The Waters of Baptism

“The Waters of Baptism”

John the Baptist – Jesus MAFA

Mark 1:4-11 (1:9) – January 10, 2021

            When you or I think of baptism today, what comes to mind? A family with a precious infant or young child, the little one dressed in a special outfit. The congregation rejoicing as the minister performs the sacrament. Such a special and meaningful way of extending God’s grace.  

            But, let’s go back to our Gospel reading, when John the Baptist preached repentance. Certainly quite a different scene comes to mind. We see John as an outsider, some say a preacher of doom and gloom, and others a mighty prophet of God.

Reading from the Gospel for today, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

            You may remember bracelets and t-shirts with the initials “WWJD” imprinted on them. The words “What Would Jesus Do?” were a Christian, and even pop-culture, trend some years ago. Remembering this trend brings up a valid question. Let’s reframe it into a question about baptism. Who would Jesus exclude? For that matter, who would John turn away from baptism?

            I’d like to develop that question. St. Luke’s Church, our church, is a member church of the United Churches of Christ. This denomination has taken the radical stand of radical welcome. UCC churches are supposed to welcome everyone. That means a radical, open-hearted, open-handed welcome to all people, no matter what. No matter who.

No matter if someone is grumpy, or mean, or stingy. You are welcome here at St. Luke’s Church. No matter if someone is painfully shy, or has some physical or mental infirmity, or has a really strong personality. No matter what your gender or sexual orientation is, either. All are welcome here, in this particular church, too.  

            As we ask “Who Would Jesus Exclude?” from membership in this church, this brings to mind what the Rev. Dr. David Handley often proclaimed from the pulpit in his long tenure at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston. I remember hearing when I was a member there some 15 and 20 years ago. Dr. Handley would often insist in his sermons that the church is not a private club for the righteous, but instead a hospital for sinners.

I mean to say that our church is not to have arbitrary, unspoken rules for who to include and who to exclude from membership. God does not discriminate. God does not blackball prospective members. The UCC has taken the stand of radical welcome to everyone. That means that as a member church of the UCC, St. Luke’s Church takes that stand, too.  

I would like to return to our Gospel reading for this morning. Can you imagine John the Baptist saying, “I’m not baptizing that person!” because John didn’t like him or her? Sure, John had a strong personality. John was headstrong, and determined, and definitely spoke his mind. Many of the Jewish leaders and bigwigs in the Sanhedrin were upset with John the Baptist.

However, I suspect many of the ordinary members of synagogues throughout the region heard John’s message. Some people who had been turned away from synagogues, too. John the Baptist extended that radical welcome – telling all to repent of their sins, get right with God, and come and be baptized as an outward expression of an inward change.

Even some Jewish leaders and synagogue bigwigs heard John’s preaching, and were convicted of their small-minded and biased point of view. Even people John knew who had bad-mouthed and shunned him. I am sure John did not turn them away, but baptized them, too.  

Do you think God was surprised about the conflict in synagogues, and at the Temple? How about the conflict in the early churches? What do you think Paul and Peter, James and John were addressing when they wrote their letters that are included in the New Testament? Sins like hatred, conflict, bitterness and envy do not somehow “scare” God.

Just as in this past week here in the United States, the heightened rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol building did not shock God. God was not surprised or scared of the massive conflict and disruption. God recognizes that people are human. People sin – that is what they do. That is why John the Baptist came, to make people aware of their sin, and to call people to repentance. Baptism lets everyone know about people’s individual, internal change.

This church baptizes infants and small children. As commentator Carolyn Brown says, Infants and children “didn’t even know what was going on; [and] God, their parents, and the congregation loved them and claimed them as their own for all time.” [1] That can be extended to ALL of us. We all have been loved and claimed by God for all time. We are all God’s beloved.

