Our daughter was baptized when she was nearing 3 months old, and because we waited “so long” (according to my mother), we had to purchase a larger christening gown instead of using the tiny family gown that my mother made when I was born, and was also worn by both of my younger sisters at their baptism. For my mom, the dress we three sisters wore was an important memory of a milestone in each of our lives, but even more so, it served as a reminder of our union within the body of Christ through baptism, a community that has existed since the occasion of the baptism of Christ by John that we heard proclaimed in our Gospel reading today.
So from my earliest memories, God and by extension, the church was the center of our family story. We were there every time the doors opened and you cannot name one committee or guild position in the church that didn’t have at least one of our family members serving on it. You can even drive down to Redeemer in Sarasota and find the kneelers that my mother embroidered before we moved away when I was in the 3rd grade and she left her position as the church secretary. One of my favorite memories came a few years later when our church enlisted every available person to participate in a tableau depicting scenes from the stations of the cross for Palm Sunday, right on the front lawn of St. Peter’s in Fernandina Beach on the busiest street in town. We were frozen in position and couldn’t move, sneeze, or talk, and strangers walked by watching – and I was so very sure that I was playing a critical role in the telling of the story of Jesus that day. These memories serve as the foundation of my feeling of being called by God.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. Today we encounter a scene where Christ himself is being baptized by John – something that a young girl like me wondered about each and every time we heard this section of the text read in church. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why did God need to be baptized if Jesus was God? My young self didn’t have the courage to ask that question as a child, but my grown woman self most surely did. Today’s gospel syncs closely with our gospel reading from the third Sunday of Advent in that John is again reminding folks that he is not the Messiah and that the Messiah will baptize with the spirit. Jesus is baptized, but not for the same reasons that we are baptized – he is baptized as a symbol of the beginning of his public ministry. The words that close our gospel reading today are public words of affirmation of Jesus – who he is and what he was incarnate to do for the world.
When we think about our own baptisms, or those baptisms we have witnessed over the years, we find ourselves drawn back into the words spoken in the liturgy in which we recommit ourselves to our own baptismal covenant. We, like Jesus, also hear words of affirmation in our baptism. We are received into the household of God, and directed to confess our faith in Christ as we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are changed as we are recognized as members of Christ’s body. This is more than just getting a little wet for Jesus on a particular day – this is a public affirmation of whose we are and that we are called into the world to share Christ’s love as we ourselves are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
But let’s be real – the Holy Spirit is not just a gentle nudge on our lives. The Holy Spirit takes us places that we might never imagine for ourselves. I spent 25 years as a teacher and school principal. I loved lay ministry and found my way into all kinds of roles within the church and in service in my community. After losing my mom to a brief but intense illness in 2012, I found myself being led by the Spirit in ways I could never have imagined. I began seeking new theological experiences, experimenting with a writing a blog on the weekly lectionary, and started feeling as if my career in education was no longer filling my bucket in the ways it had for all those many years. I was seeking….searching for the ways that God was calling me anew, and the voice of God took hold in ways I had not experienced before. I was unsettled. Unnerved. Unsure of things with which I had previously been quite sure. God was calling me into a new direction, and it was far from a gentle and soothing experience. Leaving behind my career to go through the discernment process which led me to seminary and the priesthood is not something I had ever imagined God would call me into, and I sometimes would find my sweet husband (who wasn’t experiencing a call of any sort), looking at me intently as if trying to figure out who I was after being with me for nearly a quarter of a century at that point. The path was not straight. The way was not clear. The journey was one of the hardest things I have done. And here I am – barely on the other side of my ordination, listening and praying for discernment in where God is calling me next.
I didn’t make my own decision about my baptism as an infant, and maybe that is true for you as well. But we each have the opportunity to make decisions today about how we might discern God is calling us into ministry in the church. It could be that we are meant to serve others through the activities of our upcoming day of service on MLK day. It might be that there is opportunity for you in a new lay ministry here at the Cathedral that is bubbling up inside, waiting for you to pray and discuss with a member of the clergy. It may be as simple as deciding to join the Good Book Club of the Episcopal Church as we read Paul’s letter to the Romans between now and Ash Wednesday to spend time with Scripture. Or perhaps you are still discerning a way to draw closer to God and share the love of Christ with someone.
