January 11, 2015 – Water washed – Spirit sealed

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:1-11

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Baptism of the Lord   January 11, 2015   Psalm 29, Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1;1-11          Water-washed, Spirit-sealed

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Sometimes in church we sprinkle with water on this Baptism of the Lord day, and the pastor will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” I don’t think I’ve said that yet – mostly because when someone says that to me, I start thinking – ‘Wait a minute. I was four months old when I was baptized… Do you really think I can remember that?

But…even though I don’t remember anything consciously about my baptism, the more I remember the job description of being a baptized Christian, the more I do believe…. Something powerful did happen in my baptism… (I don’t understand exactly what – but – )

When we review the New Testament, it’s clear baptism is a game-changer. The letters to the Romans (6) and to the Colossians (2) both say that in our baptisms we’re dead and buried in the tomb with Jesus. (To be clear, this is so we can rise from the dead with him… But pause before we get there…and just consider the magnitude of the image of baptism – as death – that takes us into the mystery of Christ…)

And the letter to the Galatians (3) says once we’ve been baptized into Christ there’s no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, woman or man anymore. No human categories can ever pigeonhole us now, because now we’re all one in Christ. Baptism is the original radical make-over – with everything made new…

Which is why we’re reading the opening verses of the bible today… To remind us it’s the very same Spirit of God that hovers over the waters in the beginning that now descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, as he comes out of Jordan’s waters. The same voice of God that calls forth creation in the beginning is now heard speaking to Jesus, calling him ‘my Beloved Son.’

Water and Spirit work together from the beginning. And now here’s John, water-baptizing in River Jordan, dunking all-comers in the waters of repentance. And after him, here’s the One whom John has been foretelling, saying, ‘I baptize with water, but he’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ And the heavens are torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and the voice from the heavens says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”

And every time we baptize, we start with John’s combination of water and repentance – as we renounce, together, all spiritual forces of wickedness and pledge to live in communion with Christ with his church. Then we remember the Jesus and Holy Spirit parts of baptism, as we say these words together from our hymnal (page 37): Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation – and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.

Hello, royal priests of Jesus. Are we remembering our job description we’ve been baptized into? Are we remembering – now we’re all part of Jesus’ new creation –   all of us now royal priests serving God through Jesus Christ?

Of course most of us were probably baptized as infants, and it was our parents or guardians (God bless them) who made baptismal pledges on our behalf. But if we’ve ever participated in any baptisms here (or in many churches with similar traditions) we’ve made virtually the same pledge for others that our parents did for us… Affirming our shared commitment to live by God’s word to the best of our understanding… Even knowing we don’t understand all the mystery…

The disciples in our reading from Acts didn’t understand it all either. They’d been baptized into John’s baptism, but they hadn’t even heard (yet) that there is a Holy Spirit. Only when Paul lays hands on them and prays over them, and they receive the Holy Spirit…Only then, under the Spirit’s influence, as they speak words they didn’t know… about things they didn’t know they knew… Only then do the disciples begin to understand the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Probably John the Baptist didn’t know yet either…Where God was going to go with this baptism thing, once he, John, handed off to Jesus…. John knew his own part. Repentance. Everyone knew that old-time roots-rock familiar message. All the prophets of Israel preached repentance. John looked like a prophet – like Elijah of old, with his camel’s hair clothing and leather belt (2nd Kings 1). John’s diet of grasshoppers (cooked, I hope) reminds Israel of Elijah living on whatever scraps of food a raven brought him in the wilderness. John’s word of radical repentance is in harmony with all Israel’s prophets of old. And crowds flock to John in the wilderness, responding to our primal need for repentance, meaning literally turning and returning to God.

And ever since, baptism has been a sign and symbol of our turning to God – whether it’s we ourselves, turning in adult baptism, or parents and family, turning on our behalf, when we’re infants. Either way, baptism is usually seen as the beginning of our new life in Jesus Christ. We may not be entirely sure how it works. But we know that it works.