The waters of baptism are here to wash away our sin, in this day and age. And not only that, but to extend God’s grace to those who have gone through the baptismal waters. Yes, we continue to sin, and yes, God does extend grace. We do not become suddenly sin-less, but as we walk with God, we will sin less and less. (At least, that is the hope.)

            I say to you, in the spirit of John the Baptist, Repent, and remember your baptism! Determine to journey with Jesus from this point onwards. Alleluia, amen. 


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/12/year-b-baptism-of-lord-first-sunday.html

Worshiping with Children, Baptism of the Lord, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

In Whom I Delight

“In Whom I Delight”

Matt 3-16 baptism word cloud

Isaiah 42:1-8, Matthew 3:13-17 – January 12, 2020

Most people are familiar with job descriptions. A job description for a bus driver would highlight their ability to be able to transport people safely and efficiently from one place to another. A job description for a magazine editor would feature their skill at editing and synthesizing copy for publication. But, what would the job description be for the Messiah, the Chosen One of the Lord?

We turn to our Gospel reading for this morning, from Matthew chapter 3. We meet Jesus at the very beginning of His public ministry at the River Jordan. He presents Himself to John the Baptist, along with a whole crowd of other people. They all want to be baptized, yes. But, what will Jesus do after baptism? What is His ministry going to look like? Do we know the requirements of His position as Servant of the Lord?

If we step back from this close-up view of Jesus and His cousin John the Baptist, we might be surprised at what we see. John had made a big splash in Jewish society, and in fact that whole geographical region. There were many, many people coming to where he was stationed at the River Jordan. Sure, many of them had heard the fire-and-brimstone way he preached. Many others wanted the first-hand experience with a true prophet of God. He called for serious repentance! Not a simple, breezy “I’m sorry” sort of thing. No, John preached a genuine, heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching repentance.

Isn’t that what you and I are supposed to do, before we come to the waters of baptism? Repent? Follow God? Or, if we are bringing babies or small children to be baptized, aren’t the parents and godparents supposed to answer for the children and affirm that these little ones are going to strive to follow God all the days of their lives? Serious matters. Serious vows.

But, Jesus was sinless! He did not need to be baptized! Why on earth did Jesus do this? Two of the reasons I believe Jesus went through the waters of baptism: He publicly inaugurated His public ministry, and He closely identified with the penitent people of God. How better to let people know that He was one of them than to experience all things in the same way that they did, go through all of life’s ups and downs, striving to live life as God would have Him live it.

Yet, John also prophesied the coming of the Lord’s Messiah—or as translated into Greek, the Christ. The Servant of the Lord, as mentioned by several prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. There has got to be a job description in one of those Servant-of-the-Lord sections. Isn’t there?

Many organizations and businesses have detailed job descriptions for each of their positions. In want-ads on line, you can see details of each job, listing required qualifications, desired expectations, practically everything an applicant would need to know in order to apply for the featured position.

In our Hebrew Scripture reading from Isaiah 42, we see a clear description of the prophesied Servant of the Lord. In other words, a job description for the Messiah. We can also think of this as a checklist for the several years of the Rabbi Jesus’s public ministry.

The first qualification the prophet talks about? “I have called you in righteousness.” This is answered directly by Jesus, in Matthew 3. Why was one of the reasons for Jesus’s baptism? As Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.” I suspect Jesus may have had this very section in Isaiah 42 in mind when he responded to John the Baptist.

We hear this job description repeated again and again, by various prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as prophecy fulfilled in the Gospels. Sort of like a first-century job board. Is it any wonder that many people already knew what was ahead of the Rabbi Jesus as He begins His ministry among the people of Israel?

The prophet Isaiah writes God “will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,” We go back to that jam-packed chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. After the angels and the shepherds went away, Mary and Joseph took the eight-day old baby Jesus to be presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. When he saw this Baby, the devout man Simeon also made a prophesy about this Gift from God. It is almost word-for-word out of Isaiah 42. Simeon said “For my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” As Luke said, Simeon had been told by the Lord that he would live to see the Messiah. Lo and behold, when Mary and Joseph brought the Baby into the Temple, Simeon was there, to be a witness.