I’m sure of this – God is calling each and every one of us into relationship and covenant. Stepping out in faith and living out our baptismal vows is what we are called to do, even when we are not sure exactly what that means today. I’ll leave you with one of my longtime favorite prayers from Thomas Merton, that may help you along the way:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 298).
In the waters of baptism we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, which we call the Church, and given God’s own life to share and reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ (from the Episcopal Church website).
I remember hearing this story as a child and wondering (probably out loud, as I was prone to do) why Jesus would need to be baptized by John if he was God. My lens as a child in the church was that children and sometimes even adults, went to the front (or back) of the church to the baptismal font for a big celebration on Sundays or other holy days. I knew it was special then, but it wasn’t until I had the honor of standing with my husband as he made the decision to be baptized as an adult in front of our friends and family that I had the full realization of the personal commitment of being baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. Then, a couple years later, our infant daughter was welcomed as the newest sister in Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever and I nearly lost it that day as the enormity of my responsibility as her parent and fellow Christian to raise her to know and love the Lord, accepting Christ as her savior on her behalf.
Baptism was a relatively new concept started with John. He brought people to faith and repentance with water, and with the promise of someone greater than him coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:1-8) John and Jesus grew up close like brothers, but had not spent a lot of time together as adults. John prophesied in the above lesson from Mark about the good news of Baptism in Christ, so I can only imagine how he felt to be in the position to be commanded to fulfill the will of God by baptizing Jesus himself. I can hope that John had more faith than I would have had under the same circumstances, “You want me to do what to YOU? Right here? Right now? Are you crazy, Jesus???? I’m just not worthy”).
There are some things happening in my life right now that make me feel a strong pull from God in directions that seem quite unusual, difficult, even a little bizarre. I don’t feel comfortable as I think about this plan that God may have for me that is not aligned with the plan I have had for myself. Following Him as he leads me into uncertainty DOES NOT MAKE MUCH SENSE. John probably felt the same way as he was tasked with the actual Baptism of Jesus. But fulfilling the plan is exactly what he did…and much more as we go on to read in the Gospel stories of his edgy and unusual life.
The baptism of Jesus was a necessary step in the completion of the Trinity. And each of us takes that step of joining in the relationship when we are baptized as well. For some critics of baptism in the very young who technically cannot make the decision on their own, here is my response: It is my job as a parent who decides to bring a child into the world and our family to ensure the choice of future of success and happiness. I am tasked with making education a priority, teaching values which support a child growing up to contribute to the world, and demanding that she is NICE in the world and to those she meets. But my most important job is to provide my child the opportunity for a lifelong relationship with God through Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit. That starts with baptism and continues in my expectations for her and the experiences we give her as parents until she goes out into the world in a few short months to make decisions far beyond our control but hopefully withing the realm of her life to date.
Jesus’ baptism fulfills God’s plan, but it also shines a light onto his bottomless forgiveness, love and compassion. Malcom Gladwell talks about finding his faith in this article, highlighting the so called “weapons of the spirit.” He discusses meeting a family who lost their child in a horrific murder, and their discussion of forgiveness and love – sounding so foreign under those extreme circumstances of love. Although I pray I never (and you never) have to experience a life changing event like that, the gift of baptism in my love has given me the weapons I need to approach any challenge I may have with love and forgiveness. I’m not worthy of the gifts I have received, that much is true. So as the receiver of those gifts, how can I be selfish and not turn around and share them with others who may or may not be deemed “worthy” in my human eyes?
We are living in a world where things happen that bring us great sadness. Terrible things happen to the most innocent among us and as we rock along in our well-planned life, a detour pops up that leaves us bewildered and confused. But God has given us all we need to approach these difficult situations with grace and love, giving gifts we didn’t know we could give because it what God calls us to do. It’s the most surprising thing to see when a yucky situation is met with love and forgiveness; let’s walk our walk with Christ making it less surprising to see and more of what we expect to happen when Christians face life’s challenges.
John baptized Jesus and we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit to join our brothers and sisters in Christ in fulfilling God’s kingdom work in our lives. John followed God’s command and we are called to do the same. Because don’t we all want God to see us and our work and tell the world he is well pleased with us?
Gracious God, thank you for the gift of Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. The love and forgiveness you show to us every day is a gift we want to share with those we meet, even when we may deem them unworthy, just as we are. Teach us how to love one another without judgment and to respond to the challenges of our world in ways that make You well pleased. We ask all this through your son Jesus Christ. AMEN.