January 12, 2014
In a few moments, we will share the somewhat unusual joy of celebrating not one but FIVE baptisms! It is exciting. I suspect that most people here, like me, were baptized as babies, and don’t have many memories of the event, so it’s great fun to be involved in this event where many of the people who are actively participating in the process can say for themselves that this what they want. It makes me curious about how many of us, who were dragged to fonts or rivers or whatever as infants would have actually sought out baptism if other people hadn’t chosen it for us.
What difference does it actually make to be baptized? How is your daily life affected by your baptism? I’m genuinely interested in hearing answers to that. Unlike many denominations, Lutherans don’t say that baptism is your ticket into heaven. We don’t say that it is a force field that will protect you from all harm and danger. We don’t say it’s a symbolic gesture or rite of passage. We don’t say it will prevent you from ever sinning again. Even if we wish it did some or all those things, it doesn’t. So what’s it for?
John the Baptist told his followers that he baptized with water for the forgiveness of sin, but one who was coming after him would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s version of the story Jesus says that he needs to be baptized in order to fulfill all of God’s promises. Like the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading, centuries of faithful people waited for the Messiah to come to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and sight to the blind. And at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the Gospel writer says, the heavens were opened, and all that separated God from people was erased–the division between the secular and the holy were torn apart. The good news for us is that the heavens have never closed back up.
Jesus is claimed here as God’s beloved child, and we are witnesses to how he lived into that identity, to what he said and did with that identity on this earth. He fed hungry people. He healed the sick. He spent time with the lonely, forgave those who were eaten up with guilt, and brought life out of death. He never once used his power to hurt anyone, even when they hurt him. Isaiah describes a savior who would be gentle with the dimly burning wicks and the fragile reeds, and Jesus was. And is. At times, Jesus was one himself. It is Jesus’ willingness to take on our fragility and mortality rather than to condemn us for it that compels me to love and follow Jesus, to testify to what I have heard and experienced and believe about a gracious God.
And I think that is what baptism does for us. The truth is, when the waters of baptism are poured over our heads, we too are called beloved children of God, and are commissioned to be ministers, just as Jesus was. Either we promised or others promised on our behalf, that we would “live among God’s faithful people, hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in word and deed, serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” That is what it means to live into our identities as God’s children. It isn’t about getting into heaven. It’s about living a meaningful, hopeful life here on earth.
You know as well as I do that, despite the great joy and beauty in God’s imaginative creation, terrible things happen here on earth. The coffee we drink, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear sometimes come to us cheaply because other people have endured horrendous working conditions and slave wages to get them to us. Those who are perceived as weak or different are fair game for bullying and mistreatment. Around the world right now, women and children are being hurt and killed by men who claim to love them. Elders, prisoners, and the mentally ill are being neglected or abused by their caregivers. Refugees are being slaughtered in the camps that are supposed to keep them safe. The very earth and water that sustain life for all creatures are being exploited for profit and poisoned with toxic chemicals and waste. Our repeated failure to speak out against this kind of violence and corruption is silent assent to it.
Some of the terrible things that happen in our lives, in our world, are things we ourselves set in motion, deliberately or inadvertently. How many of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions? How many of us didn’t even pretend we were going to try to change a destructive habit or add a healthy one? Even when we don’t mean to, we find ourselves participating in sin, because sin is the tendency to curve inwards on ourselves while neglecting the needs and best interests of others. There is not one person in this room whose record is spotless. We are and will always be like Lady MacBeth, scrubbing and scrubbing at the blood on our hands, wishing it away, but finding the stain is still there.
Yet louder than any voice that screams out that we are sinners in a sinful world, is the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” We are wrapped up in God’s love, sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. No matter what else happens to us, this has happened to us. It is who we are. It is home. And in this home, we are connected to all of God’s other beloved children—our sisters and brothers in faith. In water and word we all receive all the grace and empowerment needed to live lives that testify to the Light.
You may feel inadequate and unprepared to live your faith as a testimony to the light in a public way. That’s OK. You have been given all you need. Even at our most insecure and unstable, the waters of baptism bear us up. Even when we feel like we’re falling apart, we are God’s own beloved children, and we are not in this alone. So whenever we get discouraged or panicky about what God is calling us to do, we need to pause and help each other hear God calling us again by name, “Beloved.” Feel the tender presence of a dove descending on you. Recognize that there is no obstacle between earth and heaven, between God and God’s people. Because THIS is what baptism is for! It’s not a good luck charm. It’s not a golden ticket into heaven. It is a pathway to living hopefully in a messed up world. It is precisely because of our own inability to wash ourselves clean, to make ourselves good and pure, that God came among us at Christmas, which we recently celebrated. God did not come to humanity with scythe to cut us down, but with the cries of a new-born, with hope and renewal and promise.
In the same way, we say that baptism is God’s action that reaching out to us, rather than our reaching out to God. We are not primary actors here, but recipients of grace. We need not wait to come to the font when we feel we are ready to claim Jesus. Nor do we seek baptism to show that we are repentant and need God. And we don’t need to be re-baptized every time we turn away from God, (otherwise I’d do nothing but baptisms every day of the week). In the Lutheran tradition there is one baptism, and through it we belong to God and God’s own forever. We believe that it is not our intention, but God’s intention, that is at work in this sacrament.
That’s why it’s OK to baptize babies before they have any idea what’s going on. Parents and sponsors speak for the child to remind themselves and the church at large that God is at work in us and for us, whether or not we have the where-with-all to know we need it. And it’s also OK for adults and older children to come to the baptismal waters, even if they worry that they may not be worthy to receive it, or that they aren’t really sure they understand what it means.
Baptism is God’s gift to the unknowing, unsure, undeserving. It’s God’s embrace extended to those who are still far off, welcoming them home. Because really, who would qualify for baptism if we needed to deserve it? Who really understands it? It has been my experience—and maybe some of you can relate—that the times when I really need to know that God cares for me and that I am included in God’s family, I haven’t been in any kind of shape to ask for it.
So I’m wondering if all of us can spend some time thinking about baptism in the coming days. Reflect on your own or one that you have witnessed. What have you promised? Do you remember? Is it important? And I really do want you to get back to me on this: how can we, as the church, nurture one another in the promises we made on someone else’s behalf, or that someone else has made on our behalf? How can we help each other grow up “to live among God’s faithful people, hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper”? What do we need to do to help one another do those things? What kind of programs or education or support is needed to enable us to effectively “proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in word and deed, serve all people, and following the example of Jesus, strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” Because those are big demands. And because it is for such purposes that the Church exists. We have been named and claimed as God’s beloved children in order to mirror Christ’s light to the world. Let’s help each other figure out how to do that, for in the process we will be fulfilling all righteousness.