Sermon for January 8, 2017.  Lord’s baptism.
Isa. 43: 1-7; Matt. 3: 13-17

May the Holy Spirit stir these words and our hearts the way it stirs the waters of Baptism.  Amen.

A Covenant People

Here’s some liturgical trivia for you, in case you ever play Liturgical Trivial Pursuit.   According to the church calendar, this Sunday marks the remembrance of the baptism of Jesus Christ our Lord.  This occasion always falls on the Sunday following the Epiphany and marks the end of the Christmas Season and the beginning of walking with Christ in his ministry toward the cross.  So, there really is nothing “trivial” about the baptism of Christ at all.  In fact, the Book of Order defines this day as one marked for special observance because it recalls a significant occasion in the life of Jesus Christ and of the people of God.  Jesus Christ and the people of God:  a covenant relationship.

Biblical scholars would agree that the baptism of Jesus Christ is significant because it is recorded in all four gospels, suggesting that it did, indeed, happen.  Each rendition is a little bit different, though. In Matthew’s version, it isn’t clear who hears God speak.  In Mark’s gospel, only Jesus hears God’s voice.  In Luke, John is not even mentioned.  In John’s gospel, the baptism is recounted after the event, with John the Baptist proclaiming the he was the one who saw the dove descend and heard God speak.  But one point is clear:  Jesus, God’s son, Emmanuel, the One Without Sin, was baptized.

If indeed this baptismal event is significant, then we have to spend time with it instead of glossing over it.  What does it all mean?  Why does the baptism of Jesus Christ matter?  How is it any more important than the reconciliation of a father and a prodigal son (found only in Luke) or more important than making Peter the head of the church (found only in Matthew) or the tale of Herodias’ asking for John the Baptist’s head on a plate (found only in Mark) or especially raising Lazarus from the dead (found only in John’s gospel)? The significance lies in covenant relationship, that binding contract made between God and us when God promised that he would be our God if we would be his people.  In this baptismal moment, father and son reaffirm their own relationship, a communal relationship that includes the Holy Spirit, and we are invited into it.  Its significance for the people of God, us, is that in baptism, just as Jesus was named, so are we.  As the prophet proclaimed in Isaiah, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (43:1).  Its significance for us is that the baptism of Jesus Christ and where it led became the sign and seal that God keeps his covenant promise, even when we do not.

Every ten or fifteen years, or sometimes it takes twenty-five, many married couples get the urge to renew their wedding vows.  Something about the passage of time flames a desire to hear those special words said again, to pledge our love and faithfulness once more, and to hope our spouse still pledges in return.  We need to be reminded that we promised in covenant to love this other person in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to forsake all others, for the simple reason that marriage, at least for most of us, requires work.  It's no wonder that the presiding minister warns the wedding couple that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly.  

Much the same thing can be said, but usually isn't, about baptism.  We are never warned that baptism shouldn't be entered into lightly, though perhaps that would be the soundest advice a minister could give us.  We are rarely told that the life of a baptized believer is work that requires a daily commitment, but that's the truth.  The happiness, the joy, and the promise of one's baptismal or confirmation day often are forgotten in the face of the day to day challenge of living with and loving God . . . and each other.  Yet it is in our baptism that we enter into a covenant-relationship with God, a God who extends his grace over and over again, and it is in remembering our own baptisms that we are called to ask ourselves how, ten years, twenty years, a lifetime after that event, we are living out those vows.

Do you remember your own baptism?  I do not.  I was baptized as an infant, and the only proof I have of that is one black and white photo of my godparents holding me in my baptismal gown.  Maybe your baptism was similar.  Or perhaps you waited until you were older and could answer the baptismal vows for yourself, or maybe you haven’t yet been baptized for whatever reasons you may have.  But the questions that will be asked of the confirmands are questions we all need to take to heart if we desire to hold up our end of the covenant relationship.

“Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?”  Or, another way to ask this is, "Do you renounce jealousy?  Gossip?  Greed?  Selfishness?  Apathy?  Fear?  Anger?  Criticism?  Comparison?  Grudges?  Judgment of others?"  These, too, are real evil powers that weaken our calling, that challenge our relationships.

“Who is your Lord and Savior?”  Or, another way to ask this is, “As you accept Christ and turn to him, what are you turning away from that stands in the way of this covenant relationship?”  The number of items, habits, and actions that have become our idols are no doubt legion, and maybe we need to reclaim who our Lord and Savior is not just once, but each day upon awakening.  Saying Jesus is Lord isn’t the same as living as if Jesus is Lord.

“Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying His word and showing his love?”  Or, another way to ask this is, “How will you intentionally and mindfully be faithful?  What specific actions or lifestyles will you practice to show Christ’s love to others?  Are you ready to obey him by learning about him and listening to him?”  As Christ’s disciples, we are not called to be perfect, but we are called to be faithful.  Christ’s baptism reminds us of his faithfulness, and so gives us a model for ours.

Remembering the baptism of Jesus Christ becomes significant when we reflect on our own promises made at our baptisms.  It becomes significant when we look into our hearts and ask ourselves how faithfully we are living these vows.  It becomes significant when we recall that even when we fail, which we do, and will, the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ never fails.  Baptism is the good news that we are not alone.  Hear some of those covenant promises once more from Isaiah: 

Do not fear; for I have redeemed you.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

When you walk through fire you shall not be burned.

You are precious in my sight, and I love you.

We are covenant people. God, through Jesus Christ, offers his help, his love, his grace, and a community of believers to each of us.  We are not alone.  We can accept the challenge of water and the Spirit, the work of the disciple, because we are blessed by the grace of God and the presence of each other.  We can share this blessing with each other and shine our light into this dark and broken world. That is our calling, and that is our gift.    

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