Sermon for January 11, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Most of you are going to be in shock today. Snuggled up in the warmth of your homes last week during an ice storm, unable to navigate your driveway let alone the black ice streets, you missed the story of all that happened after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem that brings us to the story of his baptism as a young adult today. So you have homework to make up. Go home, not now, wait until the last bell rings, then catch up by reading Matthew 2. It’s hard to find Jesus without joining the wise men to follow the star.



         Have you ever noticed how certain rituals are required in order to demonstrate a willingness to be faithful to a group or a club? Like the secret handshake of a campus fraternity, the pricking of fingers as children to become blood brothers or blood sisters, or the lighting of a unity candle and exchange of rings at a wedding, all these symbolize that we’re in this together. Jesus’ baptism was like that. We often think of baptism as a symbolic act of the church that initiates human creatures into new life as Christians. Baptism is surely that, a secret handshake into a life we could not imagine until we got dunked in the river of life.

Initiations surprise us every time. We can’t know until we jump off the high dive as an eight year old what it will feel like when we hit the water. We can’t know what we’ll feel like when we go down into the waters of the river Jordan with Jesus and rise dripping wet and shaken, ready to be made useful to a God we do not fully know for a purpose we cannot fully yet see.

Several lifetimes ago my initiation into teaching grade school shocked me. Getting A pluses in teacher preparation classes at the university could never have prepared me for what happened an hour and a half into my first day as a sixth grade teacher. It was right after morning introductions and a fairly successful welcome activity that got the whole class up and moving and glad to be alive and back in school after break. Then it happened. The class lined up for recess and headed twelve feet down the hall, when John Eads picked up Diana and threw her down the stairs. Just like that. Diana lay at the bottom stunned. ”God don’t let that child be dead,” was not exactly the first prayer I had hoped to utter the first day I taught school. She wasn’t. The class froze there in slow motion, until the principal, happening by in the still frame seconds that followed, seized John with a quiet grip on his arm and walked him down the hall and apparently out the door of the school. None of us every saw John Eads again.

Of course we learned that this was the last straw for John, a bully one too many times who unbeknownst to me made sport of making other people’s lives miserable. If you think coming up out of the waters of baptism will lead you to a party in your honor, think again.

Baptism for us, as it was for Jesus, drowns us to an old life that could have been, and initiates us into the life God prepared for us from the beginning of time. God hands us a W-2 Form for our new job as a Christian, with little more job description than Jesus’ invitation to “follow me”.

God invites us into new life much like a grade school teacher facilitating introductions. God wants us to get to know our new boss. Jesus’ baptism introduces him to us. It happened like this. Imagine the scenario. Jesus’ cousin John grew up with the certain knowledge from his mother Elizabeth and Father Zechariah that he would prepare the world for the long prophesied Holy One, the Messiah. John lived the life of what we might think of as a wilderness guide.

You know the kind of man I’m talking about. His way of life caught people’s attention. It was not unlike an encounter I experienced with a gathering of ministers on a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon. One of my colleagues encountered a river runner at the Seven Eleven and embarrassed all of us by asking him if he was in costume for some kind of historic re-enactment, like when we see college students in period costume across the street weaving blankets or making candles on the lawn of the York Historical Society. He was dirty and a bit disheveled from weeks on the river, fingernails blackened from dragging rafts in and out of the water. He wore a ragged canvas jacket with bear claws hanging from a leather rope around his neck. Utterly confused by her question, the river guide kept proclaiming, “I’m not in costume. I guide people down the Grand Canyon. This is my life.”

The Bible tells us that John looked similarly like a wild man at some historic re-enactment. He wore a shirt of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. This grossed people out just about as much as it would people today.

We have no evidence that John or Jesus spoke prior to the time of the baptism, even though they were cousins. John lived in the wilderness and only knew what sign to look for. He did not seem to know what Jesus would look like or when he might appear. John’s mission was to proclaim that the Messiah had come though he had not yet experienced it. The Kingdom of God was a hand. John's baptism then was not primarily a baptism of repentance (the turning away from sin). Instead, the submersion in water prepared and identified persons who asked to be baptized with the coming Messianic Kingdom, with the coming of God’s Messiah and a new kind of Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Those whom John baptized did repent, that is, they turned away from their former life, but more so, they came to join with the coming Messiah and His reign. John taught the necessity of total obedience—even from the spiritual leaders of Israel. His mission was to prepare the way for Jesus to come, not only to take away sin. John initiated those ready to join the Messiah when God sent him into the world.

Jesus asked John to baptize Him simply as an act of obedience to God's purposes. God had given John the promise of a coming Messiah and the way to identify Him. Jesus fulfilled that promise. His baptism was simply the right thing at the right time: the last act of His private life.

Jesus was a human being who had a choice about whether or not to fulfill the purpose of his Father who sent him. He could have said “no”. Through Jesus’ baptism, he proclaimed that his life was no longer his own. He received a new name and a new identity from God, with the words from the gospels of Mark and Luke: “You are my beloved Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”. All four gospels tell of Jesus’ initiation into the work God prepared for him. In Matthew, God addresses the crowd rather than Jesus. Instead of saying “You are my Son,” the gospel records the event second hand as: “This is my son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” And in the gospel according to John, we hear the story third hand from John the Baptist who began to tell everyone after the event what had happened down by the riverside.

“And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Our baptism into the Beloved is our initiation into a purposeful life in the Kindom of God. The Kingdom of God becomes a kindom of relations between wild and hairy men and courageous and bold women who step into the deeps not knowing what will become of us there. What happens to us a consequence of our baptism, our initiation into the Kindom of God exceeds the expectations of the world for a meaningful life. Anybody, anywhere, of any religion, race or national origin can have a merely meaningful life.

“The great civic leader John Gardner gave to the Stanford Alumni Association a speech that exemplified this possibility, 61 years after he graduated from that institution. Among other things he said this:

“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off in character.

“You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.”

As Gardner elaborates on this meaningful life, he concludes with this: “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you…You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

These words reflect the wisdom of the world. Wise and self-empowering words indeed. However, the wisdom of even the wisest of the world’s men and women fall short of the sparkling life of those who follow Christ.

As we listen to the music coming to us from the Jazz tradition today, we are reminded that the wisdom of the world reads like a good book or the daily news, nourishing for a moment and then gone. The Kingdom of God is music, transcending and sustaining as a tune that carries us like an ever-flowing stream on the waters of life.

Listen to the wise of the world, but follow Jesus, into the muddy waters, deep into deep. Rise from the waters dripping wet, hope-filled and shining, expectant for what God will make of you.

I conclude with this image of our life as the initiated in Christ from poet Constance H. Black.

“Now where the Beloved Christ goes, we go

because, as merely human,

we have been taken up with His humanity

into the rhythm of Divine life,

its measure and it’s method.

“We descend into hells.

We seek the lost

And breathe the sweet fragrance of the Beloved’s name

Over human hunger.

We ascend again on wings of the Love who is Spirit

Because of the joy of belonging to the Beloved.

Who is risen and restored to You, our God.

Jesus is the Man carrying us in His train.” Amen