Absolute Certainty

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Luke 3:15-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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There are some things that you just know. Things that, if you were deep asleep in the middle of the night, and someone shook you awake and asked you the question, without even fully waking up you’d blurt out the right answer. “What’s your name?” “What’s two plus two?” “What color are your eyes?” Things that you just know without even having to think. Here, let’s try that right now – I’ll ask you all a question and you just yell out the answer; don’t be shy. Ready? OK, here we go…. “What city are we in?” “What day of the week is it?” “Who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates?” … Well, if you grew up where I did, you’d know the answer to that one. OK, since we’re in Louisville, how about… “What famous horse race takes place here?” “What alcohol is Kentucky known for?” And one last one: “Who baptized Jesus?”

Ah HAH! Not so fast. If you listened carefully to today’s gospel text, at least according to Luke, that couldn’t be right. We read in other gospels that John the Baptist baptized Jesus; that he even protested the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus, instead of the other way around. But here, according to Luke, Herod had already arrested and imprisoned John by the time Jesus was baptized. So then, according to Luke, who did it? He never really tells us; he just doesn’t seem to think the detail is important. In fact, he doesn’t even give us any details at all; he just reports that it occurred, and he jumps to what follow – Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God speaks approval and pleasure with Jesus.

Things like this in the scriptures have always intrigued me – texts that we think say something, because we’ve read them or heard them so many times and we think we know the story, but we’re really melding together in our minds different accounts of the same event, and the separate accounts may be saying something different. Or for that matter, the thought-provoking detail in this story of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus here, at age thirty or so. I mean, where has the Holy Spirit been up until then? If Jesus was the incarnation of God in the flesh in Jesus since his conception, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit have already been present within him? Or is this detail a part of a different theological take on Jesus – that up until this point, Jesus was actually just a ordinary, even if chosen, human being, and his actual divinity, his incarnation, began when the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism?

Well, there are volumes of theological discussions about that particular subject, and it’s an important one, but my actual point at the moment is that this, just like the question of who actually baptized Jesus, is something that we’ll never be completely certain of. But it seems that to Luke, the more important thing in this particular story is the significance of the baptism itself. To Luke, both in this story and considering the theological issues that he plays out throughout his gospel, Jesus’ baptism represents God’s having chosen Jesus – God’s having established a bond, a covenant of love, acceptance, and call with Jesus. And Jesus’ being baptized like other humans is also seen as a sign of Jesus’ – and therefore God’s – solidarity with all of humanity, sharing in the entirety of the human condition; the best and the worst, the blessed and the cursed – God loves and is in solidarity with all.

This covenantal understanding of baptism especially resonates with us Presbyterians, as part of the larger Reformed tradition. This is why we Presbyterians baptize infants and children – the sacrament is not a sign of us being of some magical age of reason and our supposedly making a decision to choose God. Rather, it is, as we say, a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant made with us, initiated and established entirely by God, and not at all dependent upon anything we choose or do or profess. As I’ll often say during a baptism, baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing; it’s a sign of what God has already done. While during a baptism, we, or if we’re children, our parents, will profess faith, just as we’d do in any other worship service, that isn’t what the baptism itself represents or depends on. Baptism, just as was the case with Jesus, and regardless of our age, is all about the reassurance that God’s Holy Spirit dwells with us, and that God has called us beloved, and that God is well pleased with us.

Today, we’ll be ordaining several people to become Ruling Elders. This is a very important thing in the life of the church, and in the lives of the people being ordained. Their journey of faith began in the covenant and call of their baptism, and now, through the discernment of both themselves and the whole congregation, that call from God is moving them into a particular kind of service and leadership in the church. In all likelihood, it will be something they remember for the rest of their lives. I can tell you that I’ll never forget my ordination as a Ruling Elder. Kneeling before God, feeling the presence and love of God, and through the laying on of hands, of those ordained before me, was electric. I’ve only rarely felt God’s presence that powerfully, and unquestionably, in my life.

And in a way, that brings us full circle. Because whether we’re talking about ordination or baptism, they’re both tangible, physical signs of this one fact – that, unlike the question of who baptized Jesus, the reality of God’ covenant – God’s love, acceptance, and claim on us; the reality that God will guide our paths all the days of our lives; and the reality that there is nothing that can separate us from that love, is something in which we can always have absolute certainty.

Thanks be to God.

Milestones

(sermon 1/7/18 – Baptism of Jesus)

Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (mosaic) - Ravenna, Italy
Baptism of Christ, mosaic detail, Ravenna, Italy, circa 451 CE

Mark 1:4-11

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.”