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Back when I was applying for seminary, and enrolled in seminary, I had to fill out many forms for the Methodist church and the school of theology at BU. One of the questions was always about ‘when and where were you baptized?’ I had to call my mother more than once, because I kept forgetting, asking her, “where and when was I baptized?” And Mom would patiently tell me again, and I’d write it down on whatever the form was, then forget again. I had a hard time remembering anything about my baptism. (Well, remember again, I was only four months old…)          Then one day in my first semester of seminary, I was walking on a Sunday evening in Harvard Square in Cambridge – a neighborhood where I spent many hours with friends in my teen years, mostly listening to music. That evening, as if for the first time, I noticed Christ Church, Episcopal, on one of the corners of Cambridge Commons – co-pastored, I noticed, by one of the teaching assistants in one of my seminary classes. So from curiosity as much as anything, I walked in and joined the evening service in progress (which, like the details of my baptism, I don’t remember much about, except it was good)…

But the next time I asked my mother again, ‘where, again, did you say I was baptized?’ – now, it dawned on me – oh! That was the church I walked into the other night. No wonder it seemed vaguely familiar. I’d been there… as a four month old infant… Getting sprinkled in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

And this story interests me especially because after I was baptized, our family probably didn’t go inside a church again till my younger sister was baptized three years later – then probably not till my younger brother was baptized four years after that. We only went to church as a family for a little while, when I was about ten, for less than a year. It wasn’t till I was in my 20’s that I began to believe and began to attend church. As I began to learn from mostly sad experience…I really do need God. A lot. Only when life brought me to my knees for a prolonged period of time did faith finally start to stick. But…

Now, here in my seminary years, here I was, like a fish swimming upstream to spawn – drawn by a powerful unseen force to my natal pool, forty-seven-years-after-my-baptism – revisiting the very spot where I was baptized. And attending seminary, less than two mile as the crow flies from where I was water-washed as an infant.

Which is a round-about way of saying… I still really don’t know exactly how baptism works – but now I am very convinced – it does work.

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The church has known from our earliest days, that baptism works, powerfully – and that the baptized still struggle in this life. (This much is plain to see.) The early church soon came to believe that in baptism the Holy Spirit enters into our lives in a more powerful way, sealing us, mysteriously, into relationship with God… The early church also knew from the beginning… there’s no guarantee we who are baptized will live by the Spirit consistently from now on. Baptism is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t make everything smooth sailing for the rest of our lives.

To their credit, the early church didn’t usually claim to know exactly what happens in baptism – but they did know it was about God working in us… to make us into new creatures and new creation. And something within us knows this, too.

Our field education director in seminary, a veteran pastor who’s done hundreds of baptisms, once said he’s never seen a child who didn’t receive baptism as a blessing. “Sometimes the parents aren’t quite there yet,” he said. “But children always know, even if they’re crying – there’s a blessing happening when they’re baptized. Probably it’s the Holy Spirit.”

Probably it is the Holy Spirit, coaching us, even when we’re not fully aware. Attuning us to the power of baptism, even when we still have many questions.

Like – why is Jesus, the sinless one, God’s Beloved Son, who will, as John says, soon be baptizing with the Holy Spirit – why is Jesus joining sinners in the river, getting water-washed by John? Jesus will soon transform John’s version of baptism, by water, for repentance – recreating this now to be about receiving the Holy Spirit and being brought into the body of Christ, the church… So why is Jesus submitting to baptism by John?

Which is probably almost the same question as ‘why does God Most High who is pure universal light and life and love… submit to birth in human form… in a stable, surrounded by farm animals?’

Jesus the sinless one of God is born in a barn, attended by lowly shepherds. Infant Jesus and his family flee to Egypt as refugees, escaping a murderous king. Jesus works as a carpenter till the beginning of his public ministry…Eats and drinks with sinners. Calls himself homeless… And in his baptism, here’s Jesus most high, again choosing the way of lowliness…

Here again is the only one in this world who doesn’t need forgiveness – submitting to baptism along with sinners who need forgiveness desperately. Jesus Christ, our Lord – modeling for us the way of salvation. Wading in the baptismal waters ahead of us. Letting us know – he’ll be with us in every time of trial and trouble … every time of joy and gladness…With us in all our first beginnings – with us long after what we thought would be the end. Walking with us every step of this journey…Calling us to walk with him… together… forever…

Thanks be to God. Amen.