Well, today was a big day: I lead worship as a supply preacher for the first time. And I was paid too! Hotdog! It’s like I’m a professional now or something.
A friend of mine took some time off to visit her family and asked me to step into the pulpit for her today. She’s recently ordained and has started a new call up in Westchester. Last week, I ordered and picked up my first set of vestments (an alb – nothing fancy but hey, it is a start), wrote a sermon and a children’s message, and got ready to lead a service of the Word (no presiding over the Lord’s Supper for me quite yet). This morning, bright and early, I headed to the Metronorth station in Harlem, boarded the train, and away I went.
I was a tad nervous about the whole experience but it went smoothly. A member of the congregation came and picked me up from the station. The church is small but is a beautiful space, recently redone, with great lighting and just a great location. I, sadly, did not have enough time to take a picture of the church (I know, that’s shocking, but I had to leave right after the service to catch my train back into the city). I was warned that the pews wouldn’t be filled at the start of church (10 am) but most people were there by 10:15. About thirty people filled the pews, four young boys came up for a chat, I delivered the sermon, sung some hymns, and blessed the audience a couple of times. What worried me the most wasn’t the sermon or standing in front of everyone – it was doing the cross movement correctly. I’m still not sure if it looked great but, hey, I’ve got time to practice.
The service only took fifty minutes and, afterwards, everyone was very gracious and kind to me. Everyone thanked me for coming and wished me luck on my future studies. I thanked them for having me, chatted a bit about the church itself, and even did a little pastoral care as well. And I even snuck a clementine away during coffee hour! It was delicious. I heard some of the history of the church, talked to some of the old ladies, and thanked everyone (over and over again) for having me there. Another church member took me back to the station to catch my return train at 11:17 am. I was back in my apartment by 12:30, in plenty of time for today’s playoff games. Talk about time management.
Anyways, below is the text of the sermon I delivered today. My children’s message was about New Year’s resolutions (and trying to convince the kids that they should try and clean their rooms once a week – their parents were excited about that) and the promises that God gives to us in Baptism. I went further into that theme through the main sermon. I’m not sure how..robust..my sermon was (I wrote it in a few hours on Friday morning) but I’m happy with how it turned out and how I delivered it. I knew very little about the congregation except that it was small and had recently encounter a lot of change. But I did find it strange to write a sermon for a group of people I didn’t know and for a physical space that I knew nothing about. In fact, I’ve never been to that part of Westchester before. It was all brand new to me. But I made it a goal of mine to try and not be so wooden in my delivery. I’m getting better at it.
Today’s Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11.
Let us begin in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Why baptize Jesus?
I mean, it seems strange, doesn’t it? Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, goes to John the Baptist, who is out in the wilderness, and gets baptized. Sure, he wasn’t baptized in the way we are all baptized in the church – John never said “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but that word – baptize – it is the same word we use. For us, it means so much, I mean, it stands for the deepening of our relationship with God. For us Lutherans, we see Baptism as God coming down to us, reaching out to us, and changing us – beginning the process of making us right with God. So why would Jesus, the Son of God, need that? And why would we, as a church, decide that every Sunday after Epiphany in the Church Year, we’ll talk about Jesus’ baptism? Sure, it’s important to the story; it’s in all four gospels. And it’s also important because every gospel writer struggled with it – there are enough differences in each narrative to see that each writer was a little weirded out about the whole thing: and then later in Mark chapter 11, that whole discussion about Jesus’ authority and authority being tie to who baptized him – that shows that the strangeness of this event didn’t just go away. But what about us? Why is Jesus’s baptism important to us, right here, right now, today?
While doing some research, I discovered that this question – it’s been a question that every person in every place has had to wrestle with. The meanings that come from this little incident – well, it’s kind of endless. There is no easy answer here because it is a strange event. And the meaning is, well, it’s like water. It’s fluid, liquid, it seems to move around a lot. In the fourth century, an archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzus, preached on this very issue. And he said something that spoke to me. He said that “[Jesus] needed no purifying rites himself – his purpose was to hallow water.” Jesus’s purpose was to join with the water – to be tied to the elements that we use in our own baptisms and make it holy. For Gregory, the point wasn’t about who was doing the baptizing but rather what Jesus was doing when Jesus entered the water; when he felt it poured on his head; when he he was touched by the waves – and Jesus was changing it. He was making it different. The water was no longer just water but something new.
And that seems to me to be more like the story of Jesus that we know, that we share in, that we are joined into in our own baptisms. That seems more like the Jesus we proclaim – a Jesus not afraid to enter into lives, into our experiences, into our world, and to get a little dirty, a little messy, a little wet, and change things. God doesn’t enter our lives as if we live in a vacuum. God doesn’t erase what is there, or act like we’re a blank slate or as if we don’t live in the world we call home. Instead, God takes a look around, sees who we are, where we are, and enters into a relationship with us by being included into the world, not apart from it. Jesus didn’t turn the water into something other than water. Instead, he hallowed it, he made it holy. He entered into a relationship with it – and brought it to its full potential.