Another phrase from Isaiah 42: “to open eyes that are blind.” A number of times in the Gospels, we see Jesus healing people who are blind, restoring their sight. One of these healings is recorded in John 9, where Jesus publicly heals a man born blind, and argues with the religious leaders while He was doing the healing. (Plus, an editorial comment: I cannot believe Jesus would heal anyone’s sight to less than 20/20. Perfect sight.)
The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Servant of the Lord would “free captives from prison and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” When Jesus proclaimed in His hometown synagogue that He was the Servant of the Lord, He read from another section of Isaiah. Jesus said these same words: He would free the captives and set the oppressed free.
Last but certainly not least, Isaiah 42 begins with a summary statement: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” Could this be any more clearly the voice of the Lord, echoing across the waters of the River Jordan? “A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” What love. What affirmation. What blessing.

If only we all could have that approval from our earthly parents and families. As one of my favorite commentators David Lose said, “Baptism is nothing less than the promise that we are God’s beloved children. That no matter where we go, God will be with us.” [1]

Certain job descriptions designate people with specific titles or names. I suspect you are familiar with a number of them, too. “Nurse,” “doctor,” “judge,” “teacher,” and even “pastor.” Jesus had the job titles “rabbi,” “teacher” and even “Messiah” or “Christ.” Names or titles are important; some lifting up, and others tearing down.

Think of the various titles or names you have had in your life, as will I. Were all those names or titles positive, good, or helpful? Or, were some of these hurtful, hateful, or demeaning? Some of these names or titles can stay in the memory for years, or even longer, when said in a mean or nasty way. Think of names or titles like “Stupid” or “Egghead,” “Fatso” or “Ugly.” Names like “Loser” or “Prissy,” “Know-it-all” or “Victim”.

As I remind all of us about these negative, hateful names or titles, and we sit with them for a moment, it is just for a moment. Each of us has a God-inspired job description, too. Each of us has the title or name of beloved child. Think about it. We may hold this title, this name, to our hearts—Christian. What an affirmation. What a blessing!

Just as Jesus had the title God’s beloved in His job description, so do we. We have God’s word on it.  

(I would like to thank the commentator David Lose for his article on the Baptism of Jesus and Matthew 3 from Dear Working Preacher. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1580

“The Power of a Good Name,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

 

 

Baptized, Beloved

“Baptized, Beloved”

luke-3-21-baptismchrist2

Matthew 3:13-17 (3:16) – January 8, 2017

Water. Water is used for a great many things. For washing and cleaning, certainly! Washing clothes and dishes, washing hands before dinner, washing cars in the summertime. Cleaning things, too, like brushing teeth before bed, and cleaning instruments and tools. Water is used for a special, cleansing purpose in the Christian church, too. Water is for cleansing of people, and washing of souls, of body and spirit.

The Gospel of Matthew begins our Scripture passage today with Jesus at the very beginning of His ministry. He comes to the River Jordan, to see His cousin John the Baptist. And what is John doing at the Jordan? Baptizing people, cleansing them while they confess their sins, washing their souls, inside and out.

Let’s back up a bit, and take a look at the passage from Isaiah, from the Hebrew scriptures. Here we have a prophetic suggestion of what is to come; the prophet tells us here in the book of Isaiah about the Sent One of God.

Did you know that God deeply cares about the Sent One? The prophet says so! Listen again to verse 42:6—“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;” We see that God is faithful to God’s promises, and will care for those whom God loves. In fact, God is within the Servant the prophet speaks of, And, God means for this Servant to transform and cleanse the mess the world has been in. [1]

This is awesome news! The mixed-up world will finally be washed and cleansed. Except, Jesus does something completely unexpected. Jesus does not come to cleanse the world, at first. No, Jesus comes to John to be obedient and go through the waters of baptism Himself.

