Sermon preached January 9, 2011
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
So when was the time in your life when you felt dirtiest? I don’t want to let your imaginations run wild. I am talking here about physically dirty, muddy, sweaty. I remember what it was like when I was pastor in Roseau, my first pastorate. The church operated a food stand during the county fair, and I remember what it was like after a day of frying hamburgers. Grease all over, and when you went into the shower the water would first bead up on you before you got enough soap on to cut through the grease. I also remember youth mission trips I lead as a youth pastor in Dallas. I developed a tradition of not shaving for about a week before the trip, and I had some work clothes that I would put on each day. Why get a lot of different shirts so dirty? By the end of the week, well, things were a little rugged. I did shower every day, but a lot of these trips were in South Texas in July and by the end of the week, that last day, the shirt could practically walk by itself and I looked a little rough myself.
When you have those experiences, and then you get all cleaned up, have you ever said, “Now I feel like myself again.”?
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized. Every year, around this time, if we are reading the Scriptures on the ecumenical lectionary, that three-year cycle of readings that many mainline churches use, we read the story of the baptism of Jesus. And every now and again, it is good for us to use this story as a way to think about the place of baptism in our faith, and that’s what we are going to do together.
Martin Luther once said, “Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our whole lives to complete” (quoted in Robinson and Wall, Called To Be Church, 159). Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our whole lives to complete. I think he is right, but what is it about baptism that makes it so?
At baptism we acknowledge certain realities.
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people?
At baptism we acknowledge that our lives get mucked up. We get caught in patterns of living that don’t enhance life. We do things that hurt others, and we are afraid to admit it and so muck our lives up even more. We distort our relationship with the world because we fail to see it more truthfully instead clinging to convenient truths which are not very true. The words in the baptismal vows are stark – spiritual forces of wickedness, evil powers of this world, evil, injustice, oppression. Maybe they need to be so we see our muddied condition more accurately. We have not necessarily been violent, but most of us have probably mishandled anger. We have not participated in lynchings or genocide, but we may have disliked someone just because of how they looked, or where they came from or who they loved.
At baptism we acknowledge that our lives get mucked up and muddied. We need to turn, to be washed, to accept grace. Waters of baptism symbolize the cleansing effects of God’s grace in Jesus, the cleansing effects of determining to live differently – to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression. Given new birth through water and the Spirit, we feel like ourselves again. For in a way, that is what baptism symbolizes, the washing away of the dust, muck and mud in our lives so we can feel like ourselves again, be ourselves again. Ancient Christian thinker St. John of Karpathos wrote in words of encouragement to monks in India, “Through repentance a person regains their true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light” (Philokalia, I, 299)
Last week I said: We carry light within to light the world a little bit. We carry within the light of kindness, the light of caring, the light of compassion, the light of forgiveness, the light of joy, the light of peace, the light of love. We do, and sometimes our light gets muddied, sometimes by our own doing, and we need to brighten it again. Baptism represents that need for finding ourselves again, for claiming our light again. In the waters of baptism, experienced once, but continually washing over us, we come to feel like ourselves again, be ourselves again. We hear God saying to us, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have given my spirit. I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” (Isaiah 42)
Part of the work of completing our baptism is seeking to rediscover who we are in God again and again. It is seeking forgiveness. It is seeking on-going renewal. It is seeking a deepening of our faith. Sometimes that may mean washing the dust off a faith we have set aside as a part of our childhood. Our faith needs to grow with us as we grow.
But there is a second part to completing our baptism, I think. We are water-washed to get back into the muck and mire of life. Here I am shifting my metaphors, but good images speak with multiple voices. You see, we don’t simply get all washed and clean, and feel like ourselves again to look nice and shiny. God calls us to stand with others whose lives may still be stuck in the mud, who have not yet discovered the light of God within them, who are suffering from evil, injustice and oppression.
At some level, Jesus really did not need to be baptized by John. The story of his baptism has that awkwardness about it, John hesitating to baptize. Yet he gets baptized. He joins with humanity, becomes a part of the human project, enters the streams of human history. In a powerful prayer, Sheri Brown writes about the baptism of Jesus. Jesus goes into the Jordan River to be baptized by John. A muddy river where crowds had bathed and been baptized, a dirty river full of scraps and waste, fish bones from lunch and yesterday’s sweat, soured dreams and bitter tears. Jesus immersed himself in all of this – the muck of life.
We are washed in the waters of baptism, filled with God’s Spirit and discover our light, not to remain removed from the world, but to work with God to change the world. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have given my spirit and they will bring forth justice to the nations…. I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, form the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42) In baptism we rediscover who we are, that we are loved by God and that we are to share that love.
Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho write in their book Made For Goodness, “living our goodness is our way of testifying that we know ourselves to be perfectly loved by God” (35). Among the stories they share about living goodness is a story from South Africa, the story of Mrs. Maphosela. Mrs. Maphosela is a middle-aged woman who began taking children into her home as their parents sickened and died of HIV/AIDS. First one dying mother and then another asked her to take their child in. After a time, children were simply left on her doorstep because of her reputation for providing loving care. Her three-room house is home to twenty children ages 18 months to 18 years. Some of the children are themselves infected by HIV, most, thankfully, are not. Women from the neighborhood volunteer to help. The older children help take care of the younger. Mrs. Maphosel used to take all her children to church by way of taxi, but that became cumbersome so now a deacon comes to lead worship in her home.
This is a woman who has immersed herself in the muddy waters of life to share God’s light and love and goodness, her light and love and goodness too.
Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our whole lives to complete. We continue to renew ourselves in God’s love, growing, refreshing our lives, rediscovering who we are in Christ. Knowing more deeply who we are we enter again into the muddy streams of humanity to bring light, to be light, to offer cleansing and renewal and hope.
In baptism we come to know ourselves as God’s wet and ready people. Amen.