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.”
The first Baptism I ever was the officiant for I was really worried I was going to drop the baby. I was in my mid-twenties and I didn’t have much recent baby-holding experiences, much less one that was six months old. So I was, of course, honored when the family asked me to officiate. It was a week before the baptism, as I was trying to do my walk though in the sanctuary, trying to practice what would be happening when, when I realized that, of course, I would need at least one hand free in order to get water from the baptismal font onto the baby, which meant I had to hold the baby with one hand. I started wondering if I should be doing upper body workouts in anticipation. As I worried, I pictured wiggling, filled with images of my first baptism ending with tragedy as gasps swept through the congregation. When the day arrived, I met with the family again and realized just what an amazingly chubby baby this was. She was all you could hope a baby would be: smooshy and covered with an amazing, fluffy white dress, healthy, thriving and robust. And so it came time for the ceremony and I was, with trepidation, about to take this baby from her mother, and I lifted her. It wasn’t hard at all; compared to the weight of my anticipation; it was only lightness to carry her. And I got to lift the water and to baptize her, “Alexandra Cassandra, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.” And all of my fear felt so unneeded, because we were talking about grace, and so even if I had forgotten the words, if the outfit had been a mess, if she had been crying her whole way up to the font, if she had found herself with a shockingly imperfect pastor, which she did, with remarkably human parents and a congregation that made promises that just were as earthly as this one, that somehow just as the four friends carried their friend to Jesus on a stretcher, lifting his weight to carry him through the roof, that this heaviness was carried by us all until it became something else: lightness indeed, a gift, a blessing. For if we’re talking about grace, how could it be heavy to hear the words, “You are a child of God, beloved.”
In the next few weeks we are looking at Jesus’ beginnings, the places from which his ministry had its start. And the Scripture tells this story of Jesus’ baptism, as Luke jumps from Jesus the infant to Jesus the twelve-year-old; here Jesus is now thirty years old and for some reason he has come to the water. I love that in the Gospel of Luke there is this sense that Jesus doesn’t want to make this a big deal. There is some sort of a question whether John the Baptist was there, or already in jail, and there is this back and forth argument with John where Jesus winks that he knows he’s something special. Instead, here it’s just Jesus and he’s here with the crowds. He’s here with all the people who have come to the waters today and they all have already been baptized and he’s here praying when suddenly the heavens open up and a voice resounds, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” This Gospel is very certain to put these words of love in the second person, to “you,” so it leaves open the question whether this voice was for the crowds who were there to hear Jesus as the name echoed and called, or if in fact it was just one, as Jesus heard those words as he needed to hear them, a blessing before the ministry to come.
Baptism is a sacrament of the church and depending upon the history you bring to this moment, I feel the struggle between these two poles and both of them feel heavy. One is to take baptism very seriously: the road to salvation that is made of heavy stuff. It was said that babies that were born in winter in puritan New England, which is, of course, part of our church’s history. It was said that such was the urgency they would chip the ice from the baptismal font to be sure they were ready to be baptized. Such was the urgency that they could not even wait for the water to melt because they were talking of things of great weight: baptism as a key to the kingdom that drew the lines between those who were saved and those that were not, and so baptism was needed, even it was required, yanking God’s blessing from solid ice. On the other hand, in a secular world like ours, I know there are many who look at this font and just see water along with fancy words and maybe some sleight of hand. We distrust institutions, and let’s face it, the churches have not always been trustworthy. And so, what is it in this water that makes us think it has a power or control, wondering if it can be trusted, wondering if its heaviness comes with its weight?
So instead, I want to go back to the Scripture and indeed back to the crowds that came to the waters, and what it is that brought them to that shore. There are a few things that tie humanity together, a few things I can call somewhere near universal: as we are all born, we will all someday die; we all get hungry and thirsty; we all really need to find a place to pee sometimes; we all look for some meaning in our life; we all have fears that wake us from our sleep. And I would be willing to bet, I would be willing to put down money that for every person on this earth there is a yearning to hear this same sentence: “I love you and I am proud of you.” However strong they may be, whatever front they put up, however calloused they may come or more exclusions, I am certain that for every person on this earth there is some voice in their life or their history that they would drop anything to hear say, “I love you and I am proud of you.”