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I remember when I was very young, for some reason, for most of the big annual events in our family – Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and so on – we usually gathered at my grandparents’ house to celebrate. When we did, you could be sure that at some point, my grandfather would drag out his 8mm movie camera to make sure the gathering would be recorded for posterity. That was fine, but back then, cameras really didn’t have low-light capabilities, so whenever the camera came out, so did the big lighting attachment that came with it. It was a metal bar that held two great big incandescent floodlights that, when lit, were about as bright as the sun and twice as hot. Really, as soon as he hit the switch, it scarred the retinas of everyone in the room. You could practically feel the moisture being evaporated out of your skin, paint started to peel off the walls, and the plastic flowers stuck in the ceramic black panther planter started to melt and drip down onto the table. And of course, right after he threw the switch, while we were all feeling like we’d just experienced a thermonuclear blast, the first thing my grandfather would say was “All right, now, everyone SMILE!”

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“Okay everyone, SMILE!”

Well, thank goodness that over time, cameras could do better and better with less and less light, and we went from 8mm film cameras to Super-8, then on to the big video cassette recorders that rode on your shoulder like a boom box, and then camcorders got smaller and smaller, and now, when most of us want to record something, we just pull out our phones.

Whether we record them or not, these kinds of events that my grandfather was thoughtful enough to record way back then, and the similar ones that we all experience today, are milestones in our lives. They’re mileposts that commemorate and help us to understand the whole arc of our lie’s journey. First words. First steps. First bicycle ride. First love. Eagle Scout ceremonies. Graduations, initiations, maybe ordinations. Marriages. Births. Deaths.

Today, we heard the story of one milestone in Jesus’ life – one that most of us have also experienced, the milestone of baptism. In this passage from Mark, we hear how Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. Now, for the most part, we don’t know much about what Jesus was doing up till this time, but it appears that he’d been engaged in some kind of trade, apparently making a living as some kind of builder or craftsman, and he’d likely been doing so since he was maybe 14 or 15, so now at age 30 or so, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of a completely new direction – it’s the beginning of what’s essentially a second-career call for him. So when I read this story, I try to imagine what must have been going through Jesus’ mind as he was being baptized. How much did he know, and how much didn’t he know, about what the next few years were going to bring? Did he wonder how this would change his life? Did he wonder where God would lead him, or if God would protect him and provide for him? Did he wonder if he was even doing the right thing at all? All the questions that any of us might wonder as we start something new. But then, as Jesus is coming back up out of the water, he hears those amazing, validating words, “You are my Son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is a visible sign of his acceptance by God, that God blessed him and his ministry, and that he is an integral part of the overarching covenant that God made with humanity.

For us, baptism means much the same thing. It’s an outward sign and seal of the great truth that God has claimed us, and calls us God’s own; that we’re also a part of that same covenant that God has established. That being part of this covenant is in some way that we can’t fully understand made possible through Jesus himself. Through baptism, Christ asks us to call ourselves by his name, the name Christian, and to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that through him, God forgives our shortcomings and failures in our relationship with God and one another. The waters of baptism symbolize that God chooses to consider those shortcomings, that sin, to be washed away. Baptism is the milestone that marks the beginning of our journey of faith in Christ, a journey that ultimately comes to its conclusion in our death.

This is a time of milestones for us here, as a church, too. Today, we all mourn the death of Dick, our beloved family member. At the same time, we celebrate the reality that he has completed his own journey that began with his baptism, and that he is now living life whole, healed, and in the presence of God. We also celebrate today because we’re welcoming Teresa as a new member to our congregation, and because of the news that Edwin will soon be starting as our new Coordinator of Youth Ministries. And we look forward to the great milestone of Matilda’s baptism, which will take place during worship on the 28th of this month.

The new year is going to bring a lot of milestones for us – milestones in our personal lives, in our national life, in the political realm, and our congregational life together, too. Who knows what all this year will bring? At the beginning of 2017, could we have imagined what the year would bring? Now, as we begin 2018, it’s exciting to imagine what will unfold this year for all of us.

Some of our milestones this year will probably be easy to recognize as they’re happening. Others will probably be more subtle – they won’t be marked by clouds rolling back, or descending doves, or the booming voice of God, or even the glaring lights of a movie camera. Some of them might only be recognized in hindsight, after we’ve had time to think about them. Whatever milestones do occur, though, and whether they come wrapped in joy and laughter, or fears, or even tears, we can experience them all with the assurance that God is journeying through it all together with us, alongside us, strengthening us; and that, just as was the case with Jesus, we’ll be kept in God’s loving embrace, whatever unfolds.

Thanks be to God.