And that’s God’s promise to us in our baptism.
Now, like many of you I’m guessing, I don’t remember my baptism. I don’t remember when the water poured over me. Pictures were taken, of course, and I’ve seen them. I’m all wrapped up in this white poofy thing that’s way too big for me. And in the pictures, my parents are holding me and my brother, and my grandparents are around them too. The priest is there, and so are members of the congregation. And the font – it was just this little old thing. More like a silver bowl than a fountain. But it was there, in that little bath, when I was only six weeks old, that in the water, God made a promise to me. God promised, in the Word and the Sacrament, to nourish me, to embrace me, to standby me, to rebuke me, and to not give up on me. And Lord knows, that’s not a promise I’ve been very good at living up to. When the Holy Spirit descended onto Jesus, and he heard a voice say “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” – how many of us can live up to that? How long does it take for us – to break that statement – when we wake up in the morning? An hour? Thirty Minutes? Or maybe – if you’re like me – you only really get to that point, to be the beloved, after your first cup of coffee. Before that – Lord help us.
But that’s the beauty of this baptism – a promise from God that doesn’t depend on us. It doesn’t depend on our behavior, or who does it, or when it happens. It doesn’t even depend on whether we fully believed when the water was poured over us. Our relationship with God comes fully from God. It’s God taking the initiative, to reach out to us, and to declare to us that we are beloved. We don’t come to Jesus but rather Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes to the water, Jesus makes it holy, Jesus heals, Jesus preaches, Jesus shares in the Kingdom of God, and it is Jesus who ends up on the Cross, crucified, despised, ridiculed, showing that God doesn’t work the way we expect, that God doesn’t do the things we assume God does, but that God enters into those places where we least expect and shows that God hasn’t given up on the world and that Jesus Christ hasn’t given up on us. Jesus is willing to make us new. Jesus is willing to enter into our lives, to see what is there, and to break down the barriers so that we can live out the promise that God has given to each and every one of us.
Now, we know that Jesus was baptized once. And for each of us who have been baptized – it happened to us once too. We don’t do it over and over again even though it might seem right to do so. We’re gonna screw up, we’re gonna make mistakes, we’re gonna end up falling far short from the promise of love that God has given to us. It might seem reasonable for us to rewash ourselves, to try and get that God mojo working on us again, over and over. But baptism – as much as it is an ending, it is really more a beginning. It’s a beginning of our relationship with God, the beginning of when God’s promise reaches out to us and where God claims us as God’s own. It’s not a one-time event as if it’s a magic trick or a power or a force that only hits us once. The dove that descended on Jesus doesn’t leave him. It lives in him, with him, through him. And in our baptism, we are bound to God through, with, and in Jesus Christ. We’re going to feel like we need to have our baptism renewed every day – but that promise of God is given to us unconditionally. We’re going to fall short – but God isn’t. Instead, we’re given the tools to feed us, and nourish us, and refresh us, and help our baptismal promises grow. We’re given the church, we’re given the Bible and the Scriptures, we’re given these four walls, the bread and wine, and the affirmations of our baptism – an affirmation that we will all share in very shortly.
And we’re also given each other.
And that’s the beauty of our baptism. It doesn’t belong only to us. Look around – our baptism is our neighbors baptism. When we’re baptized, we are not baptized to only ourselves. We’re baptized into Christ and into the church – the community of faith that, at its best, prays for us, walks with us, and loves us. And we do the same for others. Sadly, it doesn’t always seem like that – like ourselves, the church has failed to live out it’s own baptismal calling – it’s own calling to proclaim Christ, to love all, to include all, and to share that love with our neighbors, no matter who they are. Because that’s the invitation that we are all given in our baptism. When the water is poured over us three times, and when the community arounds us says the creed, we are invited – in the words of Martin Luther – to be little Christ’s to one another. Because what happens when Jesus is baptized? For Mark, that is the beginning. When Jesus is baptized, the road is set. Jesus’s ministry begins. He leaves the wilderness and reenters the world. He calls and trains disciples. He preaches the Kingdom of God. He welcomes all to his table. He forgives sins. He breaks bread with those who society say are unworthy. He heals the sick, he preaches good news to the poor, he tells all that God has not given up on them. He, above all, loves. And that love – that love that we are given freely – that’s grace. That’s what saves us. And that love – well – since we are loved first – we are invited to reflect that love into every aspect of our lives, into our relationships, and into our world. It’s one of the ways, through us, through our hands, that God helps make this world holy.