30 January 2010

Baptism of the Lord

Sermon for 10 January 2010

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

By Sharyn Hall

In very early Christian paintings, the baptism of Jesus often is represented by two figures standing knee-deep in the waters of the River Jordan. John the Baptist is clothed in animal skins, and Jesus wears a simple robe. John is pouring water over Jesus as he stands in prayer. Often a descending dove appears above Jesus to represent God’s blessing of the Holy Spirit upon his beloved Son. This image of the baptism of Jesus has stayed in the Christian faith for centuries, and can be found in stained glass windows in numerous churches. The picture of John and Jesus in the Jordan presents us with the complete image of baptism, and yet we often forget that baptism is two-fold.

The figure of John represents the need for repentance in our lives. Repentance is not about groveling in the dust. Repentance is about turning away from soul-destroying desires, and seeking the saving grace of God. John’s prophetic role was to prepare the people for the presence of God in the form of a human being. John’s call for repentance was symbolized by the cleansing with water, which was an ancient Jewish custom. John the Baptizer transforms the old ritual of purification by water into a new ritual of preparation by water for a new experience of God.

Many people think of baptism as essentially washing away sin, but that is only John‘s side of the picture. That is what humanity is called to do, to walk toward God by stepping into the River, and by seeking a renewed relationship with God. That is the preparation for the Jesus side of the picture.

We can see God’s response to those who seek God in the figure of Jesus. God identifies Jesus as God’s presence within humanity. Jesus brings to humanity the possibility of a new creation. Sometimes in trying to describe the significance of the baptism of Jesus, we may slip into theological jargon and talk about the eschatological meaning of Jesus as the new Adam, Jesus embodying the perfection of creation as originally envisioned by God. But what does that mean for you and me?

Thankfully it can mean the possibility of new life every time we turn to God. The power of the Holy Spirit given by God to Jesus can be active in our lives because Jesus also was a human being. The gift of the Holy Spirit can be ours if we turn toward God and seek that new life. The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan gives us the model for living a baptized life. First, listen to John and renounce all that draws us away from God, then turn toward the Way of Jesus, the one who brings new life to God’s creation. Our baptism is about newness given by the grace of God. We are baptized only once with the ritual of water and the Holy Trinity, but the power and potential of baptism is renewable and life-long. Again and again we can be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, we have a part to play in that renewal. We need to take that first step to follow Jesus and seek the grace of God in our lives.

This past Wednesday, I travelled to Toronto on the GO train arriving in Union Station at about 5:15 pm. I made my way through a crush of people in the train station to the subway platform. There I boarded a packed subway train to Trinity College, where I was scheduled to teach a class to Divinity students with a colleague from Toronto.

When I arrived at the College, I went directly to the lovely Gothic chapel where the choral evensong was already in progress. Sitting at the back of the chapel, my thoughts were distracted by memories, memories of when I sang in the chapel choir many years ago as an undergraduate in the 1960’s, memories of when I returned to Trinity College in the 1990’s as a Divinity student and participated in services in the chapel.

The memories were pleasant and nostalgic, but also I was struck by the great contrast between the serene chapel service and the hectic rush of people in Union Station. Those people experience that stressful pace of travelling to and from work nearly every day of their lives. They seemed so far removed from the serenity of the chapel. Does that mean that they are far away from God?

I guessed that attending a chapel service would be last on their to-do list for the day. They just wanted to get home, make dinner, maybe watch television, go to bed and start again in the morning. As I sat listening to the service in the chapel, I felt that I had just experienced two different worlds, the fast-paced world of life in our secular society in which the search for happiness is defined by the criteria for success, and the world where people step away from the hectic pace of secular life to seek the presence of God. The juxtaposition of these two worlds seemed to emphasize the distance between them. How do we bring those two worlds closer together?

Many people in our society say they believe in God. Many people say they are baptized Christians, but they see no connection between their baptism and their daily lives. That is one of the greatest challenges of Christ’s church today. In whatever way the Christian community opens its doors to a renewed relationship with God, the individual person must be willing to step inside. Our job as a Christian parish is to keep the doors open, to welcome those who venture in, and to be willing to keep the spirit of baptism alive in our parish community.

We all need to listen to John the Baptist, to repent in our daily lives, to turn toward God, and to spiritually step into the River Jordan again. We all need to stand with Jesus, to study the wisdom of his Way to God, and to continue his mission today. Then perhaps more people will seek the serenity of God. They will take a few moments for prayer in their busy days, and possibly they will decide that it is worth getting up on Sunday morning to find out why some people go to church. As we begin this new decade in the 21st century, we can help make that happen by our faithful witness to God in our lives, and in our commitment to make this parish community renewed again and again through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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