The Sunday Sermon: Baptism of the Lord Sunday – January 12, 2020
Stepping in the River With Jesus
So, how many of you were here last week? Then you have made a conscious decision. Do you remember? Last week Herod chose to “fight” the “Incarnation of Love (capital L)” in the world and all it implied for him and those in power. Last week, the Wise Men visited this Love, but then decided to leave it for someone else to take on. They chose flight. But you and I, we who have returned this week, have decided to follow. In fact, whether you were here last week or not, you are here this morning having made the same choice. To follow the Way of Christ, the will of God, as revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who was born a baby, who increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor and who now (aged with a movielike passage of time) makes his way to a bank on the west side of a river that flows in the valley between Israel and Jordan. This is where we meet him today. Far from the manger, and the shepherd and angels, and far from that Herod and those Wise Men.
Pray with me …
Last week I reminded you that we’re only just beginning, because all of that Christmas stuff, powerful as it is for us, was just the set up. Our Christian story actually begins, not in Bethlehem, in a manger (or a house, in Matthew) surrounded by shepherds or Kings or both. Our story really begins in this river in Galilee. Our identity as Christians begins at Easter, but the story we tell and the resurrection life we offer the world begins in earnest on the banks of the Jordan River. Listen for the Word of God …
In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth to Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (Mark)
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus said, “Let it be so for now.” (Matthew)
(And) when all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened … (Luke)
(And) John testified, “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
For the first time, all four of our Gospels agree on something: Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan as was baptized, and John had something to do with it. More on that in a moment or two. But, for now the overture is done, the opus has begun. Jesus’ earthly life, his story as far as Christianity is concerned, truly begins “as he was coming up out of the water” (Mark), and “the heavens were opened to him” (Matthew), and God’s Spirit “descended upon him” (Luke), and he embraced his nature as “God’s chosen one” (John). That’s where our story begins too. At the river. At this font.
How many of you remember your baptism? (…) For most (many) of us, the vows at baptism were made on our behalf by our parents or other guardians. Theologically, the Baptism of infants and children witnesses to the truth we hold that God’s love claims us before we are able to respond in faith. Our response may come later, through our “confirmation” of the vows taken for us. So most (many) of us don’t remember our own baptism. But all of us who are members of this church, or any, have stepped into the waters ourselves. As varied as our understanding of it may be, the one thing every member of any church, anywhere, has in common is a profession in Jesus as Christ, Lord and Savior. The bigger question for us as we begin again is, “Do we know what such a baptism means?”
Baptism is not just about, it isn’t even primarily, about joining a religious group, a church. I’ll cut o the chase. Baptism is about death. (So how many of you want to admit you were baptized, now?!) Baptism is about dying. I say it every time we celebrate the sacrament here, and you’ve heard it long before me in other Pastor’s words: In Baptism, we participate in Jesus’ death. In Baptism we die. As little babies, as young girls or boys, as teenagers, as adults, when were baptized we … died. We died to all that separates us from God. And we were re-born to a life in union with this God, through our adherence to the way and the truth of a human named Jesus and titled Christ.
Jesus and John and the men and women of Galilee in the first century AD did not have that exact understanding. How could they have? Jesus was a Jew. Christianity was a century or more away. But baptism was, has always been, a “cleansing,” a preparatory act that signifies a return to God and God’s Way. God’s Way …
In this day and age, in our time, God’s “Way” is understood quite differently across denominations, even within them. We all claim to be Christians, we have our profession in common. But some of us Christians claim that God’s Way will ultimately destroy the world and all the non-believers with it, and the true believers will be “taken up” to heaven. Others of us claim that God’s Way will not destroy, but restore, this world and all of creation to the Eden-like garden it was “in the beginning.” That’s a pretty big difference in understanding about the “Way of God.” And these different understandings are nothing new.
You see, Jesus had some different ideas than John. John was an “apocalyptic eschatologist,” a prophet/teacher who revealed the end of things. John’s “revelation about the end” included the imminent, any time, arrival of God with a fiery, ax-wielding judgment that would destroy any who do not bear “good fruit.”
