SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D DAPHNE B. NOYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
JANUARY 11, 2015, THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
You can’t go back.
I suspect that the longer one lives, the more deeply these words are felt. You can’t go back to your childhood home – and if you do, it won’t be the same. You can’t go back to sitting on the knee of a parent or grandparent, or hearing their voice, singing you to sleep or giving you advice, or even a scolding. You may be in love, but you can’t go back to the early days of a love affair, when you first felt the spark that later grew into a flame. You can’t erase the hurts and losses and disappointments that have shaped your character, your soul, any more than you can take back the accomplishments and talents and acts of kindness or generosity that help define who you are.
We are seemingly stuck in the present, nursing memories of the past, looking to the future with anticipation or anxiety or excitement or perhaps a blend of all three.
But today, today in this very place, we have a baptism – that mysterious, sacred act where past and present and future collide and combine to create a holy transformation.
How is the past brought into this rite? We hear and see the evocative splashing of water – this element so necessary to our lives, physical and spiritual -- into the font. We recall the story of creation – the Spirit moving over the waters—and the parting of the Red Sea, as the children of Israel are led out of bondage into “the land of promise.” And,of course, Jesus’ own baptism.
In today’s Gospel, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ immersion in the River Jordan, and the subsequent opening of the skies and voice coming from Heaven: “This is my beloved son.” The Jesus who entered into those waters emerges as the Son of God, and there is no going back. In the rite of baptism, and in celebrating the Feast of Our Lord’s Baptism, we trace our spiritual bloodlines back to creation.
Witnessing or participating in a baptism (is there a difference?) may stir up personal memories. Perhaps you were baptized when you were old enough to remember the event: the special clothes, the priest asking you directly, “Do you wish to be baptized?” and the sudden rush of water over your head.
Others may remember bringing their own child or godchild to the font, and the crowd of people standing around, the people who had just loudly acclaimed “WE WILL” when asked if they will support the one about to be baptized in her life in Christ. Rows of children crowd around to see exactly what is going on with that water and that baby.
Young or old, the person who enters the waters of baptism emerges as a member of the body of Christ, and there is no going back.
I don’t remember my own baptism, being a babe in arms at the time. But every time I stand by the font and witness another baptism I am moved to tears as I ponder anew the fact that someone loved me enough to bring me to that font, to make those promises for me, and to ask, to pray, that the transforming power of God’s love be part of my life. I suspect this is true for you also – someone loved you enough to talk to the priest, to set a date, to invite friends and family, to choose godparents, and finally to participate in your baptism. I know this is true for Marion Jeanne,daughter of Megan and Lucas, being baptized today.
So it has been for generations and generations, as we follow the example of Jesus with baptism for the repentance of sins – although one may wonder, exactly how has that tiny baby sinned? – but there is no doubt that in time we all sin, and are forgiven, and sin again, and are forgiven again. We cannot go back to that time before we were marked by sin, back to the Garden. But we can live in the knowledge of God’s loving forgiveness for those who do “truly and earnestly repent” and “desire to lead a new life.”We can cling to Jesus’ urgent admonition to “love one another as I have loved you.”
Which leads us to the present. Each time we baptize, we perform an act that is not only sacred, mysterious, and powerful, but disturbing. Each time the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”are spoken, the body of Christ is disturbed – in the sense of being changed,shifting position – and the forces of evil are disturbed – in the sense of being troubled, threatened.
Baptism is a turbulent event. The body of Christ is not static but fluid – fluid like water, seeking out its own level, pouring over the rocks of our stubbornness, sending waves onto the sands of our innumerable sins, quenching the fire of desires or obsessions that lead us away from the God who loves us.
Here is most critical challenge we face as Christians. We know that immediately (according to Mark) after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit – the same Spirit whose voice came from the heavens to proclaim belovedness – into the wilderness,where he was subject to temptation. We, too, face temptation on a daily basis. And I’m not talking about the temptation of a jelly doughnut for those trying to shed a few pounds, or buying new shoes when you really have enough. The temptations that we face are far more severe: The hardness of heart that prevents us from loving those who are different –whose skin is lighter or darker than ours, whose religion is not ours, whose nationality or language or culture is not ours. How do we love those who are too conservative, or too liberal, who are poorer than we are, or richer? How do we respond to those who are denied respect or equality or the sacraments of the church because of who they love? How do we enlarge the scope of our vision and our mission to see and to serve those in need: the infirm, the elderly, the hungry, the neglected, the unseen, the unheard, the ignored. What do we do with the gnawing desire for revenge we feel when we are threatened or attacked? How strong is the temptation to ignore the needs for food, or water, or medicine, or protection,of those who live in another neighborhood, or half a world away?
Let me be clear: there is evil in this world. We acknowledge its existence at the very beginning of the baptismal rite, deliberately naming Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God; the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Those are the temptations Jesus faced, and that we face. But through the grace of baptism, and through pledge of the Christian community to support each other in their life in Christ, we know that there is always a place for us to turn.
Today we face threats and terror and cruelty and fear unimagined by our ancestors:desecration, massacre, destruction. The security of our economy, our society,our culture, can feel pretty tenuous. The needs of the world can seem daunting,overwhelming. Too often, the scales of justice seem to tip in the wrong direction. Again and again we come to the agonizing realization that we can’t go back to the seemingly safer, more peaceful world we once knew.
But today, we turn, we return, to the waters of baptism. The sight of these waters,the plight of the world, may move us to tears, tears that mingle with those Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In these mystical waters we find the lasting reassurance of God’s love, the enduring reality of Christ’s presence, and the eternal readiness of the Holy Spirit to pray within us “with sighs too deep for words.” May God grant us the strength, courage, and wisdom to bring grace and abundance to the world that thirsts for living water.