Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy St. Knut’s Day! Or as this day is known in Scandinavia, Happy 20th day of Christmas. Yes, for many good Lutherans in Northern Europe, January 13th is the last day for the holiday decorations and then the Christmas tree is tossed out. The Scandinavian practice is 8 days longer than the English tradition of the 12 days of Christmas and 20 days shorter than the Roman Catholic tradition of 40 days. Sometime in the 18th century the Feast Day of Denmark’s first saint, Knut the Holy was shifted from January 7th to the 13th, and in turn, his legacy was interwoven with the stories of his more well- known uncle Knut the Great. Both were devout Christians- and so January 13th became known as the 20th day of Knut.
Knut the Great, or Canute the Great, was the most successful ruler of the Anglo Saxon period, who at the height of his power was King of England, Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, and overlord of Scotland. He put an end to Viking attacks on Britain and paid off the standing army. He reinstated the rules of King Edgar, and attended the coronation in Rome of the Emperor Conrad II. Regrettably, his achievements are all but forgotten, and he is remembered solely for a single misinterpreted story, the story Knut and the Waves.
According to Henry of Huntingdon, in his History of the English People, King Knut became so appalled with his overly complimentary and adoring courtiers, that he had his throne placed on the banks of the Thames River, waiting for the tide to come in. As the tide rose, Knut stood and held out his hand, demanding that the waves recede. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord.” Most people’s retelling of the story stops there, but there’s actually more. King Knut goes on to say, “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy of the name of king but He whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.” You see, rather than a tale telling of a king’s foolishness and arrogance, the story actually celebrates King Knut’s good sense and Christian piety.
Now the story of King Knut and Waves may seem like an odd introduction to a meditation for story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. But my friends, I am convinced that there is a common thread here. We live in a world where critics readily misinterpret the Christian faith or choose to misrepresent it. They neglect to finish the whole story. Nowhere is this more evident than the world’s present understanding of the gift of baptism.
Consider first, the life of John the Baptist. He had an amazing gift and ability to connect with people. The rural folks in the whole Judean countryside and the urban elite from the city of Jerusalem alike were drawn him. Forget about the old real estate adage, “Location, location, location.” The people came out to the wilderness to hear John preach. They came out to the wilderness to confess their sins and to be baptized. They came out seeking a change in their lives. They sought a power in baptism.
Now as highly as John was regarded by the crowds, he was feared by King Herod. In the chronicles of the Roman historian Flavius Josephus, he wrote of John and the people’s belief that he was the promised Messiah, “Now when many others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved and pleased by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise.”
A lesser man might have given in to the urgings of the crowds. A lesser man might have read his own headlines in the press, and been tempted to act on them by the pleas of his followers. But John knew his message. Many men can preach a good sermon while their own life style denies its truth. They harbor a sizeable bank account while speaking of heavenly treasure. They extol the virtues of poverty while residing in a comfortable home. John was not such a man. He confidently lived his message in the wilderness where he preached of the coming of the God of New Beginnings. Like Knut the Great, John the Baptist knew the true source of greatness. “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I is coming.” John, you see, knew there was a second part to the story.
Scripture doesn’t ever explain why Jesus chose to leave Nazareth that day, and to go down to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. The two men were relatives who no doubt spent time together every year for 30 years. Certainly, there must have been theological conversations over John’s work. Perhaps it was the shifting political and spiritual landscape that caused Jesus to go down to John. Whatever the reason, John knew that day, that his work was nearing completion. The light and focus was soon to shift from him to Jesus. And as the water trickled down Jesus’ brow and the voice could be heard from heaven, John knew that that new day had dawned.
Now, for nearly 2000 years, since Jesus’ baptism, faithful men and women have dared to believe that the gift of baptism has a power that transcends this world and human experience. It is that power that you and I have been invited to discover and experience as Jesus’ followers. But the world doesn’t always see the story’s end. God’s faithful people are treated and discounted like modern day King Knuts who arrogantly believe they can control the tide.
My friends, as God’s faithful people, you and I will be confronted daily by those who deny the power of baptism, and so we are encouraged to remembrance our baptism. So remember that when you were baptized, the heavens were opened for you. And that like Jesus, you were made into a holy instrument of God’ kingdom. God gave you a purpose. As Christians we believe that all children are a gift of God, but in baptism we believe that we have been given a new relationship and accountability. 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 before God. You will still fall short of his glory. But in baptism God has given you a 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 have been baptized, and the heavens have been opened for you there is another question, “What would God like you to do with your life?”
As people of faith remember that at your baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon you like a dove as it once descended upon Jesus. Through baptism, God empowers you, even now, with the gifts of the Spirit. 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 Christians today lack the enthusiasm and vitality to use God’s gifts. It is strange. The world accepts enthusiasm in every realm except the religious. An enthusiastic salesman is knows 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 believer is often an unwelcome guest. My friends, remember that God has empowered you with his spiritual gifts, and He longs for you to be an enthusiastic disciple.
Finally, as Christians, we are encouraged to remember that like Jesus at the River Jordan, when you were baptized a voice from heaven spoke, and its message was simple, “This is my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” From the moment Jesus was baptized and raised from the water, he left behind his carpenter’s tools and began his public ministry. Jesus’ own identity and purpose 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 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.
And that is why baptism is so important and essential for you and me. God promises at baptism that you will never be alone in this world. The promise at baptism offers you the confident word that the Father loves you and that the Holy Spirit will be with you. Yes, there is nothing that can separate you from God’s love. It is because of these promises that you and I can accept the challenges that God has for each one of us.
And until that day when your work in this world is complete, you must be prepared to live out your life as King Knut the Great- either viewed as arrogantly boastful or foolishly naïve. Even your faithful actions, words and gestures may be misinterpreted. As was once reported by Katheryn Westcott on the BBC, “It’s more interesting and engaging to tell a story about an arrogant historical king than a boring pious one. And obviously Canute the Proud and Foolish makes for a better comparison than Canute the Reasonable in any political arena.” So Happy Knut’s Day! Remember your baptism. And yes, you can take down the Christmas decorations now. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.