Reading(s): Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17. This sermon was given by Warwick Heathcote at St Mark.
We observe The Baptism of Our Lord today. Surprisingly it is a feast that quite often solicits questions about baptism, amongst which are "Isn't Baptism just some ancient ritual or “does Baptism matter?”
And with this sort of mind-set baptism often gets relegated to cute photos and funny stories. One such story is about a family driving home from church after their four-year-old son had been baptized, when suddenly the boy burst into tears. When his parents ask what was wrong, he sniffled out the answer. “The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you!"
So we might ask if that's how baptism is perceived. Why do we promote Baptism in the church? At least one answer is that when the gospel writers tell The Jesus Story - Baptism is crucial. Everything starts at the river where Jesus entered the waters and placed himself in the arms of his cousin John. "And the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" And despite the beauties and sentiment of the birth narratives, in truth the ministry teachings, trials and triumphs and almost all that make us remember Jesus took place after his baptism.
It was at the moment of Baptism that Jesus was claimed and called. The angels sang at Bethlehem, but God's voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by someone special and called to do something special. So when in liturgical services we are challenged to "Remember your baptism" the challenge is actually to remember that you too just like Christ belong to someone special and are called to do something special. At some point in time a voice spoke your name and said - "This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased." Perhaps you were only a baby when that happened too small to understand the concept of God, too young to even know that there is a God! But that isn't the point. Remember Jesus didn't say or do anything at his baptism either. It was all done from the top down. It was all a matter of God claiming him, just as in your own baptism God claimed you before you'd done a single thing to earn it. The theologian Paul Tillich succinctly said it when he said that, "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have already been accepted."
Some years ago there was a man in the congregation I was serving then who was an example of all things good decent and helpful. But by his own admission it had not always been that way. He told me that as a young man, in his words, "I was always looking for trouble!” But then " he said - "I met Elizabeth a kind, sweet, moral smiling girl who loved me no matter how big a scoundrel I was. And little by little - because I wanted to live up to her love, I became less and less a scoundrel. Finally we married and I've spent my whole life trying to make her as happy as she made me." - Then in a powerful statement he said something I have never forgotten, he said “The truth is Elizabeth loved me into loving."
That is the first lesson of baptism and a key reason why it is such a vital part of our faith. God claims us at baptism. God sends unearned, unconditional love our way. “I met Elizabeth" my friend said “who loved me no matter how big a scoundrel I was." Theologically we call that grace and nowhere is it more visibly symbolized than in baptism. "This is My beloved child," whom this day I choose as my own not by their merit but by My mercy! That's what God said to Jesus at the river and what God says to you and me at the font! I choose you as part of My family. I choose you to possess a Divine legacy. - I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you ... and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you ... You are precious and honoured in my sight, and I love you ... So fear not - for I choose to be with you" (Isa.43.1-7) in all things, in all times, in all places - in all circumstances, now and forever. I choose to love you whether or not you are always lovable. That's the message of baptism, one which should grip and inspire us. It is a symbol that we are claimed by someone special.
And as was the case with Jesus so it is with us baptism says that we are claimed by Someone special and we are called to do something special. "And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove." And so does The Spirit descend on you and me, calling us not simply to be God's children but also to be God's helpers in a wounded, weary world. Claimed and Called. That's what my friend was talking about when he told me his story, "I wanted to live up to her love" he said. "The truth is Elizabeth loved me into loving." And isn't that the power of this ritual we observe today that we are claimed, usually in spite of ourselves and once we become aware of how deeply we are loved by God we find ourselves falling in love with God. And we express that love by how we do our living in the world. That I think is what it means to be called. It really is that simple, God loves us into loving.
Baptism symbolizes that we are loved free of charge. Someone special claims us - asks us to be part of the family. - "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased." And that act of grace loves us into loving. "The Spirit descends as a dove" and settles into our hearts and we want to share with others the gift that has been shared with us.
And so as we remember the baptism of Our Lord, I urge you to remember your baptism and to live into your calling. - Amen.