Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012
Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas. On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display. The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales. And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.
No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany. The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world. It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ. And what do the magi bring? Presents! So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts. And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.
Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism. If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is. We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation. You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. God created it out of nothingness. Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God. Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God. Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.
In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father. One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something. The Spirit never stands still. The Spirit is never stagnant. And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being. The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.
The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world. But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely. That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children. What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?
John the Baptist knew that. “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.” You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life. When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away. It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people. But it wasn’t permanent. Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again. It was a never-ending cycle.
Jesus’ baptism is not like that. Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo. When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him. And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship. And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.
When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us. And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what. The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what. No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness. Think about that, for a second. God is with us no matter what. God loves us no matter what. And through us, God is doing amazing things. What greater gift could we possibly receive?
As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others. And I’m not talking about how expensive they are. When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about. Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument. My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude. Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use. Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out. But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.
Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something. The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world. The problem is, so often we don’t listen. We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us. We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst. The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it. When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it. We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.
And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still. God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things. God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence. I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us? What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work? What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?
As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font. In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure. In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us. This is not just about money. This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries. Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work. We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world. We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation. I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.
But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work. Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about. Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian. As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding. As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you. Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word. May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.