“In Over Our Heads”
January 12, 2014
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
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
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.
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
The lesser speaks of the greater. One who baptizes with water tells of a
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
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
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
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
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
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.