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Jesus' baptism, and ours

A sermon preached the First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of our Lord  (January 10, 2016)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

Today is the day set aside in the church year to remember Jesus’ baptism, and therefore it’s a good chance to think about baptism in general. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all have an account of Jesus’ baptism, and there are subtle but important differences. Today I’d like to look at two differences that jump out at me from Luke’s account of the baptism.

First is how it begins: “the people are filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts whether John (the Baptist) might be the messiah.”

It’s human nature to be filled with expectation and to wonder if someone might be the messiah, the savior, the one who will deliver us from our troubles, fix things, restore things, put things right.

As you know, I don’t often get political in my sermons and I never get partisan. But as the election cycle starts gearing up, it’s worth noting that this morning’s gospel reminds us of a timeless truth about human nature: to be filled with expectation and question in our hearts whether someone might be the messiah. Just look at campaign slogans of the current batch of presidential candidates:
·         Heal Inspire Revive
·         Reigniting the Promise of America
·         Make America Great Again
·         Rebuild the American Dream
·         Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream
·         A New American Century
·         A Political Revolution is Coming

There’s always a hope that there is someone who will lead us out of our difficulties; there’s always a choice we need to make.

When the people wondered if John the Baptist was the messiah, he answered them by downplaying his role and deflecting attention away from himself to another: “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming, I’m not worthy to tie his shoes. He’ll baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.”

And so we’re reminded each time there is a baptism: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace in love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”

Maybe it’s helpful to think in terms of “givens” and “variables.” Recall that the “given” is the known, the fixed thing, the certainty. The “variable” is the thing that’s liable to change, something that’s shifting, varying.

I think that it’s a “given” in human nature that we have a god in our life. The variable is who, or what that god is.

To put that another way, I think there’s no such thing as an atheist, if Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. What I mean by that is we all have something driving us – something or someone at the center of our hearts, some core central belief, or belief system. We may not call that something or someone a “god,” and those other things “idols,” but that’s only a matter of vocabulary. The question is not so much, “Do I believe in God,” but “what, or who, is the god (or what are the gods) I believe in, put my trust in, and what, or who, are the idols I put my trust and faith in?

We are filled with expectation and wondering who the messiah, our savior, our god, might be: hard work? Better education? A politician? Working harder? The winning lottery ticket?

There’s always a hope that there is someone who or something that will lead us out of our difficulties.

There’s always a choice we need to make. And so that’s why, on this feast day in the church year called “baptism of our Lord” and during the season of Epiphany when we’ll use the baptismal covenant each Sunday, each time there is an actual baptism we hear the questions asked of parents and godparents and of all of us? Who, or what, is your “given”?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? (or to whom, or what, do you turn?)

Do you put your whole trust in his grace in love? Or is part of your trust in someone or something else?

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? You have a Lord you follow and obey…that’s the given…the variable is, what, or who? A small-g-God who asks more and more from you and gives back less and less, or the Lord God who is the only god who loves you back, and gives back more than you can ask or imagine?

By the way: nothing against the Nicene Creed – I believe every word – but part of the reason I like using the baptismal covenant is that it answers the “so what” question…the Nicene Creed is all about what we believe, and in going directly from his incarnation to his suffering and death, has no mention of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching, his miracles, his healing people -- and it makes no mention of what difference “what we believe” makes in our life.

In the baptismal service, on the other hand, we say what we believe and then we immediately get to say what difference that makes in our life.

And we have a lot of work to do to keep the promises we make: to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers, in persevering in resisting evil, in  repenting, returning, in proclaiming by word and example the Good News of Christ, in seeking and serving, in striving for justice and peace, and in respecting (and insist on the respect of) the dignity of every human being.

That brings me to the second thing I noticed about Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus was praying after his baptism. That’s when the heaven was opened, and Holy Spirit descended on him, and a voice came from heaven, “you are my son, the beloved, the one I love, with you I am well pleased.”

Do you hear the echo of Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord, he who created you: do not fear…I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. The rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fires of life, you will not be burned; the flame will not consume you. I am the Lord, your God! The Holy one, your Savior…I give…to you because you are precious in my sight, and honored. And I love you.”

You are my son, whom I love. You are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

You are my son, whom I love. You are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

You are precious in my sight. I love you. With you I am well pleased.

We need to be filled with those words. We as individual Christians and as a Christian faith community. We need to start our day, our meetings, our decision-making processes not by immediately jumping into them, but first pausing, in prayer.

Years ago I was on a spiritual retreat, and I met each morning with my spiritual director, a Jesuit priest by the name of Bernie Bush. Several days in a row I told him how much I loved Ignatian spirituality because it was so ACTION oriented, it wasn’t, I said, one of those naval-gazing, contemplative practices. It got you out there in the world working.

Fr. Bush smiled, and said, “whoa, whoa, whoa, John…just a second.” Then he said these words:

Sitting still, just doing nothing, just contemplating, praying, will accomplish a lot more than activity, because it is in times of silence, retreat, and contemplation that we align ourselves with God’s purposes.

Then your actions –
the ones that flow out of that quiet –
will be like the deep canoe paddle stroke,
changing direction with minimal effort,
verses the day and the life
of a hundred quick energetic strokes at the surface.

You must believe this.

So whenever you find yourself unable to rest…
unable to just be…feet tapping, agitated, ready to “just get out there” it’s a major warning sign that you are not in tune with God.”

So, yes, 

  • there are a lot of competing voices out there vying for our attention and affection and dedication, and it’s human nature to be filled with expectation and to wonder who, or what, might be the messiah, the savior, the one who will deliver us from our troubles, fix things, restore things, put things right. 
  • And God is beckoning, cajoling, recruiting, commissioning, empowering, and using us to establish his Kingdom here “on earth, as it is in heaven,”
  • And we have a lot of work to do to keep the promises we make: to continue the apostles teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread, we need to persevere, repent, return, proclaim by word and example, seeks and serve, strive for justice and peace, and respect, and insist on the respect of every human being

But all that starts by asking ourselves who, or what, will be our Lord and Savior as we do that.

And we get the answer to that question –

And, like Jesus,
we get the strength and courage and Power from the Holy Spirit to go forward with it –

in prayer.  



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