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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Baptism of Our Lord

The First Sunday after Epiphany (B)
Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-38
Psalm 89:1-29 or 89:20-29
Mark 1:7-11

Do you remember your baptism? Some people do, while many others do not, since we make a practice of baptizing infants as well as adults in the Episcopal church. I do not remember mine. I was about 3 months old. Mom and I had just moved from North Carolina, where my father had been stationed in the Army, to Indiana, to live with my grandparents. Dad was not with us-- he was in Germany, part of the peacekeeping forces sent there during the building of the Berlin Wall.

So he was not with us that chilly November day when I was baptized. Nor do I have any memory of it. I do not recall hearing the promises made on my behalf, nor the feel of the water being poured over my head. What I do have are pictures of the day-- a dark-haired baby, dressed in a little white gown with delicate pintucking, being held by mother, or grandparents, or godparents. And I have the word of those good people, who told me of their promises, and taught me, and raised me in faith.

I do remember other baptisms I've attended over the years-- for my own children, of course, and many others as well. A few times, I have stood as a sponsor, presenting a candidate as my godparents did me. More often, I have simply been a witness, promising "to do all in my power to uphold these persons in their life in Christ." This promise, by the way, is not a commitment unique to baptism; when you come right down to it, it is a promise that binds every Christian, to love and care for one another. It is something to remember, even if it is not perhaps the most memorable part of the service.

The gospel story we hear this morning would certainly have been memorable to those who witnessed it. Picture the scene with me, please. I've not ever been there, but the pictures I've seen of the Jordan look a lot like rivers in the western United States. Shallow and rocky at points, surrounded by hills and scrubby bushes and stony ground.

Now imagine: people are gathered on the river bank as John stands in the water, waiting for the next follower to come to him to be baptized. And then Jesus wades out, not looking any different than any other man there -- until John immerses him in the water and pulls him up. Then the heavens are torn open, and the holy Spirit descends upon him accompanied by the voice of God! Understand, my brothers and sisters, that this is not a simple parting of the clouds that John describes. The word in Greek is a form of scidzo, meaning to cleave apart, to split into factions. It is where our word "schism" originates. As Mark describes it, this was a dramatic moment, this tearing open of the heavens. Incidentally, Mark only uses this word one other time: at Jesus’ crucifixion, when he tells us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. The movement of the Spirit is a powerful thing.

That moment, I think, also carries the key to the question of why Jesus was baptized. It certainly was not for the forgiveness of sins, as we understand our baptism to affect for us. But there were other reasons. I can think of a few.

Identification - It was this moment that marked the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and set him distinctly apart for it. He was shown, for the first time as an adult, as God's own Son-- God's own self-- sent to live with us for a purpose.

Example - Jesus never asked anything of his followers that he himself did not first demonstrate. He went where he wanted them to go, did what he wanted them to do, said what he wanted them to say, taught what he wanted them to teach. He wanted us to be baptized, to bury our sins and accept God's grace in new life; so he showed us the way.

Strength - in that moment, in the descent of the Holy Spirit, God's strength was provided for for the taxing days ahead.

Now, unlike Jesus, we do need forgiveness of our sins, and we are certainly need that; but we also have these reasons as well.

Identification - As we say in our baptismal service, we are "sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever."

Witness - Even the smallest, quietest "private" christening is not a solo event. It is attended by witnesses, and noted in a church record. Most often it is a public event - the newly baptized is surrounded by family, and friends, and a community of faith that represents and embodies the larger body of Christ - the "Communion of Saints," the "great cloud of witnesses." It is a public testimony of belief and acceptance.

Strength - gift of the presence of the Spirit in our lives is a crucial thing to a Christian, my brothers and sisters, and not to be dismissed lightly. It is not easy to be a disciple.

In a world of sin and hatred, where people can be cruel and dishonest and ugly and unclean, we are called to love everyone, without exception, and without limitation.

In a world that wants to show preference, that wants to define one person, or race, or gender as better than another, we are called to testify as Peter does, that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

In a world where the chosen answer to injustice and oppression often seems to be violence and more oppression, we are called to strive for godly justice, by living and proclaiming God’s peace.

These are messages that are often not popular. These are the messages that led to the cross. So we need all the help we can get! The Good news is that God offers us that help. In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we are shown what we need, and exactly where to find it. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are given free access, every moment of our lives. We need only reach out to claim it. We do that at our baptism, and that claim is renewed -- we are renewed -- every time we come to the Table.

In a few minutes, we will do just that. We will renew our baptismal vows. We will stand and affirm the promises we made, or that were made for us. We will acknowledge the forgiveness of our sins, and then pledge before Almighty God to live the lives to which we are called. Then we will come together at the Table, to be strengthened and renewed as Jesus’ disciples in the world.

This is our challenge, my brothers and sisters-- and our gift. Thanks be to God!


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