Message for January 10, 2010

Sermon – January 10, 2010 Yr. C.
The Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3: 21-22; Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1: 9 – 11)
As it often happens with the preparation of the message for each Sunday, I began on one road – developing one theme, and then veered off onto another. For my preparation, I read the three different accounts of the baptism of Jesus – the Luke account that we heard today, the Matthew scripture from Matt. 3, and the account in Mark, chapter 1. I noted how similar they are, and I jotted down the differences – in Theological school, they tell us to pay attention to the differences, because it is in the differences that we can make some discoveries about why the gospel writers wrote their accounts ... in the way they wrote them. For example, in Matthew’s version of this story, John the Baptist at first objects when Jesus asks him to do the baptism...he says “I need to be baptized by YOU, and do you come to ME?” Matthew, it seems, wanted to make sure his account emphasized the superiority of Jesus over John the Baptist.
In Mark, the account is very similar to the story in Luke. The difference between both Mark and Matthew in comparison to Luke – in Luke, the story of the baptism of Jesus comes after John had actually been shut up in prison by Herod...so, if we only read Luke’s version we might ask... “who actually baptized Jesus?”
At that point, I got hung up on where to go next with this text. But there was value in contemplating the texts over a period of time. And then one sentence finally drew my attention...and I began another type of thinking....
"You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life" [Luke 3:22-The Message]. That sentence appears in all three accounts almost word for word. We know the writers of the gospel were not there at the baptism...we know that the story about the baptism came to be written down many decades later. We know that before it was written down it was told to people – around campfires, at meetings and in the course of meals...wherever there was talk about Jesus, and who he was, the story would have been told. And, it seems, this phrase was taken as so important – so unique – that it did not change “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (NRSA).”
There is nothing, not a single thing, any child wants to hear more than this. I wonder how many of us have ever heard this type of phrase from a parent? Just imagine it: your father reaches out, puts a hand on your shoulder, looks you straight in the eye and says: "You're my child: I love you. I am pleased with you…you are the pride of my life.”
Over the years, I've seen so many lives tangled in knots that began when a parent couldn't say this - or said it with conditions attached – conditions that twisted the child's life into knots. The deepest center of this story of Jesus’ baptism is the ultimate embrace of Jesus by the Spirit of God. What makes this center hard to find is our determination to discuss the details.
In theological discussions about baptism, we want to talk about the water: how much, what type, what temperature. We want to talk about the person being baptized: how old, do they know what they are doing? We want to talk about theological categories: clean, unclean, saved, sanctified. We want to talk about boundaries: was it just men or could women also be baptized? What about slaves? While we are talking – talking - talking, God is saying: "You are my child, I love you." While we are talking, God is busy embracing.
The readings today represent a collection of what some might call “love letters from God”. Let’s take a look at the first one, from Isaiah. It's written for the dispirited, defeated remnant of Judah. In the background is the memory that a century before, the Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and the whole community was lost. Now the Babylonians have defeated the last of the Hebrew people: will they also be lost? They are taken into exile; their sanctuary is destroyed. What's worse, they really think they deserve it. The whole lead up to this portion of Isaiah is a recitation of the good reasons God might have for destroying them. They have violated the covenant that gave them a claim on blessing in so many ways, they are unrecognizable as God's children. They have refused over and over again to repent and return. What should God do with these unruly children? This is what God says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine." [Isaiah 43:1b] The scripture goes on to list the terrors of their passage into exile: rivers and fires and the lurking dread that no one remembers. And God says about it all, “I will be there”. The real terror of being lost is that there is no way back. God says, “There is going to be a way back, dear ones, there is going to be a way back.”
Over and over again, what comes through scripture is the amazing, miraculous fact that God remembers all of us all the time. We think of people as gone; God never does. "I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back." [Isaiah 43:5f] The Divine Spirit never forgets any of us. Isaiah was writing to the people of his time. Little did he know that he was also – very much – writing for us – here in the Annapolis Valley in the first week of the year 2010. God does not forget any of us.
When I first imagined this sermon, I thought of it as a time to talk about the details of baptism. I assumed I would be talking about the reasons we do what we do, what the water means, perhaps a discussion of the reasons why we baptize babies and so on. But I wasn’t able to get beyond this stunning declaration: “you're my child, I love you.”
Maybe it's just me. I grew up in a family where we didn't say such things out loud. It isn't that my family wasn't loving; we just didn't talk about it. We talked about household things mostly: about who had to do what. After I became an adult, things didn’t change much.
My parents and I rarely hugged. We knew we should hug but we just couldn't do it naturally. Now I have learned differently. Even my son-in-law hugs me. I don't mean one of those “for the record hugs”, I mean the "Wow I’m really glad to see you!" hugs.
Baptism could also be called a love letter straight from God. When we treat baptism with respect, and not just as a cultural tradition or a ceremony without real meaning, we know that it is a sign from God that we are loved.
And so, I have water and stones here...the water of baptism and stones that could easily have come from the bottom of a river where baptisms took place centuries ago. First I am going to offer you a tradition – an aspersion – a “sprinkling of water” from the baptismal font. The tradition says that I should use a cedar bough ... And, as you feel the sprinkles of water, remember that God says, “You are my child...I love you...with you I am well pleased.”
And secondly, I will offer each of you a stone to hold, and to take with you. It can become a reminder of God’s eternal love – put it in a pocket, or in your purse, or somewhere that you can discover it when you need to...and hold onto it when you need to. These ancient rocks offer us a token of things eternal....
Aspersion and offering of stones takes place....
Amen.