“In Over Our Heads”

January 12, 2014


Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17


The early Protestant reformers said that the sacraments—communion and baptism—are visual sermons, the gospel enacted. That is, in these events we see the good news that we hear in the spoken sermon.

And they thought that a certain order was important in all of this. The sermon should precede the sacrament. First we hear, then we see. We need to be told the truth of the gospel so that we might rightly apprehend it when it is shown to us.

This order is so important for our Presbyterian friends that they require—in writing­—that a sermon be preached before an individual is baptized. They do this in part, of course, because Presbyterians are an uptight and legalistic lot. (Oh, it’s a joke. Please don’t let this get over to Rochester or Melrose Avenues.)

We Congregationalists on the other hand tend to be a little looser about such liturgical niceties—we’re a flaky lot and we’re not about to have anyone tell us what to do. So here and in many other UCC congregations you’ll see baptisms occurring at any number of places during the worship service.

If I rarely if ever preach about baptism beforehand, sometimes it does help to recall and reflect on what we’ve seen.

So what did we see today?

Well, we saw a beautiful baby. I love the phrase from the old Pilgrim Hymnal service of baptism that speaks of “the hope and happiness that come into our lives through the presence of a child.” And who could not be happy in seeing Michael up here this morning? Who could not find some hope in his presence?

We saw loving parents. And Kari and Sarah remind us that, in the words of a phrase that we used when I was in Connecticut to support marriage equality, “Love makes a family.”

We saw a supportive congregation. We’re open here. And we’re affirming. It’s so much a part of who we are as a congregation that we often forget about it. But it’s just a wonderful sign of God at work among us that all parents are welcome and supported in bringing their children for baptism and in raising them here.

And we saw water. Water, of course, is central to baptism.

Water gives life. It makes things grow. So God gives us new life in Christ in our baptism.

Water cleanses. As parents gently wash their infant, so God gently washes us in baptism, cleansing us from sin, removing all that alienates us from God, from one another, and from the best in ourselves. It is a beautiful image, a beautiful reality.

At the same time there is a danger in water. New parents are warned never to leave a baby alone near any water, for a young child can drown in just an inch of water. As I poured water over Michael’s head, we were reminded that water gives life and water also destroys.

And there it is: a beautiful baby, loving parents, a supportive congregation, acceptance, life—and death.

What are we doing here?

By a coincidence caused when we cancelled the December 22 worship service because of the snow, Michael’s baptism occurred on the day on the liturgical calendar that we remember the baptism of Jesus.

To get a better appreciation of what happened here this morning, we need to go to the Jordan.

John appears in the wilderness around the Jordan River. Now, you're familiar with the wilderness even if you've never been in a desert or a deep forest. The wilderness is a time and place of trial. The wilderness is the place where the heavens seem closed. The wilderness is the time when we know the affliction of human beings and the barrenness of the earth. Those times when you pray and find no answer are times in the wilderness. When you face difficult choices with no good options you are staring at the desert places of life.

In the wilderness God makes the people ready for the land of promise. In the wilderness God prepares people for the wholeness of life that is coming. You're familiar with the wilderness.

In the wasteland, John dares to speak a word of good news.

Who knows?

Maybe good news can only be spoken and heard when we stand in the waste places and realize that life is not perfect, the we are not the good people we want to think we are, that there is such a thing as “sin” separating us from all that gives life and makes life good.

Maybe good news can only be heard when we go to those places where people are hungry, poor, and broken and seek to join with them in the struggle for abundant life.

The lesser speaks of the greater. One who baptizes with water tells of a new baptism.

John calls for a response of faith that turns toward the future.

"Repent," he says. Turn in a new direction. Turn from the ways that have led to dead ends in your life. Turn from the strife and the bitterness and the hatred that are killing others and you.

Repentance is a call to turn from. But more importantly it is a call to turn toward the new life that God always makes possible. I like the way Fredrick Buechner puts it when he says: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’’ the call to repentance is a message for all our days, but maybe we can hear it more clearly at the beginning of the new year.

Looking back at what has been, can we also turn our gaze and look forward to what might be?

Can it be that God is still at work in our tired, old lives? I think so.

Can it be that God is still at work in and through this historic, yet vibrantly new congregation? I think so.

Repent! And look toward the future that God is opening up among us.

The center of this story, of course, is not the one baptizing but the one who comes to be baptized. Jesus is the new that is awaited. And in his baptism both his identity and his authority are revealed.

All four gospels tell pretty much the same story—the one who is greater is baptized by the one who is lesser.

But that baptism was different for Jesus than it was for all the others who came out to John at the Jordan. What Jesus experienced was not the forgiveness of sins for conversion but the Spirit of God and the opening of the heavens. At his baptism Jesus sees a vision and hears a voice that point both to who he is and what he will become.

Matthew is making a theological point here.

The heavens are ripped open, a sign that we have not been abandoned by God, we are not alone in our affliction. The creator has not deserted this weary world. The heavens are ripped open and the Spirit descends like a dove, like the Spirit of God that brooded over the waters of chaos at creation, suggesting a new creation is taking place.

The Spirit of God finds a dwelling place in Jesus. God’s Spirit, however, is given not for Jesus alone but for the whole community of those who would follow him. He receives the Spirit of God for the sick whom he heals, for sinners whose sins he forgives, for the outcast whose fellowship he seeks, the women and men he calls into discipleship. Jesus receives the Spirit as the brother of men and women.

Baptism calls each of us to be faithful to the image of God that we are, leaving others free to do the same. Your own baptism continues to ask the question: “Who is God calling you to become?”

And each time we celebrate baptism in this place we continue to ask: “What is calling this congregation to become?”

We’ve just come through glorious season of Christmas, a celebration of birth.

Strange though, isn’t it? The Gospels of Mark and John don't mention the birth of Jesus at all.

Matthew and Luke tell two different stories:

Matthew gives us Magi and a star.

Luke gives us shepherds and a manger.

The magi and the shepherds quickly leave the scene for their homes. The star fades in foggy winter skies.

And then both Matthew and Luke quickly move on to tell of what really matters—the ministry of the adult Jesus: healing the sick, announcing God's forgiveness, calling people to a new way of life.

While only two gospels tell a Christmas story, all four remember that day at the Jordan River, when Jesus comes to be baptized by John.

We remember this story, we remember our own baptism in part because the good news of God’s love needs to be heard when the floods of living seem to overwhelm us.

At one time or another we all have the sense that we are  drowning, that we’re not up to the task, that there’s too much to deal with, that we are in over our heads. There are times as parents when we feel like this on a daily basis. There are times when we feel this at work, at school, with our friends. There are times when the world seems to overwhelm. As a congregation we can feel this way as we seek to be signs of God’s love in world that all too often works in direct opposition to that love.

We remember our baptism. We remember that we have already been in over our heads. We remember that the waters of death have overwhelmed us. We remember that God who is greater than the waters of chaos has reached out and saved us.

We remember that if baptism is about death, even more it is about resurrection and the new life that God makes possible, the new life that God offers to each of us, to all of us.

In our baptism we have been in over our heads. We came through it by God’s grace.

And so we are given courage for the days ahead. We recognize that hope and happiness are not fleeting dreams but gifts of God who makes all things new. We recognize that in all our trials and troubles, we are surrounded by congregation that is a community of support and encouragement sustained by the Spirit of the living God.

How wonderful to have been here today. This day we both heard and saw the good news: God is with us.

Remember your baptism. And give thanks.