When my daughter-in-law called about my son’s upcoming birthday celebration, my first thought as always when I hear her voice is how incredibly grateful I am for the gift she is to our family. “I want this year to be really special for him, you?” Hopefully, the time that passed before I managed to respond seemed shorter to her than it did to me. Surely my math must be wrong. How could I have a child turning forty?
This time whiplash has lectionary antecedents. Only last week, we celebrated the circumcision and naming of Jesus when he was only eight days old. And now, a week later, the lectionary has fast-forwarded us to Jesus as a thirty-year-old showing up at the River Jordan outside Jerusalem asking to be baptized. By all accounts, it is fair to ask, “Where did the time go?!?”
There is a human tendency to want to hold creation in its infant stage. Whether with puppies or babies, we prefer to linger over the precious rather than struggle with the obstreperous – that turbulent, unruly, and defiant stage of life that resists any tendency to adore it, instead taunting us to engage it with everything we’ve got.
John’s reluctance to baptize his cousin is the last vestige of any protective action around Jesus’ vulnerability in his human body. The game is afoot the moment Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters and the heavens open to the voice of God. In three short years, the earth will shake and the curtain of the temple will tear into pieces at the moment of his death.
And in between the heavens opening and the curtain tearing, Jesus will somehow manage to make full use of every moment of every day while at the same time giving the ironic appearance of having all the time in the world. The only way that this makes any sense to me is that he was in absolute agreement with what lay before him, and lived each day with the poise that a sense of purpose offers.
Today is one of the days in the life of the Church that we customarily offer the Sacrament of Baptism. Today, we are fortunate to have the fourth generation of one family being baptized – the great-granddaughter of Mary Emma Stribling, Lucy Tanner – as well as a father and his children from a family who has recently come to Grace – the McPeeks. By God’s grace, we here are blessed to see both the fruits from generations of nurturing right here in this church community as well as those fruits that God has nurtured in another garden and lovingly transplanted here to Grace.
Hopefully, in the case of these precious children, they will never know a day when they didn’t love God. We will watch them grow through all the various stages of their young lives, and hopefully be present for their confirmations, dance at their weddings, and be here when their children are presented for baptism. They will stumble and fall but always among friends and family who have publically pledged to be there for them. In the case of adults being baptized, however, there is a sense, whether accurate or not, that their baptisms indicate a moment in time when they “arrive” at a full and complete understanding of what it means to turn away from everything that came before and trust entirely to God’s providence in all that lies ahead.
In truth, however, these are two sides of the same coin. Just because an adult asks to be baptized into the fellowship of the Church, we cannot assume that all the stumbling is over or that everything in life now makes perfect sense. We are talking, after all, about a mystery of rebirth. How can we possibly do anything but make the case for what we believe we unde4rstand about all of this, and then offer up that argument on the altar of the best we can bring, and pray that God will make some use of it for our welfare and God’s glory?
For, unlike some traditions, we believe that what happens at baptism is a mystery – a kind of “truth” that we can experience only through revelation. That is, the efficacy of the sacrament is evident in what really and truly follows it in the years to come.
With a realistic view of human behavior, our baptismal promises provide the means for repentance and beginning again – as often as necessary. Rather than just bumping along, however, with that safety net, it is not a bad idea to have a general outline for how to live as baptized persons. Looking at Jesus’ own baptized life is a good start.
For, his public ministry does not begin immediately following his baptism. Rather, what immediately follows is a long period of self-examination and clarity. We do well to follow this pattern in our own lives, not beginning something without taking the time to know ourselves, our limitations, our temptations, and our resources for recovery.
Allowing the waters of baptism to be for us a fresh beginning is a good start. But moving from a clean slate to writing an outline for life is an equally good next step. Rules of Life are not the sole preserve of monks. We all live according to some rule. Sometimes we are aware of the rule and other times we live according to a rule unconsciously. God calls us to a conscious engagement of life, however.
The promises made at baptism are the basic structure for the rule of life that every baptized person is called to follow. By using baptism as our starting point – regardless of whether today is your baptismal day or the day you renew your baptismal promises – we have the opportunity to frame all that happens next in the context of the sacrament of rebirth.
This sacrament is “New Year Resolution” in earnest. This month in the forum time Jenny Massey is facilitating a discussion about “Rules of Life” and I commend it to you. For, of course, the ambitious projects that we take on in the New Year are aimed at transformation. And, with God’s help, and in the context of a community of accountability, these changes are possible. Equally important, these changes are necessary.
John’s arguing with his cousin Jesus about Jesus not needing to be baptized can sound like conversations in our lives with people close to us when we try to do a necessary thing. “Oh, you don’t drink that much.” “Can’t you just eat it this once?” “It isn’t gossip if it’s true!” Or, even more sinister are statements that highlight our past attempts that did not succeed. “Well, I just hope this diet works better for you than the last one you tried!”
To all this I encourage you to respond with my favorite theological saying from G. K. Chesterton: “The thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” The pattern we ought to hold out to each other is not a recital of past failures but rather a pattern of trying that indicates an earnest longing to be a better person, whose life is grounded, noble and purposeful and whose concentration is on following Christ’s example of selfless love. We may not always get it right, but if we aim at nothing, we’ll hit it every time.
And so we begin again this morning, along with these persons, to commit ourselves anew to the life a disciple. That time whiplash works both ways, you know. Before we know it, we will have made new and better choices a permanent part of our lives. And those nay-sayers who seem to be just waiting for us to fail, may themselves finally be encouraged by your example to take a chance themselves and begin that journey whose mantra will always be: “I will, with God’s help.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
January 8, 2017
Year A “The Baptism of our Lord”