John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11
It was one of the worst days of his life. His stomach was in knots; it felt like someone had punched him and he was almost physically ill. He was distraught; he felt a mixture of worry and fear and anger and confusion. And it all started the night before, when his teenaged daughter told him that she was dropping out of her Confirmation class, because she’d looked at the profession of faith that she’d be asked to make at the end of the process, and she couldn’t in good faith make that profession.
He was crushed. He felt like he’d been hit by a tractor-trailer. He was a person of very deep Christian faith, and at least according to his personal theology at the time, this meant that she was choosing to be condemned to eternal hell. This beautiful young girl who he’d watched being born, who he loved more than he loved his own life, was going to be separated from him forever. It was more than he could bear to think about. All he could do was pray. And so, with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes, he poured out his heart to God.
And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, he was experiencing something he never had before; it was an experience that he tried countless times to put into words later on but there were simply no words to really describe it. The closest he ever came to explain it was that he felt as if he was being covered, head to toe, with a warm, all-encompassing feeling of love and compassion and acceptance. Gradually, the feeling covered him completely; every square inch of his body could feel it; even in the webbing between his fingers and toes; eventually he even felt lifted out of his seat, completely surrounded on all sides, completely immersed in what he could only describe as liquid love. And at the same time, he heard in words that weren’t really words but were still words just as real and just as audible as my words that you’re listening to right now, in response to his prayer of fear and distress, “It’s all right. Everything will be fine. I love her, and I love you, absolutely and completely. She will be fine, and so will you.” He had never felt so loved and so completely at peace at any other time in his life. He knew, beyond any doubt, in some way he couldn’t ever explain, that in that moment, he’d been in the very presence of God.
It really only lasted less than a minute, but it felt like it could have been an hour. But in that moment, he was changed. His understanding about God, and God’s relationship with us, and his understanding about faith and salvation, changed forever. At the same time, the experience made him understand much more deeply the words he’d heard so many time in the past, that in our baptism we’re baptized into Christ’s death, and coming out of the waters of baptism we’re given new life. His experience was very much related to his baptism, and he felt in a very real way the new life, the new beginning, that it represented. Through his experience, he gained a new beginning, both in his own understanding of the faith, and also in the way he related to his daughter.
He knew that even if he never had that same experience again, he would never question the existence of God, or his belief in God, again. But in fact, he did have that experience again, two other times since that first one. One of those times was a couple of years later, when he kneeled down in the aisle crossing of his church and was surrounded by ordained ministers and elders, laying their hands on him as he himself was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In that moment, through God’s Spirit moving through those who had laid hands on him, he felt that same extension of the seal and the call that he’d received in his baptism, and he felt the same all-surrounding, all-encompassing experience of love and acceptance.
That’s something to think about today, Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we think about Jesus’ baptism, but also our own, and the understanding that through it we’re sealed into God’s covenant community of faith – and not just sealed, but called, to some form of ministry that God has in store for us. So today, I’d invite all of you who have been baptized and called this way to think about that again, and I invite you to recommit yourselves to that call, whatever it might be. And I invite all of you who have been ordained in any way to a particular form of ministry, to reconsider that call, and recommit yourselves to it, also. And to those three of you who are being ordained today, I invite you, too. I invite you to recognize that this is a very special for you. This is the day that begins a new way of you engaging in the ministry God has set in front of you. It’s the beginning of a new way that you will live in witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, a new way of living as his disciple. I don’t know if you’ll experience the same feeling that that man did when he was ordained. I hope you do, but if not, I hope you feel it at some time in your lives if you haven’t already. I hope that you understand, whether you feel it today or some other day, that in your baptism, and now extended even further in your ordination, you are absolutely immersed in God’s love and acceptance, and you’ve been equipped for what God has in store for you. But beyond that, if I have any advice, any prayer for you, as you go about your ministry of compassion, both to the members of this congregation and to the people of our community, it would be this: You will indeed be very involved in ministries of social justice, and helping with social needs of people. But recognize that this isn’t just a “job;” it isn’t just being part of a run-of-the-mill social service venture. You will be involved in this form of ministry specifically to witness to Christ in the world, to spread and illustrate his love. That’s my prayer for you this day.