15 January 2017

Baptism of the Lord

Sermon by Canon H. Stuart Pike
St. Luke's Church, 15 January 2017
Photo Credit: Waiting for the Word on Flickr.com

Baptisms are one of my favorite things to do.

I’ll never forget the baptism of one tiny little infant in my first parish. She was a young one and the whole congregation was excited. Baptisms were a rare event in this little wooden Church by the sea. We were all too familiar with burying our people. We were used to endings, and beginnings were so much more joyous.

The parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and friends had swelled the congregation to five times its usual size.

All of the action was happening at about chest-height - perhaps four feet off the ground - the same height as the baptismal font. The water was poured into the font, the prayers of blessing were said over the water. The baby was carried at this four-foot level and passed on from mother to priest at about the same height.

But down below this level was a little tyke - about three years old and perhaps three feet high. He was the infant’s older brother. He was remarkably well behaved. But perhaps this was because, apart from his tiny sister, he was the only child in the building.

While all of the action happened over his head, he stood up on tippy-toes, craning his neck to see what was going on. He silently went from holding his Dad’s hand, to holding his mother’s hand, trying to find the best vantage point, but he remained perfectly silent.

As I poured the water over her head, three times, I said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And everyone said, “Amen.” And I made the sign of the cross on her forehead with the oil of sacred chrism as I said, “I sign you with the cross, and mark you as Christ’s own forever.

At this point the little boy’s patience seemed to have found its end and he yanked on my robe and said in a little voice, “Let me see.”

The whole congregation watched as I knelt down on one knee and he finally was able to look down on his sister’s face still glistening from the water and the holy oil. She was silent, but her eyes were open, without focus, but pointed toward her brother.

The boy broke out into a smile and, in a voice which everyone in that little Church could hear, he said, “My new little sister.” and laughed with pure joy.

The whole congregation laughed with him, except for both grandmothers who simultaneously burst into tears.

Yes, well, that little boy got it right.

His sister wasn’t only quite newly born - she was just reborn.

Baptism is about re-birth and new life.

But when John was baptizing people in the Jordan river, his baptism was about repentance and the washing away of sins. John was preparing the way of the Lord, and while as everyone was asking him if he was the messiah, he kept on telling them that no, he was preparing them for the coming of the real messiah. He wasn’t even worthy to untie his sandals, he said. And they all needed to be washed clean from their sins before they could receive him
So we can understand John’s surprise when Jesus comes and stands in line, just like everyone else, and asks John to baptize him.

“But”, John says, “I should be the one baptized by you.”

How on earth could he possibly wash away Jesus’ sins, he thought.

But Jesus knew that baptism was going to mean a whole lot more than the washing away of sins. Baptism was about death and life. It was about creation and recreation.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the water. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.”
                                                                         (Genesis 1: 1-3)

Water, to the Jews represented chaos. But when God’s voice spoke, he created the world out of chaos.

In going down under the waters of baptism, Jesus was going down to a kind of death. By submitting to John’s baptism, he was taking a step into the void. He was giving up his control and rushing into his seemingly chaotic life which would end with his death in the not too distant future.

But, like in Genesis, God spoke and Jesus heard God’s voice calling him, “My son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s creative voice is making a new creation.

We know the story of Jesus’ life: we know how he gave and healed. We know about his courage and even his fears. We know about his passion for justice and about his vision of God’s kingdom, which turns our world and our values upside down. And all of his ministry starts from the point of his baptism.
Baptism is a new creation, and it is a call to ministry, but it is also a call to risk..

Daniel Chambers tells this story:

‑One evening the New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary visited a high school youth group. After the professor finished speaking about the significance of Christ's baptism as a revelation of God's presence in Jesus, a high school student said without looking up, "That ain't what it means." Glad that the student had been listening enough to disagree, the professor asked,

"What do you think it means?"
"The story says that the heavens were opened, right?"
"The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God came down, right?"
"That's right."

The boy finally looked up and leaned forward, saying, "It means that God is on the loose in the world. And it is dangerous."

Baptism is a dangerous thing: it means that God is loose in your life, and you can’t just depend on things being the same. Baptism means to you and me that we are called to some kind of ministry in the world.

Baptism means stepping into the void and trusting that God will recreate anew out of the chaos. And this chaos and renewal can happen to us again and again.

Ultimately, baptism does mean that we, like Jesus, will burst up through the surface of the water to new life and will hear God’s creative voice, “You are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.       

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