Jesus was an “apocalyptic eschatologist,” too, a prophet/teacher who also revealed the end of things. But, Jesus’ “revelation about the end” included the message that the arrival of God was not “imminent,” but was “realized,” God was already here, among us – within us – working through us. However, God is here, Jesus taught, not to destroy, but to transform creation. The Kingdom of God on earth … as it is in heaven.
I know we most often think that Jesus and John agreed on everything and were “cut from the same cloth,” but I don’t think that’s actually the case. Take a look at the four accounts of Jesus baptism in our Gospels. I read one verse from each of them for this morning, beginning with Mark, then Matthew, Luke, and then John. But read the full accounts in each book. Chronologically speaking, Mark was written first, then Matthew, closely followed by Luke, and finally John. The Gospel writers “distance” Jesus from John, if only just a bit, as they write further and further from the historical event of Jesus’ life. Mark, the oldest that begins with Jesus’ baptism, simply states “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John.”1:9 Matthew records the only dialogue between these two, having John say, “I should be baptized by you,” and Jesus reply, “Let it be so ‘for now.’” Luke doesn’t even have John and Jesus even meeting in what he writes, actually mentioning Jesus’ baptism only after reporting John’s imprisonment. We’re left to assume that Jesus was baptized by John, buy he doesn’t actually say that. And John’s Gospel, unlike all the others doesn’t describe Jesus’ baptism at all. He just writes of John the Baptist’s response to it. It’s not even clear, however we’ve assumed it to be, that John did the baptizing!
The point is, as with the different understandings of God’s Way, today, there were different understandings of how God was at work in first century Galilee. So, as our story begins again, I want us to be sure we are “stepping in the river with Jesus” and following the Way of God that he taught and modeled and died for.
Nobody was there to write it all down as it was happening to Jesus, any more than anyone has been writing down all the events of our own lives from our birth to baptism to Confirmation to now. That kind of writing only comes after a life is so fully lived and a love is so wastefully shared that it creates a powerful void and demands an accounting when it’s gone. Jesus life was such a life, his death was such a death, creating the need for new life in his name. And not long after his death, three days we are told, stories began to circulate about the life he lived and the life he gives. A few decades later these stories were written down.
But, Jesus is not ultimately someone we simply meet in a story. Jesus, if this human is to mean anything more to us than a bit of recorded history – is to be anything more to us that just a good teacher and a good example – Jesus must be an experience we take part in, his life must be a life we follow, and his love must be a love that we use to save others. We must step into the river with him. To die and to be reborn, over and over again.
If we can – or let me be more optimistic for the weeks ahead: as we do – we will walk together with him and one another in search of direction and explanation, and in search of vision and vocation, both personal and political. We will search the mystery at the center of our own lives and the purpose of our life as individuals and as a church.
It begins again today. We are gathered at the River. And, this morning, as has been our custom for many years now, we mark our “new beginning” in one of the most profound ways anyone of us can do that as a Presbyterian, beyond Baptism itself: through ordination and through the installing of new Ruling Elders to serve the Body of Christ here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian. You have called four among us, and they have agreed to gather around our Baptismal font this morning, responding to your call as a congregation, and to God’s call, to “step into the river.” Two will be ordained, Mackenna Williams and Amy Stoess-Meade, and they will be joined by Mark Lane and Larry McCarson, already ordained, in being installed as our newest Elders. Will all four of you come forward and gather around this font to respond to the questions we have of you?
The Ordination and Installation service begins, ending with the following prayer:
You know our hearts, O God; you know our weakness and fear. But you also know the goodness in us, for we are your children. Lead us to the saving knowledge that, while too often we feel we do not have it in us to be disciples of Christ, we respond to his call. Our hearts choose you and your way again, this day, trusting that you who called us will see us through. Make Alison, Dan, Myles and Sue profoundly aware that as they lead this congregation, you, O Lord, will be there before them, preceding all of us and the gospel word of your unconquerable love will be the last and everlasting word we shall hear. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 12, 2020