NRSV LUKE 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Every Sunday we do our usual Presbyterian thing – you know, Service of the Lord’s Day format, complete with call to worship, hymn of praise, confession, assurance of pardon, then on to scripture readings, sermon, responses to God’s word read and interpreted. It is all so wonderful, something so familiar to all of us traditionalists. And yes, I include myself in that. I know I do a lot of talking about change and being open to new things. But if I didn’t love the traditional way of doing worship I would have stuck to sports writing.
It feels good. It feels familiar. It’s predictable, in the positive sense that we know what is coming next. In a world of rapid change it’s nice to know that somethings stay pretty much the same. And yet I wonder if doing all of that which is good, familiar and predictable doesn’t take away a special sense of worship that is meant to throw us off balance, keep us on our toes, and disorient us in such a way that opens us up to the holy. I think of something Annie Dillard wrote years ago, about how in worship rather than distributing bulletins the ushers should be passing out helmets and HazMat gear, considering the earth changing and life transforming work that is supposed to go on during an encounter with the living God.
In particular, I think about the assurance of pardon after the confession. Even though some of us may wonder why we have to have a prayer that makes us feel bad, others of us see the need to get real with God and lift up our shortcomings so that we might experience the grace of God more vividly. After that comes the assurance of pardon – words that assure us that God has heard our pleas and has extended to us forgiveness. But it is also supposed to say something else. It is supposed to say something like, “Now go out and live differently. Now go out and live in the new life God has given to you through Jesus Christ.”
It’s that ‘new life’ thing that may bother us. It may sound nice. Yes, we like to think of taking on something new and exciting, something will give us all kinds of warm fuzzies. But in this context I wonder if that doesn’t come across as kind of a threat, or worse something that people give lip service to but have no desire to pursue. Do we really want new life? I mean, really? We like the old ways of doing things, we like that which is predictable, that which is as comfortable as an old blanket. New life? Okay, as long as it doesn’t ask too much of us. As long as we can treat people the same ways we always have. As long as we can keep doing things the ways we always have. As long as we can keep up with the same old habits that make life easy. Just don’t take away our security blanket, Jesus, if you please.
And yet that’s where we are. Here, in the early days of the month of January, that month named after the Greek god Janus, who looked both forward and backward. It is so much like us as we start a new year. We make all kinds of New Year’s resolutions, and I wonder how yours are going? Mine are okay, but not that great. I would like them to be moving along better, and not just backwards. That’s the way it is with New Years’ Resolutions. They are fine, honorable and noble (some of them; others are just excessive ego exercises); they can be good ways for us to live into a new year filled with new possibilities and potentials. But like Janus who looked forward but also looked backward we have all that old stuff hanging on. We carry old baggage into a new year. We may think we are new people but the same old grudges, the same old resentments, the same old prejudices, the same old hurts that we have piled up over the years continue to afflict and haunt us.
A new year with new life? Sound wonderful but let’s face it, it’s tough. I remember hearing from someone in the waning years of 2018 talking about New Year’s resolutions, and he said they were fine but they had to come with something deeper than making a list of how much weight you wanted to lose or how much you wanted to quit being critical of someone else. It has to come with a new set of habits, this expert said; you have to change the ways you do things and the ways you think about things, in order for something new to happen. It doesn’t just occur. You have to work at it, and you have to work deeply at it.
The first Sunday after January 6th – the Day of Epiphany – has been known in our liturgical circles as the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. It is the day to remember the baptism of Jesus, and reflect on what it means in our lives. It is significant that we look at this story in these first few days of the calendar year. This story, which is at the beginning of all three of the Synoptic (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Gospels. They all have it, and when all three of these Gospels have the same story, that means it is very, very important.
We might wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized since he was without sin, but that shows that maybe our understanding of baptism needs some work. We are not baptized to make us immune from sin, but to declare that even when sin touches us God has a claim on us. Nothing takes that away. Our baptism marks our inclusion into the kingdom, reign, the fellowship, the family of God. Jesus is baptized as one of us just as he is God taking on flesh as one of us. His baptism unites us with God’s love in a way that nothing else could accomplish.
