Raise Your Flag

(sermon 1/12/20 – Baptism of the Lord)

raise your flag

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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The author of Matthew’s gospel had a problem. Just as any author, ancient or modern might do, he sat down at his version of a blank legal pad and began planning how to structure his work in a way that told his story – in this case, the story of Jesus – in a way that emphasized the points he wanted to make. But one of the first things he had to deal with was a debate going on among the believers about Jesus’ baptism. He had Mark’s earlier gospel sitting in front of him, and other sources as well, to draw from as he composed his own work, and Mark dealt with Jesus’ baptism very simply. In the midst of Mark telling how John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, Jesus shows up, seemingly like anyone else, and asks John to baptize him. Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t seem to recognize in advance that Jesus is the messiah. He apparently doesn’t see any potential theological difficulty with the idea, so he basically shrugs his shoulders and says OK, come on in, the water’s fine. No big deal

But in the ten years or so since Mark wrote his version of the story, Jesus’ followers had started to develop a more complex theological understanding of how Jesus’ reconciliation, his atonement, between God and humanity worked, in which Jesus himself would need to have been sinless, in order, they argued, to be an adequate “sacrifice” acceptable to God to forgive the sin of all humanity. And if that were the case, then why did Jesus get baptized like any other mortal, if Mark was right and baptism was all about repentance and forgiveness of sin?

So as Matthew crafted his account, he had to deal with that. In his account, he doesn’t deny that forgiveness of sin is one meaning of baptism, but he offers an additional meaning to it that helps to soothe some theological discomfort. Matthew’s John the Baptist is in on the knowledge that Jesus is special, the anointed one, when he arrives to be baptized, and he protests – as some believers in Matthew’s time would have – that it would be inappropriate for John to baptize him; in fact, it should be the other way around. But in Matthew’s account, Jesus says no, he should be baptized, in order to “fulfill all righteousness” – which, in Matthew-speak, as he lays out throughout his gospel, means to do in all ways the things that are pleasing to God. So Jesus being baptized is something that would please God.

Now for a moment, I want to move forward to the present-day. Several times a month, George and I will get together with a group of friends, to share a meal together, maybe go out to a show, occasionally play a board game, maybe enjoy some good bourbon and conversation and laughs. Now, there isn’t a person sitting around the table who hasn’t gone through some really thin, difficult financial times in their lives, and everyone gathered there is aware of and grateful for the fact that they’re reasonably secure now. From time to time, though, as the conversations might ebb and flow, someone will say something about some great food – maybe some extremely high-quality beef, or hard-to-find pork, or some delicious exotic cheese they’ve had the pleasure of enjoying; or having enjoyed some exquisite turkey that was organic, free-range, raised by a farmer who they knew; where the turkeys all listen to Beethoven and get daily massages, and the farmer reads them bedtime stories; or maybe having met some famous person, or some other similarly elitist comment – sort of like a real-world version of Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” telling the other kids who are catching snowflakes on their tongues, that she never eats December snow; she will only eat January snow. And often, when that happens in the conversation, someone else might joke to the person speaking that they’re “raising their flag” – meaning that they’re raising their flag of privilege and elitism; that their privilege is showing. Sometimes, instead of actually putting it into words, as the other person is going on, someone will just silently make the gesture with their hands of raising a flag up a flagpole, offering a gentle, good-natured ribbing to whoever’s speaking at the moment, and we’ll all laugh, and the conversation will go on from there.

I mention that because I think that in a way – a more positive way, to be sure – a large aspect of Matthew’s understanding of baptism, and what fulfilling all righteousness,” doing those things that are pleasing to God, lies in something similar. To Matthew, in addition to baptism signifying forgiveness of sin, it also signifies the flag that, being baptized, we’re now called to live under, and to be loyal to. So Jesus being baptized, then, symbolizes that Jesus is part of this movement – certainly, in the way we typically use that term, but mostly in the sense that he is at the very center of a literal moving of world history, of human existence, in a new direction, into a new era – an era of the partial incoming of the kingdom of God into this life. Through the act of his baptism, God has raised this flag over Jesus, both identifying God’s pleasure and Jesus’ central part in it all.

Matthew might have found a way to address that theological issue regarding Jesus’ baptism. But others remain. In the earliest years of the church, and up until this day, for example, many have suggested that it was at his baptism, and not at the time of his birth – at the time of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and God’s voice of loving approval – when Jesus became God incarnate – as we say, “fully human and fully divine.”

And of course, Matthew’s literary take on baptism didn’t really settle the issue he was trying to settle, either. It continues to this day. Many of our literal neighbors, our Evangelical siblings in the faith, emphasize the idea of baptism primarily signifying forgiveness of sins – and most significantly, that it signifies our choice, the exercising of our free will, to “raise the flag” as it were, to be followers of Christ. On the other hand, we Mainliners, and certainly we Presbyterians, recognize baptism as a sign of forgiveness of sin, but we especially emphasize its being a seal of God making a unilateral covenant with us to be part of this identity, this movement, of Christ-followers and the kingdom of God – and especially, that baptism doesn’t signify us choosing to raise our flag, but rather, it’s a sign of us recognizing that God has chosen to raise that flag over us – that, as I sometimes say when baptizing an infant, we don’t believe baptism is a sign of what we’re doing, but rather, it’s a sign of what God has already done.

Beyond that ongoing theological debate between Evangelicals and Mainliners, one thing is definitely true: after our baptism, we are indeed called by God to “raise our flag” – to visibly do those things that please God, that “fulfill all righteousness,” which, to Matthew, is always acting in ways that are loving and merciful. After our baptism, we’re called by God to act in ways that make it clear to those around us that, in gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace that God has showered us with, we’re trying to live and treat others with that same kind of love, mercy, and grace. Regardless of the finer points of how we understand or want to emphasize baptism, all Christians – all who profess to have followed Jesus into those waters of baptism and come back up out of them wth him – are called to be a visible witness to the world of an alternative way – a better way – than what we see around us on a daily basis. And what do we see? Greed. Arrogance. Selfishness. Violence. Threats of war. Cruelty. The dehumanizing, belittlement, or worse, of people just because they aren’t sufficiently like ourselves. The hoarding of wealth and resources that has created and kept the vast majority of the world’s population in abject poverty.

Every Christian is called, you and I are called – lovingly called, but called nonetheless – to reflect God’s love for us outward to others, by opposing all of those distortions of God’s will, of God’s righteousness – and not just to speak out against them, and not just to pray about them, but to concretely work and fight to end them, regardless of where we find them; in whatever situation, whatever institution; in whatever corporate policy or educational policy or governmental policy; in whatever person, whatever office or position. We’re called to let every human being know that they are loved, and not just to let them know they’re loved, but to actually love them; to actually offer them compassion, and mercy, and justice. To that point, the great twentieth-century priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that bridges all divides and heals all wounds.” That, friends, is a flag of privilege that. out of gratitude and love, we should all be ready, willing, and proud to raise.

Thanks be to God.

Absolute Certainty

eiπ 

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!”

dl 1967
“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.