Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Dangers of Baptism: Sermon on Matthew 3:1-17

St. John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Scripture can be found here...

Christmas is over. Jesus is all grown up now. The shepherds and astrologers have all gone home, the starlight has dimmed, and the sounds of the angel-song have faded away. In today’s gospel passage Jesus the man encounters John the Baptist, who, honestly, seems like a pretty scary guy. Let us be frank: John sounds little unhinged. But Jesus is going to see him anyway, and that feels dangerous. Stand with me now, at the Jordan. And, here, in this space, and with apologies to David Letterman, let us discuss the Top Ten Dangers of Baptism.

10.  Obviously, in choosing to be baptized (or to bring a family member to be baptized) there would seem to be a chance we might be directed towards some guy in a camel hair vest with locust-breath calling us nasty names. In our reading, John the Baptist calls out the religious professionals of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This seems to indicate that people like me should be very nervous about baptism, because it means we are to be subjected to a level of truth-telling we don’t always relish.

9.      That same locust-breath guy also appears to come armed with an axe and a winnowing hook, making the whole thing feel vaguely like the beginning of a slasher film.

8.      In choosing baptism—or even, in renewing our own baptismal vows—we might need to repent. The Greek word for “repentance,” the word used in this passage, is “metanoia,” and what it really means is to turn around, to change direction. If I repent, what direction will I have to go in? What path will I have to take? What if I am directed somewhere I’ve never been before? What if I’m unsure of the way?

7.      As a result of repentance, we might need to learn humility. Oh, what an unpopular word this is. Humility means rootedness, groundedness. We think it means volunteering to let people walk all over us. It doesn’t. It means to recognize that though we are all different, we are all the same, too. It means that we are no better (and no worse) than anyone else, though we have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, and quirks and twists and ways of being in the world. Humility means being able to say, as John says to Jesus, “I am not worthy” in a completely non-ironic way. It also means being able to say, “I can do that,” or “I can learn that,” or maybe even, “I was wrong.”

6.      We might also need to learn when it is, and when it is not, about us. Here’s a clue: Mostly, it’s not about us.  John looks like the ultimate successful new-church-startup pastor. There he is, out by the Jordan, sleeves rolled up, baptizing person after person—and the people are streaming to him, the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan. John is the guy all of us pastors would be discussing over coffee, or in a corner at the Presbytery meeting. How does he do it? What’s his secret? But when the rubber hits the road, which is to say, when Jesus shows up, John completely gets that it’s not about him. A famous painting of John shows him pointing a finger over his shoulder. The message is, “Not me. Him.”

5.      And then there’s the water. If we present ourselves for baptism, we’re going to have to deal with the water. With the prospect of getting wet, wading in, plunging in. There’s also an unnerving element of needing to let go, needing to place ourselves and our trust fully in the arms of the one dunking us. Baptism is a frightening and dangerous act of trust.

4.      And the waters of baptism can do all kinds of things. They can wash us clean, but what if I liked my makeup or my hairdo or my carefully constructed mask??

3.      The waters of baptism also place us in a pool—a pool with all kinds of other people, and we don’t get to carefully curate our companions. In choosing to be baptized, Jesus jumped into the pool with all humanity, and, in a certain sense, we do too. And you know how dangerous humans are, with their ability to change one another’s hearts. All the beauty and brokenness, all the sin and glory of messy humanity is in that pool, and so are we, clinging with all our might to God’s grace to stay afloat…. until we realize we can stop clinging. We are floating, and it has nothing to do with our own abilities or might. It’s God who is holding us. That’s the definition of grace.

2.      And then there is the aftermath. After Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit descending to rest upon him. What was that like? What does it mean, to be saturated or covered or anointed with the Holy Spirit? Ask a baptized person. You will get a variety of answers. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that, in baptism, the Spirit equips us for ministry—not all the ministries, but the one or ones to which we are called. What does that feel like? Being called to ministry? Do we get a phone call? (Answer: Sometimes.) Do we get a sense that something might give us joy or energy? (Answer: Sometimes.) Do we get a sinking feeling, a “I can’t say no to this even though it’s going to be hard” feeling? (Answer: Sorry, but, sometimes.) If we present ourselves for baptism, we have to be ready for the perilous aftermath.

1.      And finally: the voice. In baptism we are claimed by one who calls us beloved. After the heavens open and the Spirit comes down, the voice of God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” says God. Imagine. How would it change your life to know that God calls you beloved? You. Not the movie star, 25 lbs. thinner, several years younger, more hair and muscles, less baggage you. You. Now. As you are. Now, don’t imagine it. Know it. You are God’s beloved, and so am I, and so are those people who are driving by the church right this minute, and so are all the football players on the team you can’t stand. God calls us all beloved. Beloved. How would it change your life to know that? How will it change your life? What possibilities will you dare? What risks will you take?

Baptism seems dangerous to me. It is the first step into a life that is out of our control—but most assuredly in God’s keeping. It’s the first step to discovering things about ourselves we could not have otherwise imagined. And it’s the first step in accomplishing what Howard Thurman calls the real work of Christmas:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.

Christmas is over. The work of our baptism, the dangerous, joyful work of following Christ has begun. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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