Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sermon for January 13, 2013: Jesus' baptism and the danger of God's grace

Hymn text:  "You Are Mine" by David Haas

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine
I am strength for all the despairing
Healing for the ones who dwell in shame
All the blind will see, the lame will all run free
And all will know My name

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Isaiah 43:1-7 (The Message)

But now, God’s Message,
    the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,
    the One who got you started, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
    I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
    it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
    The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you:
    all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!
That’s how much you mean to me!
    That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,
    trade the creation just for you.
“So don’t be afraid: I’m with you.
    I’ll round up all your scattered children,
    pull them in from east and west.
I’ll send orders north and south:
    ‘Send them back.
Return my sons from distant lands,
    my daughters from faraway places.
I want them back, every last one who bears my name,
    every man, woman, and child
Whom I created for my glory,
    yes, personally formed and made each one.’”

Luke 3:15-22 (NRSV)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 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."


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This week I was asked why we baptize babies and children, when other churches and denominations insist that only adults can be baptized.  And this is one of those questions where I can feel every seminary professor I’ve ever had waiting for my answer.  I don't doubt that a few of them might try to go back and change my grades based on what I say.  See, this was a big question in Martin Luther’s time, in the sixteenth century, and we’ve been talking about it ever since.

But really it’s not a question that just started four hundred years ago.  And it’s not even a question that started two thousand years ago when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.  This is a question that traces far back in our faith and its roots, back into the early life of the Jewish people in Israel.  That’s why we read Isaiah today -- because the question of “What does our baptism mean?” goes back into the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.

I should tell you that Isaiah isn’t one book.  It’s actually three.  And this trilogy was written while all the Jewish people were in exile.  See, the Israelites had been given the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey -- but as part of that, they made promises to God and to each other.  They promised to remember that God had delivered them from Egypt, that God had led them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  They promised to care for the poor and helpless among them.  They promised to live in the freedom God had given them, and to be a light to the rest of the world.

And parents passed on the promise to their children, and those children to their children, and so on, for hundreds of years.  But the longer they lived in the promised land, the further away the promise felt.  They forgot to trust in God alone.  They put their trust in their own abilities.  And they forgot to care for the poor among them.  They were so proud of all that they thought they had done themselves that they turned their backs on those who needed help.

So Isaiah 1-39 is the story of Isaiah the prophet, who has a vision of what will happen to Israel.  The people and their leaders have wandered so far away from the heart of God -- from righteousness, and mercy, and justice -- that when danger comes, God will not be able to protect them.  They have gone too far.  And so the Israelites are conquered by Babylon, and they are taken far away from their homes and their promised land into exile and oppression.  The people forgot the God who brought them out of slavery, and now they are back in it.

And then, after thirty-nine chapters of doom and pain and judgment, the story changes completely.  The second part of Isaiah is the story not of the sadness of a people lost, but of love.  “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name.  You’re mine.”  Isaiah writes, in the face of all that Israel has done, of God’s amazing, overabundant, merciful love.  Despite everything that has happened -- despite how Israel has forgotten to trust God and to care for each other -- despite all of that, God wants them back.  That mighty hand that delivered them from slavery in Egypt is now searching, reaching, clinging to them.  Despite every way that Israel has wandered away from God’s longing for mercy and justice, God is still chasing them down.

And when Israel hears that kind of love, they respond the only way we all can.  With hope.  Hope for a return to the promised land.  Hope for renewed righteousness -- for food for the hungry, for trust in God, for peace in the land.  Isaiah 56-66 is about hope, because a God who can love this much is a God who can make anything possible.  A God who can love this much is a God who can bring them out of exile and back home.  And the hope isn’t just for Israel.  It’s not just for the descendents of Abraham.  It’s for everyone.  The third part of Isaiah is about hope for a people who become an example to the whole world:  a people chosen to live in love of God and love of neighbor.  And everyone else is invited in.

Five hundred years later, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness.  John offers a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  He does the same things that Isaiah did.  First, he calls out those who have forgotten the promise: the crowd for not living in righteousness, their ruler Herod for stealing his brother’s wife Herodias.  He calls them out.

Then, he begs the people to restore justice in their lives.  We read this part before Christmas:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  He asks them to live not in the confidence in themselves, but in the comfort of God’s care.

