Sermon for 1-10-16

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: The Baptism of Jesus



         God is having a New Year’s Party and we’re invited. But at this time of year most of us take an inventory and come to the conclusion that we’re not ready. At the start of the new year, every magazine on the shelf and many talk show news stories offer advice on how to get ready for the new year, how to start fresh, do over, and remake our lives. Long before Fox news or People magazine, we had John the Baptizer down at the river inviting people into the waters of life.

         When we’re baptized, we respond to God’s invitation to come. Baptism creates new life. Baptism clears space for joy. Baptism connects us with others. And baptism conditions us for Christ.

First, Baptism creates new life. “Create in me a new heart, o God,” we pray, “and restore a new and right spirit within me.” This prayer of confession prepares us for the new life promised us in Christ. It dresses us for God’s party.

         When we’re born, we come into the world covered with a life giving substance than is then gently washed from our newborn skin. We needed it before, but we no longer need it once we have come into the world. I think Jesus knew something about that when he said to his disciples, “Unless we are born anew, we cannot see the reign of God; unless we are born of water and the Spirit, we cannot enter God’s new order”.

         Some Christian traditions emphasize the poor and wretched state of the sinner who is on the straight path to hell if they don’t repent of their sins. Baptism becomes a kind of threat. If you’re not baptized you can’t get into heaven and you’re doomed for all of time. Have any of you heard that version of our Christian story? It creates uneasiness and anxiety for those who know their loved ones have not been baptized, or for parents of sick children who rush to baptize their children out of fear for their mortal souls.

         Make no mistake, baptism is serious business with eternal consequences but not in the way we imagine. I suspect the invitation to new life through baptism is more like this. A zillion years ago there was a beautiful little film called “Always” about the love between a wildcat firefighter portrayed by Richard Dryfuss, and an air traffic controller who brought their forest firefighting planes safely home, portrayed by Holly Hunter. One night there’s a great party to celebrate something I’ve now forgotten, but the firefighters are sent out on a particularly nasty fire and return late and dirty. They come back to home base in the wilderness, covered head to toe with soot and ashes. Holly Hunter walks into the party wearing a sparkling white dress, a vision of beauty and vitality head to toe. Everyone wants to dance with her, they’re all best friends working the fires together, and her beloved reaches for her. She firmly, but with a laugh backs away. “Uh uh”, she says, “Those hands are not touching this dress.” The men scramble for the door to shower and clean up so they’re appropriately dressed for the party that awaits them.

         This tender scene provides deeper insight into baptism, doesn’t it? We aren’t banished from the welcome table because we’re wretched and awful. We’re invited to come to the party with clean hands and a clear heart for the beautiful life God wants for us. But here’s the catch. We simply don’t know how to clean ourselves up alone. We’re not some fixer upper project that God decides to love or reject. Rather, like any newborn child, we’re cherished and beloved, but we need help with that first bath. Baptism creates new life in us by symbolically washing away the past that encumbers our participation in the kingdom of God.

Baptism also clears space for joy. If you’re not as joy-filled as you had hoped you would be, perhaps it’s time to remember your baptism. The prayer of baptism we pray is a prayer for joy. “Gracious God you have filled the world with joy by giving us the gift of Jesus. Bless this newly baptized person. May they be filled with joy, and never ashamed to confess their faith in you.”

         Our confession when we come for baptism, or when we present our children for baptism until that day when they confirm it, creates space for the joy of our faith to have its way with our life. It cleans out the stuff that gets in the way of our joy, by encumbering our time, distracting our purpose or confusing our way. It’s a radical move, this baptism, not unlike the KonMari method. If you’ve never heard of KonMari, it’s from the best seller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. Her method centers on a series of practices that involve picking up every object in your house and asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “No,” then she invites us to box it up and send it to the community thrift store or Shabby Chic for summer sale at the Village Faire.

         One author writes of this radical purging process as much more than the simple catharsis of clearing your closet of clothes you no longer need or wear. This simple question, “Does this spark joy?” leads to a radical shift in the way most of us live. She discovered that in fact two-thirds of her possessions ended up on the giving floor, leaving her at times emotionally vulnerable, confused, wrecked, uncomfortable, doubtful or energized. She felt more vulnerable without all her accumulated stuff.

         “She writes of the KonMari method, “That scarf your great-aunt knitted you but is too ugly and itchy to wear? Get rid of it! Guilt is not happiness! Our rational minds can persuade us to hold on to everything, to grip it close, but our hearts are more courageous. Mine told me that I could donate that pair of joyless yet costly new boots, and I’d be fine; that many of my childhood books were, in fact, pretty creepy and weird and not endearing enough on pass on to my children. . .” This process led the author to deeper and more core questions, “Am I enough without this thing? And if so, will I be safe without it?” Our objects can create a false sense of self and security, preventing God’s spirit from moving through us, as if through the sludge of our lives like some spiritual equivalent to hoarders. When through baptism the sludge gets cleared away, we’re free to love deeply out of our authentic, vulnerable self.

         Baptism clears space for joy, leaving us as naked and unashamed before our God as a baby newborn or as one born anew.

Baptism connects us with others. It makes clear that our life is anything but a solitary journey. We come to baptism each time with these words of invitation. “Members and friends in Christ, we gather now to celebrate the gift of grace in the sacrament of baptism. There is one body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into the body, Jews and Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

This week after the death of our beloved church member Becky Woodman, I received a note from another member who reminds us that Becky shared one of our testimonials during the season of gratitude we call stewardship back in November. As she walked with us in faith, so we accompanied her to glory, taking turns praying with her, reading the Psalms, and reminding her to the end of the promises of God. Becky articulated just a few weeks ago her gratitude that by virtue of our baptism we are one body in Christ. She wrote: “I have come to realize that gratitude can be expressed in sorrow and in joy… I know that God has a purpose for my life.  He created me, He loved me, and He would not let go of my hand…Whatever you do,” she said,  “do it with gratitude giving God the glory for all He has given you. And then she invited us to give our gifts willingly and cheerfully to our Lord. 

Her faith in life and through death point us as one body towards that last purpose of Baptism that we will speak about today.

Baptism conditions us for Christ. Having created us and brought us into new life in Christ, having cleared a new heart within us for joy, and having connected us with the community of saints with whom we have been gifted to live and love. God conditions us for life in Christ.

Here’s where we meet those surprising challenges of faith life as baptized Christians. My friend and colleague Tony Robinson quoted Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber from a recent interview on the radio program “Fresh Air.” “She mentioned the earnest seminarian who at one of her speaking engagements asked, ‘Pastor Nadia, what are your ways, your spiritual practices, for getting closer to God?’

“‘Why would I want to get close to God,’ responded Bolz Weber. ‘Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I hate, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.’ She went on to say that in her life it feels more like ‘God has come after me.’ We do often seem to think of the Christian faith as our human search for God, our feeble attempt to get close to God. The Bible tells a different story, one more in line with Bolz Weber’s experience: the story of the God who keeps showing up, intruding, refusing to leave us alone, searching for us.” We can’t get away from this God, our God to whom we belong by virtue of our re-birth with Jesus and into new life with him.

       Remember your baptism into new life in Christ. God dressed you for the party. Come