Sermon preached January 12, 2014 (ironically, we were experiencing freezing rain that morning with all this water imagery)
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
I know some of my pop culture references are dated. I just had more time for television when I was younger. I am not completely out of the loop. I watch an occasional episode of The Big Bang Theory. I have watched a couple of new shows this fall – The Crazy Ones and The Michael J. Fox Show. Our daughter Beth got me interested in Law and Order: SVU. But I still remember some of the older shows better.
“All in the Family.” It was a ground-breaking program for its willingness to introduce topics like race, politics, and sexuality into a family situation comedy. It was even so bold as to admit that people use the bathroom, because you could hear that toilet flushing every now and again. One of the central tensions in the show was the tension between Archie and his son-in-law Mike on the topic of religion. Mike was an atheist. Archie was a Christian who never went to church. But he was committed. When Mike and Gloria had a son, Joey, Archie was determined to get him baptized, but when the pastor would not go along with Archie’s request, Archie took it upon himself to baptize Joey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_YutZBOcYk
Archie: I ain’t been to church lately, so if I seem a little strange in here, don’t worry. I’m still Archie Bunker and I still believe very deeply in Thee, Thoo…. I want to do this Lord, because I don’t want my grandson growing up without religion in this rotten world of yours. No intense offended there Lord, we all know you did the best you could with only six days to get it all together.
I hope that took Lord, because they gonna kill me when I get home.
Why would someone feel so strongly about baptism? What might it mean for baptism to “take”?
The baptism of Jesus Sunday is a good Sunday to reflect on baptism. If you haven’t been baptized, this sermon is still for you, because in reflecting on baptism we are reflecting on what it may mean to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, to live the Jesus way. This journey is your journey too, if you want to take it. We speak of baptism as a sacrament, and we speak of sacraments as outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. It is that inward part that matters most.
It makes no difference if, when you were baptized, if you were sprinkled, dipped, or dunked. I had both sprinkling and dunking, but that’s another story. It makes no difference the method. The question isn’t whether the method makes a difference, it is whether the baptism made a difference. Did it take?
I want to explore baptism through the questions we ask.
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? That first baptismal question is an odd and spooky one. Typically a really nice family comes up here with their baby and we all feel warm and smiley, then BOOM – the question comes about spiritual forces of wickedness. It sounds like something out of Star Wars – the Darth Vader question about the dark side.
A couple of weeks ago I referred to a man who, in writing about the Christian faith discusses our human propensity to mess things up, though he uses a more colorful term. Christian faith thinks that we have this tendency within us to mess things up, to break things. It is not so much an article of faith as a way to get at this quandary – If human beings were purely good all the time, why is the world as messed up as it is? The evidence for being messed up is not hard to find. This week in New Jersey it was revealed that a high ranking government official, and aid to the governor, ordered lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge as political payback for a mayor who had not endorsed the governor. What is this, Junior High School? Yet we recognize this as part of the human repertoire of behavior. For all his lack of sophistication, Archie Bunker could sound some profound theological notes - I don’t want my grandson growing up without religion in this rotten world of yours.
And individual hurtful choices can mushroom to become “spiritual forces of wickedness.” Slavery becomes an institution. Racism negatively affects our society. Anti-Jewish sentiment gets systematized into the Holocaust. Some men’s willingness to pay for sex spans a sex-trafficing industry. These are “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers.” And sometimes we get caught in them. We are affected by racism. In our own lives, one lie can become a whole tissue of deception. Those who struggle with addictions – to alcohol, to drugs, to pornography find themselves caught in forces that become powerful.
At baptism we are invited to turn in a different direction. Jesus invites us all to turn. That’s what that strange word “repent” means - to turn, to turn around. Did it take? Are you working to turn when spiritual forces of wickedness reach out in your direction?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Though this sounds just as ominous and serious, there is some good news here. God gives us some freedom and power. We can choose. We can change. How will you use the freedom and power God gives you? How will you use it personally? Will you cultivate your inner gifts? Will you pay attention to your soul? Will you work on those personal patterns that may not be so life-giving? How will you use your freedom and power in the larger world? Are you taking some time to make the world a little better? Are you doing some work against injustice? God is forming us to be “a light to the nations,” to be those who “faithfully bring forth justice.” How are you using the freedom and power God gives you? Did it take?
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? I want to reflect on this question in three parts, but out of order.
Serving Jesus as Lord has everything to do with renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness and using the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
We do this together. The Christian journey of faith is not merely a solo endeavor. It is meant to be deeply personal, individually engaging, at times solitary, but never entirely solo. That Archie has to re-introduce himself to God in church means that he has missed something important. Jesus brings us together, all kinds of people. Sometimes that’s not easy. There are people here who disagree. There are people here who think about worship differently than me. There are people here who may not be best friends in other contexts. Here is where we first test the wings of our faith. Here we learn how to love, even those who we may struggle to love. Here we learn how to learn together. Here we also learn how important it can be to have some people in our corner when life is really hard.
A lot of what I have described is challenging. Working on our inner stuff. Resisting evil. Finding ways to get along with whoever it is that comes through those doors and also says “yes” to Jesus. Here’s some really good news – grace. Put your whole trust in the grace of God as we know that in Jesus. Grace. We will fall short sometimes. We will miss the mark occasionally. God isn’t keeping score. Does God care that we grow – yes. Does God care that justice is done, peace fostered, the hungry fed – of course. But God isn’t making a list and checking it twice. God isn’t wagging God’s finger at us scoldingly. God is saying to us, as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God takes us by the hand, and keeps us.
Grace. That is the context for our entire journey with God. Grace. Grace really frees us to do good. Doing good isn’t about earning points on God’s score card. It is about trying to live the love we have received from God.
That good news about grace is at the heart of baptism and a Christian faith that uses baptism as a welcome. Yes, this watery God cleanses like water. We need that from time to time. More importantly God’s Spirit refreshes like cool water on a hot day. God’s Spirit never gives up creating ripples of love and grace and courage and resilience in our lives. And when we resist the ripples, God keeps tossing spirit pebbles until they make a difference.
In all these ways – strength to resist, wise and courageous use of freedom and power, and above all, trusting in grace – Lord, I hope baptism takes. Amen.