A sermon for Baptism of Christ Sunday, Year A January 13, 2008
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
This week I got a packet in the mail from Hiptastic University, where #1 Son is a senior, suggesting that it might be time to make our reservations for that momentous day when he will graduate this May. College graduation is one of those remarkable passages in our lives, and each of us might list the others: a wedding, a death, a birth, the special occasions that mark our way on the journey of life. I can make my own list, of the ones I can remember myself, and high on it would be my baptism at age 13. I grew up in a tradition that practiced Believer’s Baptism. To be baptized you made a profession of faith, and you had to persuade the pastor that you felt ready for baptism.
That may sound funny if you’re accustomed to the baptism of infants as the common way. A baptism might be cause for a family gathering, and certainly you may see infants dressed up in family gowns, as my children were, but you would hardly expect a baby to persuade the pastor to sprinkle the water on his forehead.
Can an action be momentous when one of the parties to it doesn’t much know what is happening?
I suppose you could make the case that many of us walk through life partially unconscious of the meaning of our days, of the meetings and partings that make up life, of the depth and breadth of possibility for connection and aspiration that simply being alive makes available to us.
Those possibilities come from God, the one who made us, the one who named us, the one who calls us to be fully present, the one who tells us we are beloved.
The great sensation for my parents at my graduation from college was one of relief. I had frittered my way through The College of Knowledge spending a shocking amount of time playing bridge, staying up too late and turning in papers after they were due. So, parents and grandparents, there is hope that young people such as I was will someday be able to meet a weekly deadline! There is hope that the good teaching you and their professors imparted will someday come back to them, perhaps in a graduate school classroom or in the workplace or in their own efforts at parenting.
That momentous day of graduation brought to a close a period of great tension, and the possibilities on the horizon seemed alternately like none and too many to grasp. I expect #1 Son feels that way at the moment. “What’s next?” we want to ask. What’s next?
My father felt no pressure to send me out into the world. In as modern a day as 1982, life in the South still allowed for the possibility that a daughter might stay at home, and I imagine I could have done that for a long time if someone hadn’t suggested I could go to New York and work in a bookstore for the exalted wage of $4.00 per hour. Thus was I launched, later that summer, with very little idea of what I might really do with my life, really.
I got married, young, and I had more momentous days, the births of my children, the loss of a baby, the deaths of my godmother and my grandmothers and my mother. Through them all ran one consistent thread. Over and over I asked the question, “What’s next?” And I asked it not only of myself and those around me, but of God.
I wonder about Jesus, a young man raised in his faith, adopted son of a carpenter, close to his mother, unmarried, someone who had lived through his own momentous days, no doubt, for we believe he was as much human as he was God, and he had thirty years of it before he came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Can you think of thirty years in any life that would not hold some memorable highs and lows?
We don’t know if he knew, Jesus, what he was heading toward on that day he went to John. We don’t know, and each gospel account you read gives a slightly different impression. His response to John in today’s reading suggests he has a sense of the importance of what they are doing, that it ties to the prophecies of old, and that is not surprising since all of Matthew’s gospel does the same.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15, NRSV)
Then John consented, as if they were playing their roles in a drama set out by God. But they were doing more than fulfilling expectations. In that moment of baptism, something happened. In that moment of baptism, the heavens opened and God became apparent and present and audible.
We want that, sometimes, but it also sounds pretty terrifying! Because that sort of open appearance by God won’t allow us to downplay an experience or make ourselves feel ordinary again.
When I was baptized at 13, I felt extremely holy. I say that with a bit of amusement at how seriously I took myself. I don’t discount how seriously I took my baptism, not at all, but I remember feeling very special and being very kind and reading my Bible almost excessively until about Wednesday. Then I became 13 again. Then I became fully human again. The divine feeling that had swirled around me when the waters in the baptistery covered my head washed off, mostly, leaving me knowing that being a faithful, baptized Christian would not be exciting every day for the rest of my life.
It turns out that while God is with us, we have to make some of the effort ourselves.
I think that’s pretty clear if you read Isaiah. God expects a lot from us, not just from the “capital S” Servant of the Lord, Jesus, but from all of us, all of the “small s” servants of the Lord.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4, NRSV)
It’s been on my mind, that mention of the coastlands. Put yourself in the context of Isaiah, the second person writing under that name, sometime around the release of the captive Israelites from Babylon, the person who celebrated the reconnection of God with God’s people, some 2500 years ago. Remember that the world seemed flatter and stranger then, unmapped and expansive, with horizons that might be the utter end of all being. The coastlands represented the edges of the known world, the gateways to the sea, that terrifying representation of God’s ultimate power.
The coastlands are the whole world, the places furthest from the safety of known community, the edge of all existence. The coastlands wait for the teaching of justice, for the setting to rights of God’s world by God’s people, by God’s servants.
Jesus, a good synagogue boy, would have known these words. How far would the journey take him? What would be next?
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:5-7, NRSV)
Ah, that’s what would be next! To turn the world upside down! For Jesus it all happened quickly, a short three years of ministry and teaching and shaking up the status quo. But for most of us it’s longer than that, or at least we hope it will be. So how, oh how, do we make the transition from a momentous day into the everyday world that demands our attention?
That’s where the life of faith really begins, when the glow wears off and we still believe.
We make the transition by remembering that something happened to Jesus when he was baptized, something more than simply having sins washed away symbolically in the water. In that moment, coming up from the water, something happened. Heaven opened, and God spoke, and nothing would ever be the same again.
And so we baptize our babies and our adults, when they ask us to, and we believe that something happens, that God is present and saying to each one of us the words Jesus heard on that momentous day:
“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We hold onto the sensation of the water on our skin, and if we will keep it in our minds and in our hearts, we will find what we need on the days when the heavens do not break open, on the days when our wondering “what’s next” feels sad rather than adventurous, on the days when God seems to want us to do something we don’t feel quite prepared or qualified or even motivated to undertake. And we believe that even when we make these promises on behalf of our very little children, they really somehow do know.
What choice do we have? You see, the coastlands wait. The whole world waits for justice. And we who know ourselves to be called “Beloved” by God have work to do. Amen.