Friday, January 9, 2009

Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord (11 January 2009)

Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord (11 January 2009)
(Genesis 1:1-5/Psalm 29/Acts 19:1-7/Mark 1:4-11)
It’s Not The Rotary Club

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A dear friend and brother is a Rotarian – a member of Rotary International, a century old service organization with over 1.2 million members: Service Above Self is the Rotary motto. Among many other service programs, Rotary has dedicated itself to the worldwide eradication of polio; they are almost there and the $100 million matching grant they recently received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should enable them to accomplish the goal. My friend’s local Rotary club also boasts many impressive philanthropic, humanitarian, and educational activities, both domestic and international. From everything I can learn, Rotary is an exemplary organization. But, it’s not the church, as Bishop Will Willimon points out.

When one joins the Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn (William Willimon, Christ Means Change).

This is Christian baptism – the Christian rite of initiation – that Willimon is speaking about, of course, and it is strange stuff. If anything, Willimon actually underplays its strangeness.

There’s this really bizarre and totally unbiblical idea running around both outside and inside the church that says the church should be some kind of inclusive, accepting, “big tent” society to which all are welcomed without reservation and without condition. Well, that’s absolute foolishness and baptism puts the lie to it. If you think you can get in the church on your own terms, just as you are, well, as we say in the South, “You’ve got another think comin’.” The church isn’t a come-as-you-are party.

“Young man – yes, you with the three girlfriends that you’re hooking up with – the church has some strange notions about sex. There’s this little thing called chastity that we’re pretty serious about. You’re going to have to change your ways to get in here. And you, too, young lady: put some clothes on and stay out of the bars on Friday night. We think pretty highly of decency. Mr. Businessman, we need to have a serious talk about how you treat your employees, about how you’ve clawed your way to the top and crushed competitors in the process, and about the whole issue of greed. The church has a lot to say about riches – at least our Lord had a lot to say about riches – and you’re not going to like a lot of what you hear. Some things are going to have to change if you want to be part of the family. Mrs. Smith, frankly, Mr. Smith seems to be a pretty lousy excuse for a husband and we know he’s hurt you time and again. But the grudge you’re nursing and the anger you’re holding on to – well, they pretty effectively bar the door of the church to you. They are too big and too wide for you to carry them through the door. You’re going to have to lay them down to come in here.”

Now, lest you think I’m being harsh here, listen to John – the one to whom Jesus, himself, came for baptism:

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’ (Luke 3:7-14, NRSV).

It works this way: all are welcomed to the waters of baptism, but there’s a certain path you have to walk to get there – the path of repentance, the path of change. You have to change your mind about who you are, about what’s important to you, about the way you’ve lived your life up to now, and about how you plan to live it from here on out. You have to acknowledge that you’re sick – terminally ill – and addicted to attitudes and behaviors that are destroying you and over which you have no power. And you have to admit that you are complicit in and responsible for this illness and addiction. The church may not use this language; it may instead ask you to confess that you are a sinner and that you have no power to save yourself – same thing, different words. In this, the church looks a lot more like AA than like the Rotary Club. This isn’t something arbitrary that the church insists on – repentance as a prerequisite for being allowed to come to Jesus. No, repentance is itself the way to Jesus, the only way to Jesus.

When you finally stand before the church and fess up to the fact that you are a whitewashed tomb filled with all manner of rottenness and dead men’s bones, don’t expect to hear, “Oh, no. You’re OK. You’re not really that bad.” No, the church is likely to say, “Yep, you’re a hopeless mess alright, so hopeless that we’re going to have to put you out of your misery. Yep, we’re going to have to kill you. Our preferred method is drowning.” Then the church strips you naked – fully in the early church, just mostly now – and leads you to the water. There they ask for your last words: a renunciation of Satan and all his pomp and an acceptance of Christ. The church is either a bit hard of hearing or else they’re not sure they believe you, so you’ll have to repeat everything three times. Then, like a convicted murderer mounting the gallows you step into the water. The church, in the person of priest or pastor, lays hands on you and forces you under the water in the name of God the Father. He holds you there awhile and only when you’re mostly dead does he raise you up. Then, before you know what’s happening you’re under again, in the name of God the Son as the life in you ebbs further. Up for a quick breath and you are plunged in one final time in the name of God the Holy Spirit and held there until you are completely dead. Then the priest/pastor hauls your lifeless corpse from its watery grave, maybe smears some oil on it and says some words over it – maybe not – and a most remarkable miracle occurs: the Spirit – the Holy Spirit of God – descends upon you and takes residence within you and you are born again as a son or daughter of God, as a partaker in the divine nature. The church won’t let just anyone in; you must be a son or daughter of God to gain admittance.