We can see from the Gospel passage that John is really hesitant to baptize Jesus. He says, “No way, Jesus! I oughta be baptized by You! And here You are, coming to me to be baptized?”

I want to remind everyone that Jesus had no sin. He was both God and man at the same time. Yet, Jesus came to be baptized by John. Jesus wanted to identify with sinful humanity in every way. Plus, Jesus wanted to fix the mess the world was in.

Look at verses 6 and 7 of the passage from Isaiah: “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.” That sounds like washing and cleansing this fallen, mixed-up world. That sounds like the mission Jesus had in His ministry here on earth.

But, Jesus is not there yet, at the beginning of Matthew 3. Jesus needs to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. And, what is righteousness? “Compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope—the promise—of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God’s own deep faithfulness and care.” [2]

We can see from the Gospel of Matthew how God has deep faithfulness and care for Jesus, God’s Son. After Jesus convinces John to baptize Him, the heavens open, the Spirit of God as a heavenly dove descends, and God the Father says, “This is my Beloved!”

Let us imagine ourselves in that crowd on the banks of the river, watching the baptisms, as people are cleansed from sin. John is washing their souls, inside and out. Hear the sound of the rushing water. You and I, all of us are crowded together, jostling each other. We watch John the Baptizer, with that new rabbi Jesus, in the water. Suddenly, the heavens break apart! Everyone, all of us in the crowd know the Spirit of God is present, in the likeness of a dove coming down from the sky.

What do you think of when you hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Beloved!” What goes through your head? What kinds of feelings are going through you? Are you scared? Excited? Puzzled? Confused? Or, all of the above?

Think of baptisms we have seen, even participated in. Do you think baptisms are just an excuse for gifts and a party? Or, does baptism mean much more? Consider your own baptism in light of this Gospel reading. Now, think of the others in this congregation, too. Close your eyes. Think of God saying to you—yes, to you in particular—“You are my Beloved!”

            God is saying that to each one of you. Really and truly.

I found this story on a pastor’s sermon board, online. It was written a number of years ago by a Pastor Del in Iowa. He tells the story of his grandmother’s death, and his subsequent desire to find out more about his grandparents’ families.

“I began to ask questions about my genealogy… about my great grandfather (whose last name was Fahling) whom I remember well from my childhood.

“As I questioned my mother about the family history on my father’s side, she indicated to me that my great grandfather’s real last name is unknown. It seems that he left the old country and came to the New World as a boy, his journey paid for by a farmer with the name of Fahling. Upon crossing the waters of the Atlantic, my great grandfather took up residency with this farmer, labored on his land and took upon himself his sponsor’s name and identity and became part of the Fahling family. He even receiving a share in the inheritance of the family farm.

“At first I was disappointed with the loss of a history, but then I realized that in many respects this is the meaning of our baptisms. Crossing the waters, we take on different residency, ordained labors, and new identities and begin a new history. We become an integral part of the family of God through sharing in the baptism of Christ who sponsors and pays for our journey.”[3]

We have several different ways to come to an understanding of baptism. Yes, we have been washed and cleansed from our sins. We have crossed the water. Yes, each of us has been adopted by God. Yes, each of us has a new identity. And, yes, each of us is Beloved, much loved by God, our heavenly Parent.

Consider this last understanding of baptism, about each person, child or adult, in our congregation. And then about each baptized person you know. God considers each one God’s Beloved. Do we consider each one Beloved? Do we treat each person as God’s Beloved? How would that understanding change the way we treat each other?

Not that baptism magically changes us and—presto, change-o—causes us to become Beloved in some magical way. No! We are Beloved because God says we are. Just as God called Jesus Beloved, God refers to each of us in the very same way.

Praise God! I know I am God’s Beloved, the same way you are, too. What a marvelous name. What a fantastic feeling. What a wonderful God we serve.

 

(Thanks to Kathryn Matthews and the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways for several ideas used in this sermon.)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[2] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)