Jesus received his baptism in the midst of the people and so in the midst of the people, we who receive a baptism hear those words echoed by Jesus that now are echoed to us: “You are my child, beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Sometimes, instead of yearning for this kind of good news, we try to find it someplace else: we think we need to become pretty enough to be loved, to be worthy; we try to starve our bodies or punish them with exercise or cover them over with perfect hair and clothes and face so that when finally we are beautiful we will be worthy of love; we can think we need to be successful to be loved. As we put in our exhausting efforts in school, as if our life depends on the results of the exams, as if our billable hours determine our fate, as if our success, our failure, our money, our accolades, success and money, as if that will make us worthy of respect and of concern and of love. We can think we have to have it all together to be loved, that whatever baggage we have been carrying with us needs to be checked, that whatever brokenness needs to be spackled over, so that our pain and our imperfection and our jagged edges can be concealed from the world so that we are pristine enough to be loveable, so that we are spotless enough to be worth something. And perhaps even with a bunch of do lookers like I see in this group here, we can think we need to be good enough to be loved. That first we need to be active and perfect, that we need to do enough to make the world better, when the needs only seem to grow, that if we could only do one more thing and get every word right and be perfect in some way, then we would be in the right and finally we would be good enough to be loved. And so, with all of these burdens, this trip to the font can feel heavy: heavy with a history, heavy with the burdens we carry, heavy with all we think we need to be before the words of blessing can be believed.
In the Scripture today, we know very little of the life of Jesus from his childhood to this moment, his joys or his challenges. For up to now, what has Jesus been? He’s been a guy from Nazareth, a carpenter. Thirty years of his life have passed, most of them in silence, so far as his biography is concerned. And yet his public ministry starts with this: with grace and affirmation, with love that bursts the skies open, with doves that descend, with a voice that names, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” For Jesus’ public ministry, what comes first isn’t the hard and the pain; what comes first is not the suffering; what comes first is not even the work. For Jesus has not yet been a healer or a miracle worker; he has not started his teaching. What comes first is the grace; what comes first is the love. Because here’s what I read in Scripture: that God’s love is greater than the boundaries of our world, that God’s love is broader than our knowledge, that God’s love is deeper than we know to imagine. And so, I believe that in baptism it is not they key that lets God turn the door, but that God’s answer is always, “Yes.”
I was thinking about this baptism of Jesus with the crowd he is with and wondering if perhaps it felt easier to approach the water, knowing that you are not alone. Perhaps it even felt easier to believe that the person next to you could be worthy of love; perhaps it felt easier to walk with them on their journey.
I normally don’t find hope in the anonymous internet. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it takes a serious moderator to remind three memes that there are humans on the other side of the digital posts, but I was told this one that gave me a bit of hope. There’s this anonymous gathering called “Mom for a Minute,” where people post when they are yearning to talk or hear something from a mom, but they can’t; perhaps because they no longer have ties with their own parents or have needed to set boundaries or because their parents are separated by a great distance of death. The folks come on here and they post and then some volunteer mom responds in their stead. Sometimes what they are asking, the stories involve a crisis of someone that is in a place of mental health and doesn’t know where to go and goes here. It’s not a light forum. Sometimes someone comes looking for advice by what is broken in their hearts; sometimes when someone instead has something good happen and just is heartbroken that they don’t have someone to tell it to, and so they share their joy at a job interview or their engagement and then this is what happens: complete strangers step into that void with words of affirmation and hope, saying the words that for some reason in the brokenness and loss of humanity the person wasn’t able to hear. They step into that void and they say, “I love you and I am proud of you.” This group has 33,000 subscribers; 33,000 strangers have agreed to step into the void between the world as it is and the words people need to hear, ready to affirm that in some way, ready to reflect the love in the world to say, “I love you and I am proud of you.”
I was thinking on this this week because in the midst of human relationship we are all here on this earth both to show love in the world and in the interconnectedness of the web of God to reveal its light and to give us a glimpse of the spirit that binds us and holds us and sends us to one another, as we are all the embodied form of those voices that can speak God’s words of love. For who are we but the form God can use to remind one another that the heavens do open and the dove comes down and the voice does say, ‘You are God’s child, beloved. In you God finds joy.”
And so, as we come today to this font, I would invite you to be this voice and hear this voice. During the time of reflection today, a person will stand here and you are invited to come up and speak a word of blessing. There are cards to help you know what to say. You can take the water and touch their head and say, “You are a child of God, beloved, called and sent to show love to the world.” And after you have blessed them I would invite you to do the harder part, which is to stand here and wait for a blessing. I will be the first to stand and I will be the last to bless.
If you come forward or if you stay where you are, know that you are God’s beloved and you are sent into this world to show love to a world that is yearning to hear. Come and let us know God’s love.
May the peace of God be with you in the world in which you live. May you be nurtured by the time of gathering and be faithful in the time apart and love and serve one another in the name of the faithful God who calls to us, “Beloved.” And may the peace of God, creator, redeemer and sustainer, be with us all the days of our lives. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.