I’m working backwards here.
I do solemnly promise to post my Christmas sermon, and this thought I’ve had for weeks now about our Christmas Eve service. But in the rush of Christmas, and post-Christmas vacation, and polar vortexes (vortices?) and bourbon tours, and returns to school, and the start of news blogging, I got distracted.
In the words of Inigo Montoya, “There is too much. Let me sum up.”
I have determined the following:
1. -30 degrees F is entirely too cold. I have my limits.
2. Small children opining on Christmas and Advent are the best. (On Mary’s probable reaction to the Angel Gabriel: “her face is like ‘whaaaaaat?’)
3. The baptism of Jesus is not fun to preach on. By virtue of being modern-day Episcopalians, who take baptism super-seriously, most of us preach on baptism all the time. So by the time I get to an actual textual reason to talk about baptism, I’m scrounging for new things to say.
That issue nonwithstanding, I preached away on Sunday, and came up with the following.
January 11-12, 2014
First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Growing up in Tidewater Virginia, my best friend as a kid was Southern Baptist. And since we were best friends, we’d go to each other’s church events, like well-raised kids did.
It didn’t matter what was going on, I remember, at her church. Every event ended the same: potluck dinner, Easter musical, Wednesday night Bible study. The choir would sing a hymn, the pastor would head for the front, and someone would stand and give their testimony for the power of Jesus.
And the stories were always great. Some dramatic moment when they had hit rock bottom, or been near death, or had a deep conversation with a loved one. And they had seen the light, and been saved, in one shining moment–and the high point! They got baptized.
At this point, the choir would swell, the pastor would pray, and everyone would head down front to get saved, or saved again, or saved some more.
I really loved the stories! I always wanted to know when that moment was! Was it a near death experience? An addiction? Did the whole family get saved, or just one person? It was like a soap opera!
Til the day I realized that I had a problem. I didn’t have a story.
As a cradle Episcopalian, I didn’t have A story. I had been baptized as a baby, –I didn’t have a ‘come to Jesus’ ‘get saved’ story. My experience of growing up in church, going to Sunday School, being a part of a community that loved me, seemed like I had done everything backwards. There wasn’t one single moment I was convicted of anything, so much as a series of moments that composed a story that was still happening.
So I would listen in silence to everyone’s stories and it wasn’t until I got older that I began to take pride in my odd-duck faith story. Maybe baptism didn’t have to be the end of a story. Maybe baptism could be the beginning, too.
Because, after all, that’s pretty much what we see happening to Jesus at the Jordan River. At this point in the story, not much has happened in the life of Jesus, or at least, not much that we know about from the text. He was born, he grew up into adulthood, there was that unfortunate incident where he ran away from his parents in the Temple, but other than that, not much has happened to him.
And now, he’s shown up at the Jordan River, where John the Baptist has gathered quite the large following doing preaching and baptizing work, and he wants to be baptized. And this is essentially the first public act Jesus undertakes. John does not want to do it, John pleads incompetence, but Jesus insists—to fulfill all righteousness, he says– which is another way of saying that it was important to do it in order to maintain good relationships. (if you were righteous, in the Jewish worldview, then you had just and loving relationships with those around you: God, your spouse, your neighbors, your children, etc.)
So Jesus gets baptized. For the sake of righteous relationship. And no sooner does that happen, than the spirit descends and a voice cries out, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Now, it’s not like Jesus’ relationship with God starts at his baptism. Jesus has always been the Son of God—God Incarnate—baptism doesn’t change that.
What baptism does do, however, is commit Jesus to being a conscious participant in that relationship with God. God had always been there, talking. Now Jesus was promising to show up too.
Baptism isn’t the end of a story, not the culmination of a relationship—it’s the beginning.
Because, from here, Jesus’s story is just beginning. The beginning of this new phase in Jesus’ relationship with God will morph into a lifelong ministry where that relationship grows and deepens. This carries Jesus into all the work he does, the preaching, the teaching, the healing, the minstry–and all because this relationship with God is ongoing, not just a one-time shot.
And so it is with us. Our baptism, the way we approach it in the Episcopal Church, our baptism inaugurates a new phase in our relationship with God. God has always been with us, but in our baptism, we agree to approach our relationship with God in a new and particularly intentional way.
We agree to take on our role as beloved children of God, to live into what that means, with our eyes open. We agree (or someone agrees to raise us like this) to live as agents of God’s love in the world, spreading God’s mercy and peace through the way we live our lives. We agree to take our part in God’s resurrection of this creation. Baptism, and the promises we make there–outline what that looks like. We promise to follow the apostles example, we promise to keep fellowship, and continue in the breaking of bread, and the prayers, we promise to work for justice and peace, and respect everyone’s dignity, and seek Christ in all people.
And as our lives go on, what exactly this looks like, the specifics, will change. Our relationship with God will change, and will deepen and shift. Because we will change. You are not the same person now you were when you were a baby, and you don’t have the same relationship with God you had then. This is a lifelong process, this being saved.
Because being saved isn’t a single moment in time, one minute everything becomes clear, and you’re saved from eternal fire forever.
God doesn’t save us from something, God saves us for a relationship as beloved children in service to the world. And that’s something that takes a whole lifetime to develop.
But thanks be to God, that’s how long we have.