January 7 2018 Sermon
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
29:1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
29:2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
29:3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
29:4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
29:5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
29:6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
29:7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
29:8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
29:9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
29:10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
1:10 And 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.
1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen. Please be seated.
This week as I prepared the liturgy for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I was quite mindful of the rivers that hold prominence in our lives. Did you see the newspaper, with Kingston Springs’ new town motto? The heart of the Harpeth. There’s no doubt that the Harpeth River is a cornerstone to the identity of those that call Kingston Springs their home. Well the Jordan River is comparable in size and prominence to those both ancient and contemporary who call Judea home.
The Jordan River was the boundary that Moses and the Israelites crossed when they entered into the Promised Land. “A miracle was reported the day that the Israelites crossed the Jordan River-as the Arc of the Covenant was carried into the river, water stopped flowing and the Israelites crossed to safety just as they had done when fleeing Egypt.
There in the middle of the river, Joshua, Moses’ successor in leading the Israelites, instructs men from the 12 tribes of Israel to pick up rocks from the river bed and to carry them until the community made their camp in the holy land. The rocks would become a sign to the children who asked, what are these for? And the elders reply, these help us remember when the Lord God stopped the Jordan River for us to pass into this land flowing with milk and honey. And it’s reported that Joshua took 12 rocks himself and placed them together as an altar on the river bed to commemorate the Lord’s action that day.
Mrs. Peggy Deal, whose life we celebrated about a year ago, had a transformative experience when she waded out into the Jordan River in Israel. Her pastors and friends recounted how meaningful it was for her to be cleansed in the river where Jesus was baptized. I have not waded into the Jordan River myself. I have not stood on its banks watching pilgrims wade out to be baptized by waiting priests. I have not stood on the banks of the Dead Sea where the Jordan River completes its journey through the Holy Land.
But due to the thoughtfulness of a retired pastor, there is about three ounces of Jordan River water in a brown medicine bottle that has gone with me to every pastoral appointment. Reverend Charles Swadley knew that times would emerge when adding a few drops of Jordan River font to the baptismal font when the congregation celebrates the baptismal covenant with a child and family would be particularly meaningful. He knew that it would provide texture to a community of faith called to renew the promises of baptism on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
Just as I did when we baptized Alice Arnold, Olivia Brophy, Micah Taylor, and Nolan Pettit, I placed a few of those drops into our font this morning so that when you come forward to splash your hands in the font, dip your hands in the water and make the sign of the cross on the back of your hand or forehead, or take one of the beads you might sense the presence of Christ in your life. There’s nothing holy about the water from Israel-it doesn’t have special powers but it can be a sign or guidepost to help you see and touch the grace of God at work transforming your life as it did the day that Jesus’ cousin thrust him into the murky water, raised him out of it, and all the bystanders on the banks watched the heavens render apart and God’s Spirit descend like a dove.”
As one of our church’s two sacraments, outward signs of God’s grace, there is plenty that could be said about baptism-what it is, what it does, why we do it, how Christians over the centuries have practiced this ritual cleansing, how much water is needed to make it work, and what it can mean for those who seek to follow Jesus. Suffice it to say that baptism marks us as some of Jesus’ people, beloved and well-pleasing to the eyes of God. It’s a gift in which we freely experience the life-giving and liberating grace of God. If I were to say much more about it, I’m afraid away I’d explain away the mystery and awe.
A few years ago, I had the holy privilege of co-presiding at a baptism of a very young child. She wasn’t quite an infant but still young enough to be considered a baby. This was before I was a father so my baby handling skills weren’t nearly as good as they are now. In addition to praying through parts of the Thanksgiving Over the Water, my pastoral colleagues insisted that I should be the pastor to hold the child for the duration of the baptism. So when the time came, her parents handed her to me and I propped her up in the crook of my arm waiting for the time in the liturgy to baptize her. She had on the most beautiful dress, the kind that a grandmother painstakingly sought out to commemorate such a holy ritual.
After baptizing her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then doing a laying on of hands praying for the Holy Spirit to work through her, there was a little bit more to be said. As I waited for the liturgy to conclude before walking down the aisle with the child so she could see and be seen by her brothers and sisters in Christ, she wanted to play in the waters of baptism. She didn’t want to just put a finger in, she wanted to crawl out of my arms and get into the font. I twisted and turned thinking I could keep her calm enough for the liturgy to end. It didn’t work, so I turned completely around and let her lean in splashing with great vigor in the waters of baptism. She was absolutely delighted. I thought to myself, I hope every person who comes to the waters of baptism delights in the same way at such an experience of the grace of God.
She was laughing and giggling. I was grinning from ear to ear. I think the congregation was laughing. And I’m sure God was smiling at the beloved child, well-pleased to pour out grace upon grace into her life.
The affirmations we make today about the stunning and reckless grace of God at work in baptism are because of what we see God do in Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s not John who speaks a word of affirmation to Jesus. It’s when God tears the heavens apart that a word of affirmation and delight is spoken to Jesus. Baptism is God’s doing. It’s God’s gift. It’s God’s way of claiming us and once that claim is made, it’s life changing. It’s an unwavering act of blessing that gives identity and worth. That’s a mighty good word in a world that is starving for affirmation and used to getting ‘Likes’ on Facebook and retweets on Twitter.
Baptism is God’s gift of worth for those who feel worthless. It’s an act of grace that creates identity which can’t be stripped away. It’s the eternal act of belonging to God’s people.
Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.