And then today, we hear how John gives the people a promise.  He gives them hope.  He gives them a chance to start fresh.

Now John’s baptism wasn’t quite like the way we baptize today.  John’s baptism came from a long tradition in Judaism, a tradition of ritual bathing to purify the body.  This bathing wasn’t so much about sin as it was about cleanliness.  For the Jewish people, the body and the soul are very closely entwined.  What happens to the body affects the soul.  So to wash off dirt wasn’t just to get your hands clean, but to restore your spiritual cleanliness as well.  And remember that these were a desert people -- they didn’t have a hot shower every morning or a bubble bath every night.  They had the muddy rivers of Jordan, or water hauled by hand from deep wells.  A full body immersion was a special occasion.  It was a sign that whatever dirt or sweat or blood was clinging to your skin was washed away.  You had a clean start, both physically and spiritually.

So John takes this washing out to the wilderness.  He takes an old and important tradition into a new light.  Now the washing isn’t about things that happen naturally in the course of a lifetime.  Now it’s an outward sign of an inward desire to do life differently.  It’s a way of saying:  I want to turn around.  I want to live in love and hope and justice.  I want a fresh start.  I want everything that is useless, everything that holds me back from loving God and neighbor, to be washed away from me.

This is the good news that John gives the crowd:  you have the chance at a fresh start.  Everything that has built up on your skin and in your heart?  It can be washed away.  This is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It says “I’m sorry, and I want to make things right.”

But here’s the danger in the stories of Isaiah, and of John the Baptist, and of us.  We can forget that God’s love is a gift.  We can start to think that God loves us because we’re beautiful, or smart, or rich, or capable, or clean, or holy.  We can start to think that we’re in control of God’s love.  We can claim it for ourselves.  And -- we can decide who else gets some, too.  Israelites might say that they alone were the chosen people.  John’s followers might say that their baptism made them the most holy.  When God gives us love, out of nothing but sheer grace, there’s a danger that we think we earned it.  We can narrow down the promises of God.  It’s for us, not for them.  It’s for me, not for you.

And then Jesus shows up on the shore of the Jordan.  And he blows up everything that John has been teaching about baptism.

Our Christian tradition, looking back two thousand years, understands Jesus as sinless.  He wouldn’t have needed repentance, because he didn’t have anything to repent from.  And whether or not the whole crowd gathered for baptism believed that, there was definitely a sign that Jesus’ baptism was completely different.  His baptism and prayer opened the heavens and sent down the Holy Spirit and a voice said:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When the heavens open and a voice shakes the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is chosen, special, set apart in some way.  All the promises get narrowed down to him.  He is the Son, the Beloved.  Of all the chosen people, he is the most chosen.  Of all the baptized, he is the most important.  But Jesus’ life shows that this narrowing isn’t just meant to be held onto.  It’s a gift with shoes attached.  His mission is to go into the world, to wander from town to town, to release people from their brokenness and sin and suffering into a new life.  This is the kingdom of God:  that God has one Son, the Beloved, whose mission is to draw everyone into God’s love.

Right into this chance at narrowing down what God can do and for whom, Jesus shows up.  Jesus, who was always doing what he shouldn’t.  Jesus, who talked with women, and Samaritans, and Gentiles; who touched lepers and dead little girls; who healed on the Sabbath; who said, over and over again, “I will not let there be boundaries to God’s grace.  There are no limits to God's love."

God’s Son shows up right in the middle of everything, right in the thick of the danger of saying that we earned this love, and says:  This is a gift.

Jesus doesn’t come for baptism for the forgiveness of his sins, but to say:  This is how far God will go to bring everyone back.  God will go right into the heart of sin and fear and brokenness.  God will go chasing down everyone who has wandered.

When Jesus shows up for baptism, it is a fearsome declaration that God’s love is a gift.  That the forgiveness offered in baptism is grace.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t work up to it.  We don’t even choose it.  Baptism is a sign that God has chosen us -- has chosen me -- has chosen you.  It is a sign of the promise that God is already at work in our lives, chasing us down, calling us back.  It is a sign of God’s hand on us from the very beginning of our lives, from our very first breath as a baby.  It is a sign of God crying, over and over, “Trust me.  Care for one another.”  Baptism is the promise:  “All are welcome -- no exceptions.”

It is God saying, “That’s how much you mean to me!  That’s how much I love you!”


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