So there you stand dripping wet, oily, nearly naked. Like on “What Not To Wear” the church takes your old clothes and gives you new ones – in baptism a white robe symbolizing the purity of the saints; and yes, you are one now – a saint – in case you didn’t know. But you are also a baby, an infant. Baptism is new birth, and life and maturity lies ahead; you’ve a long way to go and much to learn and unlearn. It’s not unlike the natural birth process. We used to think that babies arrived as blank slates upon which the parents wrote their hard earned wisdom. Now we know better. Babies come hard-wired in many ways. From birth – long before any learning takes place – some are happy and some are whiney, some gregarious and some timid, some easy to raise and some a constant challenge. So, too, with newborn saints: some are happy and some are whiney, some gregarious and some timid, some easy to raise and some a constant challenge, some in pretty good shape and some an absolute mess. The newborn saints are not blank slates, particularly not those who come to the baptismal waters as adults. They have been formed by years of thought and action. They have ingrained habits and responses: some positive and life-affirming, some negative and destructive, some that may be refined and retained, and some which must be rejected and destroyed. The church has ways of dealing with all this, of course – time-tested and saint-tested ways: prayer, fasting, immersion in Word and Sacrament, worship, service, sacrifice, confession, and more. You can ignore these things and you will be no less a son or daughter of God, but you will remain an infant, which is, of course, not what God has in mind for you at all. Be assured that God does not leave you on your own in the process of growth. In addition to making you part of a family – the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the church – a family that will support you and hold you accountable, God dwells within you in the person of the Holy Spirit who empowers you and directs you – never forces you, but always enables you – to press on toward the high calling of Christ.

All this, and much more, is what happened to you in and through your baptism. And by the way, did I mention the part about eternal life? When our first parents sinned, we – the entire human race – inherited their death sentence: like father, like son, we were bound over to corruption and death. As we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday, dust you are and to dust you shall return. But no more – not for those baptized into Christ Jesus.

3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom 6:3-8, NRSV).

Or there’s this similar promise.

3[For] you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Col 3:3-4, NRSV).

So, let’s take just a minute to step back and summarize the results – just some of the results – of this rather strange rite of baptism.

1. You were forgiven of all past sins and reconciled to God. Paul says it this way: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11, NRSV).

2. You were born again, an example of the new creation that God is even now bringing forth into the world. And this new life in Christ is life everlasting; because Jesus defeated death, he has granted you his same victory. The same power of God that broke the chains of the death on Easter will also raise you up on the last, great day, and thus you shall be forever with the Lord.

3. You were adopted as sons and daughters of God and made partakers of the divine nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Do you remember the words of God to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan?

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV).

Know this: God spoke these same words over you at your own baptism when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended upon you: “You” – and here fill in your own name – “you are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”

4. You were empowered by the Spirit to defeat sin – set free from its bondage – to once again bear the image of God given to men and women in creation and marred by them in the fall.

17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17-18, NRSV).

There is so much more to say, but at some point it seems fitting to fall silent in the presence of this glorious mystery of baptism, to be rendered speechless by the great mercy of God that takes a pool of water and a bit of oil and calls forth from them such a life-giving sacrament of salvation and restoration. But we must say before we fall silent that all this is possible only because of what happened that day when a wild man of a prophet stepped into the water with a carpenter-turned-preacher from Nazareth and, unworthy though he was, plunged the sinless Lamb of God beneath the water. Thanks be to God for the Baptism of our Lord. Thanks be to God for our baptism into our Lord.


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