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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you thought the year 2020 was challenging for you, can you imagine the daunting task facing preachers across America Sunday every Sunday. Last week, the first Sunday in the new year 2021, I spoke on the theme of “Never Waste a Good Crisis.” Little did I know that there was an even greater crisis ready to unfold before us in our nation’s Capitol. No one condones the violence that took place there on Wednesday. A line of civil society has been breached. But my role as the pastor here at Lake of the Isles is not to speak passionately or apologetically of the various voices who brought about this national tragedy. I am not here to be a political or religious prophet, condemning others, nor am I here to ignore the volatile landscape we are being called to journey across together. My role is to shepherd this flock together along the righteous paths from living waters to green pastures so that we may dwell securely in the shadow of God’s grace and the promise and hope of his eternal kingdom. That is the call of a pastor to shepherd the flock together.
So for some today, speaking about Jesus’ baptism on this of all days, may seem rather disconnected or even cowardly. But let me assure you, it is where we as God’s people will find our ultimate hope and consolation.
Baptism is important to me and throughout the course of my three decades of pastoral ministry I have performed hundreds of baptisms. Now I wish I could say that I remember the name of every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. There are some baptisms that I do remember with clarity and fondness because of my own error. 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, and I remember the poor Lithuanian child who I fear was baptized in the name of the Father, Zone and Holy Toast. Or there was the family of three adolescent aged children who all seemed to receive their baptismal names- jumbled.
Today’s Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is often overlooked in America. It is doesn’t really matter whether the church is Roman Catholic or Protestant. The Christmas decorations have been packed up and stored away for another year, and so the festival is simply marked as the First Sunday after Epiphany. How differently the day is celebrated in Eastern Europe among the Orthodox churches. There it is commemorated somewhat whimsically, as the Polar Plunge for Epiphany. In Russia, believers cut cross shaped holes into the ice and then submerge themselves three times into the frigid waters. In Greece, believers jump into the somewhat warmer waters to retrieve a wooden crucifix that is thrown there by the local priests. The one who finds it is offered a special blessing. In Ukraine the faithful erect a cross from ice blocks cut from the rivers and lakes, which when it melts, becomes the holy water for the new year. Surprisingly, in Eastern Europe, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan is regarded as the true and most historical Epiphany of our Lord, the great revelation of Christ to the world, and not simply to the Wise Men from the East that we celebrated here this past week. No, it is the revelation of the power and majesty of the Holy Trinity to the world. So what are we missing?
My friends, this morning as we meditate on Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan, let us consider the guidance that Jesus offers us in these turbulent times, and the promise of hope that his baptism offers.
All four Gospels paint a fairly simple picture of the scene: Jesus Christ enters the Jordan River with John the Baptist. He is immersed in its flow; and as he comes out of the waters, the heavens open, a dove descends, and a voice of approval resounds from the skies. It might seem perhaps like just another extraordinary day in an extraordinary life. Readers of St. Mark’s gospel are often struck by the brevity of the story line. There is no exchange between Jesus and his relative John the Baptist. “Oh, I should be baptized by you.” Perhaps more surprising is to discover that Jesus entered the river with others o be washed in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus had no sins to confess and yet he approached the River Jordan together with the crowds from all Judea and Jerusalem, with the masses, with the mob, to be washed of their sins and to begin life anew. It was a pivotal moment in God’s mission to bring and salvation to all people. St. Mark then describes God’s voice speaking, and the flutter of the wings of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, but Mark doesn’t even record anyone having witnessed Jesus’ baptism or that anything unique happened. Only Jesus seems to recognize the significance of that moment.
Now you may be wondering, but Pastor Haug, how can baptism, be such an important and transformative event? For Jesus, yes, but for us, no. Many of us don’t even remember our baptism. After all it is just water and words- isn’t it? Mind you, my own sons who were four and six year old when they were baptized were disappointed. They thought we should have used shampoo and warm water. So why do I believe that baptism is such a defining moment? Simply said, it is because I believe that everything that happened to Jesus on his baptismal day happens to you and me as well.
Baptism is the beginning of the journey. It is where your own new life as Christian men and women begins, and it is where you must return when your life has been obsessed and provoked by those with whom you disagree. Healthy and mature Christians do not have to have their way on all things, but they must be willing like Jesus to go out and identify with those who are struggling and earnestly seeking a new beginning.
What does that first step of faith look like? First of all, just as Jesus’s own baptism gave him a sense of call, baptism gives you a new purpose, relationship and accountability. College graduates are often 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 conscious of your baptism, there is another question being asked, “What would God like you to do with your life?” My friends, have you struggled to answer that question- especially in this week. As you begin this new year, face the crowds with which you disagree, consider again the question, 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, transformative moment.
Secondly, just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism, the Spirit descends upon you offering his gifts. In these days, the spiritual gifts are patience and understanding, forgiveness and tolerance, respect and joy in all of God’s creation. There is an old saying, “Remember… The will of God will never takes 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 and principled Christian is often perceived and regarded as an unwelcome guest when they speak.
Baptism 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. As a child learning to walk, you will fall down and make mistakes, but you continue to get up again, walk and grow. Ask yourself, have you allowed the struggles of our Capital and this world to snuff out your enthusiasm and to hide away your spiritual gifts- or are you still getting up again and growing? Are you willing to walk with those who struggling as well- even with those with whom you disagree? Baptism has the potential to be an important and defining moment and gift to others 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 and the voice speaks. 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.”
Unfortunately, my friends, not all of life’s important and defining moments are positive. That is what we have discovered again this past week. There are moments that can tear your heavens apart with sorrow and shock: 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. Let me assure you of the good news of Jesus’ baptism. In these torn, broken moments of life, God will not abandon you, his beloved children- and he will make his presence known- calling you by name. My friends, it is also his voice that encourages you to move forward.
For Jesus, his baptism was important and transforming. From the moment he rose from the River Jordan, leaving behind his carpenter’s tools and commencing his public ministry, his 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 Jesus 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. “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In these difficult and turbulent time, that is your promise and hope and strength as well -Even as you walk together and to reach out to those with whom you disagree. That is what God is empowering you to do through the gift of your baptism. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.