Two sermons in one day–what a treat! 😉 Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, on the Baptism of Our Lord.
Baptism of Christ (Year A), Sunday, January 9, 2011
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a very appropriate Sunday for baptism, as this is the Sunday we celebrate our Lord’s baptism at the Jordan river, two thousand years ago. As we welcome little Cheyenne Marie into the body of Christ, and into this community of faith, we remember who we are and whose we are.
It is interesting to note that while only two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, chose to include a story of Jesus’ birth, all four of them begin the story of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan river. And if you noticed, in our first lesson Peter also begins his short summary of Jesus’ life and death with Jesus’ baptism. It may be that early Christians considered this event more significant even than Christ’s birth.
It was a momentous event, to be sure. John the Baptist was a major figure, one feared and hated even by King Herod Antipas, son of the King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a baby. Although most Christians would count Isaiah as the greatest prophet, for Jews that honor falls to Elijah, and many people in those days thought John the Baptist was Elijah reborn, particularly given his style of clothing and his message. All of Judea had heard of John and his teachings: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. John’s message is rich in meaning, but it has been repeated so often I wonder if we really hear it or if it’s become just another catchphrase. Perhaps it will help us hear it if we phrase it differently. Now, the word usually translated as “kingdom” is “basilei,a”, which means kingdom, but can also mean reign or rule. And to repent literally means “to turn.” Turn away from the rule of sin and death, turn away from the meaningless, mindless scrabble for power and advantage, for the reign of God is near. John the Baptist stood in the Jordan river, where centuries earlier the people of Israel had crossed into the promised land, from slavery into freedom, from death into life, and called the people back to God. Turn away from the emptiness that would swallow you, for God’s rule is right next to you.
People came from all over to hear John’s message. They came, and John baptized them in the Jordan river, symbolically washing away their past sins and their allegiance to the things that drew them away from God and God’s reign. Then Jesus, too, came to the Jordan river, to be baptized by John, and in that moment John’s words began to come true. The kingdom of heaven was at hand, was all around them. When Jesus went into the water and came out, we are told, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice from heaven said “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We don’t know whether anyone besides Jesus could see the Spirit, or hear the Father’s voice. Whether or not the people around him could see or hear it, the kingdom of the heavens was right there with them. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in water and word. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This was his initiation into the work of Heaven’s reign among us.
This is our initiation, too. Like Jesus, we are children of God, and workers in God’s kingdom. And that kingdom is nearer than we can know. Through our baptisms, through water and the word and God’s command, we are brought from death to life, from sin to salvation. Through water and the word we are tied to Christ’s own baptism, to his life, death, and resurrection. Through water and the word we are claimed by God as God’s beloved children. Through water and the word the Holy Spirit comes to us. Through water and the word our old, sinful self is drowned, that we may be reborn as God’s own. Through water and the word, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. We baptize because this is what God commands, because it is this ritual that God uses to reach out and claim us as his own.
I wish I could tell you that baptism made the darkness go away. I wish I could tell you that baptism made our spiritual journey, our work for God’s kingdom, clear and easy. I wish I could tell you that it meant that little Cheyenne Marie will never face temptation. I wish I could tell you that being a child of God meant that the Kingdom of Heaven was truly realized in full here on Earth. But I can’t. Even for Jesus, baptism was followed by his temptation in the wilderness.
What baptism does is give us the resources to deal with whatever this broken, sinful world can throw at us. No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do or don’t do, God has claimed us as his children. God has marked us with Christ’s cross and sealed us with the Holy Spirit. God will be with us every step of our way no matter what, and all we need do is turn to him. That’s a powerful truth that we find all too easy to forget. It is when we forget God’s presence and God’s love that we are most vulnerable, most likely to let ourselves be drawn aside. Martin Luther used to say that in any temptation, any crisis, the best and most useful thing we could do is remember our baptism, the moment in which God claimed us and sealed us as his own.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually remember my own baptism. Like many Christians, I was a small baby when I was baptized, only a couple of months old. On the other hand, I can tell you all about my First Communion: it took place on an Easter Sunday morning, and my church had three Easter services with a full breakfast in between each. My family went to late service, and during the breakfast before it one of my classmates who had taken his First Communion during the middle service beckoned me over. He looked around to make sure his mother wasn’t listening, leaned to me, and whispered, “The wine tastes terrible!” You see, at my home congregation grape juice was not an option. So later that morning I went up to the communion rail expecting the worst—and found that the wine did indeed taste bad to a child’s tongue. I made a big face for which my mother scolded me when we were back in our pew. That was my first Communion, but I can’t tell you about my baptism. I don’t know how the water felt, if I cried from the shock of it, if I liked the smell of the oil. So what does it mean, to remember my baptism?
Most obviously, I remember my baptism when I see another person being baptized. I see it, I participate, promising with the rest of the community to support my new brother or sister in Christ, and know that even if I don’t remember it myself, this happened to me, once, too. But I also remember my baptism when I do things with the congregation, because it is through our baptisms that we were made brothers and sisters in Christ. I remember my baptism when I feel alone, when I feel powerless, because it helps me remember that Christ is with me, and that he was once a human like me, and that he understands what I’m going through. I remember my baptism when I don’t know what to do, or when I know what I should do but don’t want to do it, when I need to remember that I am God’s and that God’s reign is better and more fulfilling than any transitory desire. I remember my baptism when I know that I need to turn to God, for God’s reign is near.
I remember my baptism when I hear Isaiah’s prophecy: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 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. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, to Jesus Christ his son, and through our baptism he speaks them to us. We, too, are called in righteousness and taken by the hand and given to the world as light and healing and freedom from darkness.
No matter how dark things seem, God’s reign is near. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, for God is with us and God has chosen us as God’s own people. The Holy Spirit is in our midst, whether or not we can see it—all we need do is follow God’s call. Through water and the Word, we are marked by the Holy Spirit and sealed with the cross of Christ, forever.