January 8, 2017-Baptism of the Lord

January 8 2017 Sermon

Isaiah 42:1-9

42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

42:2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;

42:3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

42:4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:

42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,

42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

42:8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.

42:9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.


Matthew 3:13-17

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

3:15 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.

3:16 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.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Just this past Friday, brothers and sisters in Christ around the world celebrated Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas commemorating the visit of the Magi from the East. Last week, I joined together the lectionary texts for both January 1st and Epiphany which was January 6th. It gave us a look at the long arc of events beginning with the Magi seeing a star in the night sky which peaked their curiosity. They set out toward Jerusalem and the surrounding area following the star until they are called into the court of Herod the Great who secretly wishes to eliminate the future kingdom of the Christ child. The holy family escapes to Egypt prompted by an angelic dream. Mary, Joseph, and toddler Jesus stay in Egypt for some time until it is safe for them to return back to their ancestral homeland after Herod dies.

That concludes the second chapter of Matthew. The third chapter of Matthew begins with the ministry of John the Baptist calling anyone who will listen to change their hearts and lives. He’s doing this out in the wilderness along the banks of River Jordan. Jesus goes out to see him, to be baptized by him and this is where our gospel lesson picks up this morning.

“As Matthew tells the tale, a lot of people were heading down to the Jordan to listen to sturdy preaching and to pray that God would forgive their sins. It is the original revival-a preacher stands by the bank of a river clamoring for repentance, then one by one contrite sinners step forward; and trusting themselves to calloused fingers which pinch their nostrils shut, they are plunged-every bit of them-beneath the moving waters. It is a straightforward, modest ceremony, nothing more than a bath in the river really; and, yet, something about this washing beckons to people, pulling folks from their busy lives to make a trip down to the Jordan. John’s actions took something that our bodies know so well-that just-bathed, tingling, freshly toweled-off sensation-and managed to replicate it for people’s spirits.” (http://day1.org/920-hows_the_water)

I was reminded this week and just yesterday about the role and prominence that the Jordan River has in our life of faith. This river, resembling the Harpeth more than the mighty Mississippi was the boundary crossing that Moses and the Israelites crossed when they entered into the Promised Land. A miracle was reported the day that the Israelites crossed the Jordan River-as the Arc of the Covenant was carried into the river, water stopped flowing and the Israelites crossed to safety just as they had done when fleeing Egypt.

There in the middle of the river, Joshua, Moses’ successor in leading the Israelites, instructs men from the 12 tribes of Israel to pick up rocks from the river bed and to carry them until the community made their camp in the holy land. The rocks would become a sign to the children who asked, what are these for? And the elders reply, these help us remember when the Lord God stopped the Jordan River for us to pass into this land flowing with milk and honey. And it’s reported that Joshua took 12 rocks himself and placed them together as an altar on the river bed to commemorate the Lord’s action that day.

Mrs. Peggy Deal, whose life we celebrated yesterday, had a transformative experience when she waded out into the Jordan River in Israel. Many times in her service yesterday, pastors and friends recounted how meaningful it was for her to be cleansed in the river where Jesus was baptized. I have not waded into the Jordan River myself. I have not stood on its banks watching pilgrims wade out to be baptized by waiting priests. I have not stood on the banks of the Dead Sea where the Jordan River completes its journey through the Holy Land.

But due to the thoughtfulness of a retired pastor, there is about three ounces of Jordan River water in a brown medicine bottle that has gone with me to every pastoral appointment. Reverend Charles Swadley knew that times would emerge when adding a few drops of Jordan River font to the baptismal font when the congregation celebrates the baptismal covenant with a child and family would be particularly meaningful. He knew that it would provide texture to a community of faith called to renew the promises of baptism on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Just as I did when we baptized Alice Arnold, I placed a few of those drops into our font this morning so that when you come forward to splash your hands in the font, dip your hands in the water and make the sign of the cross on the back of your hand or forehead, or take one of the beads you might sense the presence of Christ in your life. There’s nothing holy about the water from Israel-it doesn’t have special powers but it can be a sign or guidepost to help you see and touch the grace of God at work transforming your life as it did the day that Jesus’ cousin thrust him into the murky water, raised him out of it, and all the bystanders on the banks watched the heavens render apart and God’s Spirit descend like a dove.

As one of our church’s two sacraments, outward signs of God’s grace, there is plenty that could be said about baptism-what it is, what it does, why we do it, how Christians over the centuries have practiced this ritual cleansing, how much water is needed to make it work, and what it can mean for those who seek to follow Jesus. A lot of ink has already been spilt over the circumstances in which baptism should be performed: should we baptize infants, only those who can answer for themselves, whether something like human saliva constitutes water in case of an emergency baptism, and the list of unique situations continues. These historical and contextual considerations are incredibly interesting and the way in which we answer some of those questions makes us Methodists or Wesleyans rather than Baptist or Church of Christ.

I don’t want you to leave this place with merely a mental understanding of baptism this morning-I want you to depart from this place feeling the promises of God contained in the baptismal covenant that we will pray together in just a few minutes.

In the spring of 2014, a young boy whose family worshiped in the church I was serving told his parents that he wanted to be baptized. I’m not sure whether he had first seen baptisms take place in worship and that peaked his curiosity in such a unique ritual. Perhaps his interest in baptism had emerged in conversation around the family dinner table-or maybe in growing up and learning to grieve the loss of his baby sister, he wanted to experience God’s redemptive grace for himself. Whatever the reason, the young boy told his parents quite boldly that he wanted to be baptized and that he wanted it to happen in the Harpeth River at Newsom’s Mill, his favorite kayaking spot. Shortly thereafter his parents made the request of me and my senior pastor at the time-we had cared for this family for years after the death of their second child.

Since the request came in February, we decided to spend the spring planning for the baptism that would likely take place when the waters of the Harpeth warmed up a bit. One afternoon I visited with the family and we went over the baptismal covenant line by line.

It is through baptism that we become part of Christ’s universal church that spans distance and time. We begin to participate in what God is doing in the world to bring newness of life. All of this grace and love is for us-there’s nothing we can do to earn it or buy it.

We discussed what it means to want to follow Jesus, leave behind actions that are mean, not fair, and that hurt others. We talked about the work his parents were doing to minimize community gun violence and the issues of hunger and affordable housing that his neighbors were facing.

We talked about what it means to love God, to trust God, and serve in the church that is inclusive of all people. I promised him that all of the church family and friends who would gather at the river bank would love him and help him grow in deeper love of God as he got older. We read through the ancient creed of the Apostles that Christians have held onto for centuries.

In mid-May, after a rainy week, family and friends gathered at the old mill, with the smell of charcoal lingering in the air for the cookout that would come right after the baptism. My senior pastor, the young boy, and I waded out into the frigid cold murky water and I began the liturgy, going line by line just as we practiced around the dining room table.

Holding his arms across his chest, we immersed him in the waters of the Harpeth-dying to self, rising in Christ.

I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.