Monday, January 08, 2007

Fire, Water, and Hope

Here's yesterday's homily, which is a pretty dry -- ironically, given the watery subject! -- teaching sermon. It's not one of my favorites, but my congregation responded kindly.

Speaking of dry, my new meds were giving me an awful case of cottonmouth, and at the second service, I had to excuse myself after the fourth paragraph to grab the glass of water our priest always keeps near the altar. Awkward, but forgiven.

Kitty update: As of 8:00 last night, his temp was still a bit above 104, although the vet said his appetite and attitude were excellent. I have to pick him up by 8:00 this morning, since Animal Emergency isn't open during normal business hours. If his fever's broken during the night, I can take him home. If it hasn't, I'll drive him to our regular vet -- only half a mile away, hurrah! -- so he can be rehospitalized there.

Oh, yes, the Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.


Two weeks ago was Christmas Eve. Yesterday, January 6, was the traditional date of the Feast of Epiphany, when the three wise men from the East arrived to bring gifts to the infant Jesus. And today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.

This chronology might make you think that Jesus was baptized as an infant of two weeks old, that the wise men’s gifts included a long white baptismal gown. But, in fact, the Gospels tell us that Jesus wasn’t baptized until he was about thirty. The church calendar -- this year especially -- wastes no time jumping from his joyous birth to the beginning of his adult ministry.

Jesus’ baptism raises a number of questions. If he was baptized as an adult, why do many Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, baptize both adults and infants, as we’ll be doing at St. Stephen’s today? If Jesus was the perfect, sinless Son of God, why did he participate in a baptism for the repentance of sins, especially at the hands of a man who had just said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals”? What’s all this bewildering business about fire and doves and the Holy Spirit? And since both John and Jesus were Jewish -- not a tradition that we tend to associate with baptism today -- how does our current practice of baptism connect to what happened on the banks of the Jordan in the first century?

Let’s take the last question first. Jews, both in the first century and now, would call Jesus’ baptism a mikvah, a ritual cleansing and rededication to God. Among a variety of other uses, the mikvah is still required today for converts to conservative or orthodox Judaism. Some of you may remember that my friend Ellen adopted a little boy from Russia a few years ago. Ellen was born Jewish, but in a few weeks, she’ll take her son Paul to the mikvah -- also the name of the specially constructed bath where the ritual occurs -- to be immersed in the water and received fully into the Jewish community.

Jesus was born Jewish. But John the Baptist was performing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” asking those he baptized to renew their commitment to God. It’s a measure of how deeply John moved his followers that they thought he might be the Messiah. When they asked him what they should do to demonstrate their repentance, in a passage just before this morning’s Gospel reading, he gave them a set of instructions for right living. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” This sounds a lot like things Jesus would say later. Many people see Jesus’ baptism as a way for him both to emphasize his own humanity -- the fact that he was the Son of Man, not just the Son of God -- and to endorse John’s message. And as for why Jesus chose to be baptized by a man who wasn’t worthy to untie the thongs on his sandals: well, that’s hardly surprising behavior from a savior who would later insist on washing his followers’ feet.

If some scholars have been puzzled about why Jesus chose to submit to John’s baptism, Jesus’ father seems to have approved. The Gospel tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Humans -- John the Baptist, Sherry Dunn, Rick Sorensen -- baptize with water, but only God can send the Holy Spirit, as He did at the first Pentecost, when tongues of flame descended upon the disciples. For both Jews and Christians, ritual purification with water symbolizes rebirth and inclusion, a way to say,”You are part of our community now, and we love you, and we believe that God loves you.” But only God himself can send the inner assurance, the bone-deep faith that we are God’s children, God’s beloved.

Christians who baptize infants do so to include children in the Christian community, the household of God, even before those children can consciously choose that household for themselves. All Christians baptize adults who have recently chosen our household. In the Episcopal church, and others that practice infant baptism, the sacrament of confirmation gives older children, and adults, a chance to fully and consciously rededicate themselves to God. But several times a year, whenever a baptism is performed, Episcopalians also renew their baptismal vows, reminding themselves of the promises they have made to God and to their fellow humans.

One of the meanings of the Hebrew word mikvah is hope. Baptism is a sacrament of hope not just for the baptized person, but for the gifts the baptized person will give the world. For John the Baptist, for Jesus, and for us today, baptism promises God’s forgiveness, but it also requires us to make promises of our own. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” We hear John’s commandment echoed in Jesus’ later one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And we hear Jesus’ commandment echoed in our baptismal promises, the covenant we will say together in a few minutes.

All of us will be asked: “Will you proclaim by word and by example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” To each of these three questions, we give the same answer. “I will, with God’s help.”

When we make or renew our baptismal vows, we promise to bring the hope of Christ to everyone. The hope of Christ, Christ’s mikvah, doesn’t simply take the form of water sprinkled on our foreheads; and these days, it rarely takes the form of doves or supernatural voices, neither of which we’re very likely to witness at St. Stephen’s this morning. It takes the form of the human work we do with our human hands to improve the world we live in, both for humans and for the rest of God’s creation: the earth, the waters, the atmosphere, and all living things. God helps us with that work by sending the Holy Spirit: by setting us on fire to do works of justice and compassion, to comfort the lonely and heal the sick and broken.

Baptism is the beginning of a lifetime of work in God’s service. That service may require us to wash our friends’ feet, as Jesus did. It may require us to speak truth to power, as Jesus did, and as John the Baptist also did. John told powerful Herod things he didn’t want to hear; the editors of the Episcopal lectionary tactfully left out of today’s Gospel the passage in which Herod has John arrested and thrown in jail. Service to God requires us to share not just in Jesus’ life and in his resurrection, but in his death, in his pain at the worst that God’s beloved children can do to one another. Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. In a few months, on Good Friday, we’ll mourn his death. Christians believe in eternal life, but baptism is no guarantee of earthly safety.

This makes baptism sound rather scary; and as joyous as it is, it should scare us a little. These are big promises we’re making: promises to keep our eyes open when it might be simpler to look away, to speak when it might be simpler to stay silent, to stretch out our hands when it might be simpler to turn our backs.

And so today we will pray for God’s help in keeping our promises. We will pray to receive the Holy Spirit, to be set on fire to bring the hope of Christ to the world. And we will pray to hear what human words and sanctified water cannot themselves confer: the still, small voice of God telling us, “You are my child, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”


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