13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The story of the world begins this way in the book of Genesis: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God 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.
And God said, Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
From the very beginning of the Bible, from the very start of the story of creation, there was water. Before there was light, before there was land, there was water, all together, collected as in a footprint in the mud, filling everything. And as the earth was formed and the land drifted, as pangea separated to form continents and as civilizations have risen and fallen, it has always been the case that though it has separated the continents one from another, the water that was present at creation is the same water that fills our oceans now. That same water makes up a significant portion of our bodies. It connects us, mystically and viscerally, to one another, for you can’t go anywhere, anywhere without water.
It is in this water that Jesus was baptized, as a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and the savior emerged from the same river each of us emerges from in baptism, only to find that the dome that separated the waters had been broken to bits, and the spirit of God appeared, descending like a dove, and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved.”
It is appropriate, I think that Jesus begins his ministry with a baptism, for it marks a beginning. It is an initiation into the Christian life, it is an acknowledgement that the love of God is present in each of us.
It is likewise appropriate that we begin our year of following Jesus at North Decatur United Methodist Church by remembering that we are baptized, by recalling that we are each called to ministry, whether we have the robe and stole or whether we’re a baby freshly baptized, for as the writer Frederick Buechner says, “When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God, one wonders if the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what's going on.”
It is appropriate to begin this way, but it is also appropriate to acknowledge that it is a strange thing we do when we initiate someone into the family of God. Whether it is a baby, or a child, or a full-grown adult, we sprinkle some water on their heads, or dunk them under--as our Baptist brothers and sisters say, the wetter the better. It is an unusual initiation ritual. When you join the Christian faith, you don’t sign a piece of paper, or get your hand stamped or anything. We pour water on you, which eventually dries off, and you go back to looking like everybody else, such that I could line up five people right here in the front--one Christian and four other folks--and if they stood still, you’d have no idea which one was which.
It takes movement, action, to tell who is a Christian, at least it should. I should be able to look at you, look at your life, the way you talk, the ways you serve the poor, the ways you spend your money, and say, yes, that person has been baptized. The water has dried off, but not really. Not really.
The problem is not that the water dries off. The problem is that we understand baptism as being the action which washes us of our sin, which doesn’t seem to make sense in light of today’s scripture lesson.
Picture this scene. John, who is Jesus’s cousin, is in the wilderness baptizing people, and Jesus, the son of God, light from light and all of that, shows up and asks to be baptized.
Now, if baptism is about forgiveness of sin, well, that just doesn’t work, now does it? Why would Jesus, who is God, need forgiveness of sin?
It is the same with babies. We baptize babies in the United Methodist Church. You don’t have to be a baby, but when my own child was baptized, she was three months old, and her only sins were excessive cuteness and not sleeping through the night.
Baptism, as we understand it in our tradition, is about something something deeper than just forgiving us of our sins., It is more about God than it is about me. It is about being a member of the family. It is about being claimed as a beloved child of God. If you have not yet been baptized, I hope you’ll find time to come talk to me about it. We don’t believe that being baptized makes you any better than anybody else, but we do believe it is the entrance into the Christian life. We do believe God acts through baptism.
And--this is important--in our tradition, a person is only baptized once. There are not many things that I can lose my credentials over, but performing a re-baptism is one of them, because we believe that since baptism is less about me than it is about God, that the notion that God’s grace didn’t take--that God’s claiming wasn’t good enough the first time--well, it doesn’t jive with how we understand God to be wholly loving, wholly good, powerful enough to claim each of us as children.
Only, for whatever reason, I keep screwing up. Even though my own baptism was strong enough, it does not keep me from finding my hands resting idly while my neighbor suffers, or my thoughts drifting into neighborhoods in which they ought not go, or my mouth plugged over and over with my own foot.
It happened again this week. I had more than one conversation in which I realized at the end of the conversation that I’d said something stupid in the interest of sounding much cooler than I really am. I have this disease, you understand, which has symptoms that present as me wanting people to like me--I don’t know if you’ve ever known somebody like that--but it is the case that I sometimes find myself wanting to be cooler than I actually am and I say things that later make me scratch my head and wonder just why it is I can’t seem to just be happy with who I am. I tell you, it is a good thing that we only baptize people once. I mess up so much that if I had to go through baptism each time my disease of inadequacy flared up, I’d never get out of the tub.
Of course I’m not the only one with that particular disease. Everybody has it. It’s called being human, and nobody, but nobody, is immune from wanting to be loved.
It is that search for love that makes people do crazy things. If I asked you what you have done for love, I would probably get a number stories, some of which I could share in polite company. And history is just peppered with this stuff. There was King Edward the Eighth who abdicated the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson. There was the Russian man I read about this week who staged his own death in a car accident in order to prove to his girlfriend that she really did love him, and when she was relieved to see him alive, he had the nerve to propose to her! I understand that she actually said yes! And I think of my own grandfather who received payments from the Army for the rest of his life after World War Two because of an injury to his hand, and who, he told me before he died, was actually getting paid because of a fistfight he got into with a German over a woman.
We do crazy things for love, and of course we do, because there is no greater sound than someone saying of you, “this is my beloved.” I’ve known people who have spent their whole lives craving those words, who have bounced from partner to partner, place to place looking only for a way to emerge from the river and have someone say, “This. This is my beloved.”
That kind of belovedness, that kind of love, that’s the kind of thing you’d go to the ends of the earth to find. And, oh, such silliness happens in this search for love. To find it, some people turn to sex, as if that will somehow fill us beyond a flashing moment. Others turn to money, as if belovedness can be bought, as if the price is anything less than everything you have. Others turn to power, as if they can force people to love them, and maybe it seems that way for a season, but it’s not love if it’s forced.
We long to be loved, and so we gather at the church, so that we may hear, together, of our belovedness: so that we may all emerge from the same river and hear the same God say the same thing: This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
It can be easy to forget, in the midst of church nonsense and life and the business that fills our days. But it remains the case that even in the midst of all of this, even when it feels like we’ve done something so dumb or so wrong that not even God could redeem it, God still comes to us, still claims us, still calls us beloved and reminds us that God is counting on us to partner with the work of God in the world.
If you have not been baptized, I would invite you to come talk to me. I’d love to walk with you through this giving of grace. And whether you can actually remember your baptism, or whether it was so early in your life that even the pictures look foreign, I hope you will join me in remembering that you are baptized, remembering that you have been claimed by God, that nothing you could ever do could change the love God has for you.
Before you leave today, I would invite you to stop by the baptismal font--it is in the back of the church by the back doors--dip your hand in the water and remember that God has ordained you for service, that God has chosen you to love. In the font, in addition to the water, is some sea glass, tumbled by the waves--just like you and me--and smoothed out under the stress of the current. Take a piece of that sea glass with you as you dip your hands in that water, set it in a prominent place, somewhere where you will look at it, especially in those moments in which you feel hard to love, and be reminded that you are a child of God, loved and respected, and that God is counting on you.
And as we close, I would invite you to look at your bulletin and see the responsive reading printed there, and join me in affirming that though some days we don’t feel like it, God loves us beyond measure. Let us read together:
You are God's child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world.
I am God's child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.
How wonderful to be loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.