection with water–a central theme for the duration of the film. But it’s more than just the water. It’s what the water represents. In the film, the water is at once Edward’s identity and his destiny.
We can say the same, or close to it, about Christian baptism. Our baptisms are at once our identity in Christ and a symbol of God’s work in our lives.
How is baptism our identity?
Well, Luke tells us that “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came form heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In Luke, God speaks to Jesus but in Baptism that you is meant for us. In Baptism, we are claimed by God as God’s own children, cared for and loved. Baptism, then, teaches us who we are–God’s beloved children.
There are lots of ways for us to identify ourselves–the names our parent’s gave us, what grade we’re in school, what job we have, which degree we hold, where we live, who our parents are. Despite all these ways that we know ourselves and are known to others, we still struggle to learn who we are. David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary, writes “In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.”
Now, that we understand a little more about baptism as part and parcel to our identity, how is it a sign of God’s work in our lives?
The hard thing about baptism is that different denominations and churches understand it, I’m sure this will come as shock to you, differently. But, one common thread that weaves its way through all those different interpretations is this: Baptism is, primarily and fundamentally, God’s work.
Did you notice what’s different about Luke’s version of events from the story Mark and Matthew tells? I’ll give you a hint. Here are the three verses the lectionary for today skips over:
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”
Then, we get to what turns out to be the second part of this story: “Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized.”
See what’s missing or, more specifically, who’s missing? John the Baptizer! The one who baptizes Jesus in Matthew and in Mark. Luke does this to answer a couple of questions. First who is the Messiah–Jesus or John? Clearly, John is locked up, yet Jesus still gets baptized. The answer is: Jesus. Secondly, what happens when you speak the truth to people? Answer: Sometimes, you get locked up. While it might not be persecution for us, it could mean avoidance, disdain, dislike. It’s the cost of proclaiming Christ.
But back to our original question: who’s missing? John! So who baptizes Jesus in Luke? The Holy Spirit. Likewise, it’s the Holy Spirit that baptizes us. Baptism, then, is God’s work–wholly and completely God’s work. This is Good News for us. Because this is God’s work that means that it doesn’t matter how often we fail, screw up, fall short of God’s glory. Nothing we do or don’t do can remove the identity God conveys as a gift.
Lose offers more good insight here: “Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”
Can you feel the Good News pulsing through that statement? Let’s hear it again: “Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away form it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”
So, we’re confident in our identity through baptism and in God’ work in our lives. What do we do now?
Lot’s of things.
Most importantly, We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We do this because of Jesus’ great commission at the end of Matthew but also because of the hope we find in the deep well of the promises of God that abides with us because of our own baptisms. We do not re-baptize. Since baptism is God’s work, re-baptizing would imply that, for whatever reason, it didn’t take–that God made a mistake. God doesn’t make mistakes nor does God renege on his promises.
We baptize adults and children. We believe that “Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit is the mark of their acceptance into the care of Christ’s church, the sign, and seal of their participation in God’s forgiveness, and the beginning of their new growth into full Christian faith and life.”
When we baptize children, we, the gathered community of faithful, make certain promises. In the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, the congregation present at a Baptism is asked: “Do you who witness and celebrate this sacrament, promise your love, support, and care to the one about to be baptized, as she lives and grows in Christ?” The congregation responds: “We promise our love, support, and care.”
Those are big promises. They are promises that make sure the baptized never run the risk of ‘drying out.’ While they seem simple, they imply so much. Because I promise my love, support, and care to you (and through to all the baptized), I promise to do my darndest to be sure you’re OK. To help you when you need help, to put up with screaming babies during prayer time, to make hot chocolate and cookies for Victorian Christmases, to give how I can and when I can to support the work of the church, to volunteer at Vacation Bible School, to take every opportunity to tell that newly baptized person that God loves them and that this church loves them and that you love them.
You see, when we baptize someone, God’s work isn’t just being done in their life. It’s being done in ours, too.
Which is why, on days like today, we gather to remember our baptism–to remember what it means for us to have been washed in this water, to have been claimed as one of God’s own. We really have the opportunity to do this every day, don’t we? Every time we shower or even wash our hands, we can say a simple prayer of thanks for the gift of this sacrament that washes away our brokenness and welcomes us into God’s kingdom. Remembering our baptism reminds us that baptism isn’t a one-time affair. It’s not something that was done to us, that we wore a nice outfit for, that we as a congregation, made promises during. It’s a way of life–of being God’s, of keeping our eyes open to God’s work in us and in the world, and of sharing just what that means with any who will listen.
In just a little bit, we’ll gather around our own baptismal font. In the bowl, there are small stones covered in shallow water. You’re welcome to come up, take a stone and touch the water, remember your baptism–the promises made to you and for you, and be thankful. Be thankful that God works in such wonderful and mysterious ways. Be thankful that you belong to such a community of love and grace that they would be willing to make such promises to you. Be thankful that when we’ve almost dried out, we can get ourselves wet in the waters of baptism time and again. But mostly, be thankful that God, the one who created you and formed you, has called you by name and has done and is doing wondrous things in you.