When we start off a new year around here, we have this special service. It’s an opportunity for us to reaffirm our baptismal vows. Not to re-baptize ourselves – that would be very unPresbyterian. We trust God’s grace that touched us when we were young, very young, maybe too young to know what was going on. But that’s what made it grace; we didn’t earn it, we didn’t have to figure it out. It was just given. That’s the beauty of infant baptism. And that grace does not have a statute of limitations on it. It comes with the congregation gathered for worship, and it is the sign and seal of our inclusion into the kingdom of God.
But for those of us who do not remember that event because we were so young, this service comes up at this time every year for us to reflect on what it means to be baptized, and to recommit ourselves to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the ministry into which we were baptized by name. We remember that just as Jesus was called by the voice from heaven, “Beloved,” so we are also called Beloved by that same voice. You want to know why Jesus was baptized? That’s why. So that we can hear the same voice he did. So that we can claim and reclaim the same title of “Beloved” that he did. So that just as he heard the words, “…with you I am well pleased,” we also hear those same words. Reaffirming our baptismal vows, coming forward for a blessing to start the new year, is our movement to join Jesus, and to receive the new life he gives.
But don’t think that is all comfy and familiar and predictable. There is the Spirit of God at work in our baptisms, and in our reaffirmations. And that is always a presence which is at the same time comforting, disturbing and unpredictable. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you can conceive it, God is probably not in it.” Or as Karoline Lewis wrote:
“Our baptismal observances are rather tame – a few drops of water, a dressed up recipient, parents and sponsors, a candle, and some affirmative words from the congregation, even applause. But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we should not get too comfortable with our baptism. This is not to say that we question God’s intentions, God’s actions, God’s desire to make us God’s child. None of that is ever up from grabs. Rather, it’s to say that God choosing to be with us, or God choosing to be one of us, or God choosing to make us God’s own, should be its own epiphany. We get to see the true character of God, our God who would risk security and safety, laud and honor, distance and determination, so that God would know what it means to be among us and be us. Baptism is boundary crossing. Baptism is risk. Baptism is God’s presence when we may not want God so close. If we are honest, the heavens opening can be good news and not such good news, depending how close you want God to be, what you want God to see, and who you want God to think you are.”
But even in those moments where we move into the living out of our baptisms with fear and trembling and, yes, more than just a little bit of reluctance, the love of God still beckons, calls and embraces. Jill Duffield wrote of a time when she took the very dangerous step of attending a worship service in which folks were “slain in the Spirit.” She said that it started off very slowly then ascended into a crescendo of people praying in tongues, and her sitting there bowing her head in prayer, just trying to make it through this very disorienting experience.
But then something happened. She wrote: “I began to pray and as I did the loud sounds, the odd syllables, the myriad of voices and vocalizations began to feel not frightening but comforting. I felt a sense of the Holy Spirit in that place. How about that? Perhaps someone was in charge and that someone was God. I do not recall exactly what I prayed that day, but I do know it was during a season when my children were very young and stress was very high. I do know I prayed for peace and discernment and a sense that God was working through what often felt like sleep deprived chaos. I know I lost track of time and was startled when a woman who’d been in the front came and sat beside me. ‘God gave me a word for you,’ she said. Then she proceeded to reiterate to me much of what I had prayed about – not word for word, not exactly, but strikingly spot on. Then she said: ‘God wants you to know you are where you are supposed to be. God is with you.’ Not a burning bush with explicit instruction, but that morning it felt undeniably like a word straight from heaven, a reassurance that God knew me, loved me and had not abandoned me.”
I’ve never been in a service like that, but I know what it is like to live a life filled with stress and sleep-deprived chaos. And yet I – and I think you too – know what it is like when in the midst of that the word of God comes; it comes from within or it comes from a friend or a family member or someone we barely know. A word that assures, a word that gives new life, a word that reminds us that we are all the Beloved of God. A word that reconnects us with our baptism, the sign and seal that we are never alone. Amen.