Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Following instructions can often be the difference between success and disaster. It is a bit of an urban legend, but scientists at NASA once built a gun specifically to launch dead chickens at the windshields of airplanes. The purpose of the gun was to simulate the frequent incidents of collisions with airborne fowl to test the strength of the windshields. British engineers heard about the gun and were eager to test it on their windshields of their new high-speed trains. Arrangements were made, and a gun was sent to the British engineers.
When the gun was fired, the engineers stood shocked at the results. The shatterproof windshield not only was smashed to pieces; but the chicken continued to travel through the control console, snapped the engineer’s backrest in two and embedded itself in the back wall of the cabin like an arrow shot from a bow. The horrified Brits sent NASA the disastrous results of the experiment, along with the designs of the windshields, and begged the U.S. scientists for suggestions. NASA responded back with a one-line memo: “Defrost the chicken!”
I wish all of life’s struggles and questions could be brought down to a one-line memo, or the punchline of a good story. Yes, I wish that the difference between success and disaster could be so simple. Unfortunately, there are many occasions in life when the future is unclear, and when it is difficult to know the path that God would have you follow.
This morning’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, however, reminds us that there is an occasion when the heavens are open and a voice speaks clearly to you.
It is a pivotal moment when God’s will and mission are so very clear that it is nearly impossible to avoid that which God desires of you. My friends, as we begin a new year of God’s grace, I invite to experience the confidence that our Savior Jesus Christ will be with you, and that his presence can provide the difference between success and failure. And it all begins, by remembering your baptism.
Baptisms are important to me, and through the course of my ministry I have performed hundreds of them. Now I wish that I could say that I remember the name of every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. And I wish that I could say that the experience had been a pivotal moment in the life of all those who were baptized. That of course, is yet to be seen. I remember the poor child I almost boiled to death in steamy, hot water. When I was a missionary in Latvia 25 years ago, there was no hot water heater in the church. Instead, we warmed water for baptism in a coffee percolator. The worship assistant had the pot plugged in a minute or two too long. As I poured the water into baptismal bowl, I saw steam rising up from the water. There was only one thing to do. Add a few more prayers, and slow down the tempo of my reading. I remember the Estonian diplomat and his wife who I baptized on the very last days of my missionary service in the Baltic States. Having been raised in the Soviet Union, they were not even allowed to enter the church- much less to be baptized. I remember the nervous groom that I baptized only minutes before his wedding day and the water that was still trickling down his cheeks as he said his vows. They were important, pivotal moments in their lives which would take on even greater clarity and importance in remembering them. That is what you and I are invited to do. We are all invited to look back at our lives and to remember our baptism.
For Jesus, remembering his baptism by John at the River Jordan was a pivotal moment. From that day forward, Jesus left behind his carpenter’s tools and began his public ministry. Jesus’ own identity would be unquestionable; his ministry to the lowly, sinful and forgotten, unalterable; and his march to his death on the cross, unstoppable. From the moment he rose from the waters, and the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, his work and mission were clear and obvious. And he would do so with the affirming words of God ringing in his memory. “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Surprisingly, the heavens opening, the voice proclaiming, and the descending of the Holy Spirit are not limited to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. That is what you and I are to recall, when we remember our baptism. This is what we all experience – no matter the temperature of the water, the age you were baptized, or the significance of the day of your baptism. It is the mystery of baptism God’s word and the power of the water. Our heavenly Father encourages each one of us to trust that baptism is a turning point in our lives. N ow you may be wondering: so how can this be true?
First of all, just as Jesus’ own baptism gave him a sense of call, baptism should give you a new purpose and relationship. A small, country Baptist church was having a “baptism” in a river on a cold January day. The preacher asked one baptism candidate, “Is the water cold?” “Naw!” he replied. To which one of the deacons shouted, “Dip him agin’ preacher, he’s still lyin’.” It’s not that baptism makes you perfect. You will still fall short of his glory. But in baptism God gives you a new purpose. We often are asked, “What would you like to do with your life?” And as graduates of liberal arts schools, we answer, “I’m keeping all my options open.” But when you are baptized, there is another question, “What would God like you to do with your life?” My friends, have you struggled to answer that question. As you begin this new year, consider again, as a child of God what purpose does God have for you and your life- Or are you simply keeping all your options open? Baptism, you see, is a defining moment.
Secondly, just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism, the Spirt descends upon you offering his gifts. There is an old saying, “Remember… The will of God will never take you, Where the grace of God cannot keep you, Where the arms of God cannot support you, Where the riches of God cannot supply your needs, Where the power of God cannot endow you.” Unfortunately, many today lack the vitality and will to use God’s spiritual gifts. It is strange. The world accepts enthusiasm in every realm except religion. An enthusiastic salesman is known as an achiever. An enthusiastic lawyer is an asset to a legal firm. An enthusiastic farmer, as the saying goes, is outstanding in his field. But an enthusiastic Christian is perceived as unwelcome guest. In baptism, God empowers you with his spiritual gifts to be an enthusiastic disciple.
Mind you, baptism is more than an instantaneous conversion. It is a life long journey. As Martin Luther said, it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ. Sadly, many who are baptized stop growing, simply because they grow complacent and smug in their faith or lack there of. As a child learning to walk, you will fall down and make mistakes, but you continue to walk and grow. The same is true for baptism. Ask yourself, have you allowed the world to snuff out your enthusiasm and to hide away your spiritual gifts- or are you still growing? Baptism has the potential to be an important and defining moment if you will use the gifts the Holy Spirit offers.
Finally, when Jesus was baptized a voice from heaven spoke, and its message was simple and intimate, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” That same voice calls you by name as well. St. Mark is both dramatic an intentional in his description. He writes that the heavens are torn open. It echoes the words of prophet Isaiah, who said, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known.” We read the words again at the end of St. Mark’s gospel as Jesus hung upon the cross drawn between heaven and earth, and when he breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, just as the heaven were torn apart when he was baptized. There was no voice from the darkened heavens that day, however. God was silent. But there was a voice not far off. A Roman centurion stood at the foot of the cross. When he saw that Jesus had breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And that my friends, is God’s greatest promise.
Why? Because not all life’s important and defining moments are positive. There are moments that will tear your heavens apart with sorrow: the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of disease, the heart attack, or the accident, moments when the forces and voices around you drown out the clear direction that once had been given to you. It is in these moments that you must know what voice you should listen to, and that is the one that calls you his beloved child. It is the voice who called you by name at baptism.
My friends, is there a torn place in your life? A place, a loss which has been torn apart. Let me assure you, in these torn moments of life, God will not abandon his beloved children- and he will make his presence known- calling you. When you are wondering what the future will bring, when you are pondering what this new year will offer, at life’s turning point, follow the instruction, “Remember your baptism.” A simple phrase, you see, can make all the difference between success and disaster. Simply remember the NASA memo to the British engineers. “Defrost the chicken!” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.