Baptism Basics

How many of you woke up this morning and the first thing you said to yourself was, “I am so glad that I am baptized?” You don’t have to all raise your hands at once! The reality is that most of us don’t live our lives with a conscious awareness of the fact that we are baptized. It’s not something that we keep in the forefront of our minds. In fact, when we think about our daily lives, there are so many other things that seek to define us: our jobs, our families, our friends, the clothes that we wear, how much money we have or don’t have, the material possessions we have accumulated, and the list goes on. 

The fact of the matter is we spend most of our time and energy focused on these various facets of our lives and, as a result, we come to believe that those are the things that ultimately shape our character and define who we are. And yet, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, the defining characteristic of our lives, the reality that lies at the heart of all we are and all we do, is the fact that we are baptized – that our lives have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. 

Now this morning, in our gospel reading, we hear about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Some theologians have asked the question, “If baptism cleanses us from sin, if baptism is about forgiveness, why did Jesus need to be baptized, since he was without sin?” Several answers have been offered in response to this question, but many commentators argue that Jesus, through his baptism, Jesus gives us the paradigm through which we can understand our own experience of baptism. In other words, Jesus gives us, his followers, a model or a pattern for what baptism represents in our own spiritual journeys. 

And so, this morning, as we enter into this new year and with the baptism of Jesus as our paradigm, I would like us to review what I call “the baptism basics.”

First of all, baptism defines WHO WE ARE. Baptism gives us our fundamental identity as children of God.Now, when Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized, he was already fully divine. He was already the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. And yet, it is at the moment of his baptism that God the Father chooses to make the pronouncement: “You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is at his baptism that the heavens are torn open and we hear the voice of God revealing the identity of his beloved Son. And it is this identity as God’s beloved Son that sustains Jesus throughout his earthly ministry.

Now, I have celebrated many baptisms over the years and as of yet, I have not experienced the heavens opening up and an audible voice speaking to the congregation. But, nevertheless, through our baptism, we are given a new identity. We are called the beloved of God. We are called children of God.  And nothing can ever take that identity away from us! And (this is important) no other identity can ever overshadow our identity as beloved children of God. 

Some of you know that when I was seminary, I had a wonderful New Testament professor, who also served as my academic advisor. And when you walked into his office, there was a wall full of framed diplomas. Several academic degrees, academic awards, and honorary degrees, but right in the middle of this wall of intellectual achievement hung his framed baptismal certificate. And that baptismal certificate served as a reminder to every student that walked in his office, that no matter where we might go in ministry, no matter what we might achieve, our fundamental identity is the one given to us at baptism – you are a beloved son or daughter of God. Baptism defines WHO WE ARE.

Secondly, Baptism defines HOW WE LIVE. When Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit came upon Him in power. This was a new experience. John the Baptist baptized with water, but he spoke about the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit. So, when Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit comes upon him, something new is happening. But remember, this is paradigm for how we live out our baptism in our lives. And so, just as Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the power and anointing of God’s Spirit dwells within us. 

The problem is that many of us don’t live in the power of the Spirit. Many of us are often like the group that Paul encounters in today’s reading from the book of Acts. Paul travels to Ephesus and he encounters a group of disciples – they were disciples, which implies that they were, in some fashion or another, following Jesus! But Paul says, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not ever heard that there is a Holy Spirit!” (So, we can infer right away they must have been Episcopalians!) The fact of the matter is that through our baptism, we not only receive a new identity as children of God, we also receive the power and anointing of God’s Spirit. 

So, Baptism defines WHO WE ARE. It defines HOW WE LIVE. Finally, Baptism defines WHAT WE DO. Baptism gives us our mission. Baptism is not simply a past event, but a present reality. We often fall into the pattern of speaking about baptism in the past tense – “I was baptized in 1979.” Well, you know, I was married over 22 years ago. But if I only understand marriage as a past event, I am in trouble (in more ways than one!). The reality is “I AM MARRIED.” (and I had better not forget it). In the same way, we need to think of baptism as a present reality in our lives. Wouldn’t it be amazing is we woke up each morning and said “I AM BAPTIZED! And Because I am baptized, my life should be different. I have been given a new identity in Christ, and that new identity is not something in the past; it is alive and active in my life today! Today I AM THE BELOVED of GOD. Today I am called by God. Today, by virtue of my baptism, I am part of God’s mission in the world Baptism is not simply a past event, but a present reality in our lives. 

And so, my friends, I don’t expect us to wake up every morning reflecting on the moral, ethical, spiritual, and theological implications of the sacramental reality of baptism. But I do hope that we will grow in our understanding of how the grace we receive through the waters of baptism continues to shape and transform our lives. That grace defines who we are as beloved children of God. That grace equips us with the power and anointing of God’s Spirit. And that same grace calls us to go forth to share the love and healing presence of Jesus. 

When Heaven Touches Earth

Over the past few decades, a lot had changed when it comes to the religious landscape across America. The number of people who say they are affiliated with a particular denomination has dropped significantly since about 1990. The number of people who attend church on a regular basis has also dropped dramatically over the past thirty to forty years. The number of people who give and support any kind of religious institutions has also gone down considerably during that same period of time. There is no doubt that religion in America has changed.

Now, as someone who might be considered a “professional religious person,” I worry about these things. The numbers are consistently moving in the wrong direction. By almost every single metric, religion in America seems to be on the decline. But just recently I discovered at least one statistic that defies these otherwise troubling trends. What I found is that over the past several decades, as church attendance and giving and religious affiliation have all been on the decline, the number of people who say they believe in heaven has actually remained about the same. While everything else is trending down, people still believe in heaven! Now this is good news, right? In the face of what is otherwise a dismal outlook for religion and faith in America we can hold on to the fact that a majority of people still believe in heaven. Yes! That’s a good thing!

But there is one problem. The majority of people who believe in heaven usually conceive of heaven as a distant place (a good place, but a distant place). The place where good people go to enjoy eternity with God. Even those who identify themselves as faithful followers of Jesus, often think primarily about heaven as someplace else. Another realm. Another dimension. A place we go to. But tonight, I wonder. What if God came to earth not only to bring us to heaven? But what if God came to earth to bring heaven to us? What if the story we hear tonight about a baby born two thousand years ago, in a backwoods village called Bethlehem is actually a story about a transformational moment in history when heaven touches earth?

Think about this with me for just a moment. Long before Jesus was born, God’s people were waiting, praying, longing for the day when God’s kingdom, God’s vision, God’s dream would be realized for the whole world. They were longing for the day when the knowledge of the glory of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. In so many ways, God’s people were looking and waiting for the day when heaven would come to earth. And then, in the fullness of time, a baby is born. A baby born like any other baby. A baby wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger. A baby crying and longing to cling to his mother. 

But in response to the birth of this baby, the heavens are opened. The glory of God is revealed. Choirs of angels begin to sing. Hymns of praise begin to echo throughout the universe. Salvation has come. Grace has come. Peace has come. Heaven has come to earth.

And notice that in our story heaven touches earth in the most obscure and unlikely of places. Heaven touches earth in a remote province of the Roman Empire about as far away as you can get from the centers of power and wealth and influence. Heaven touches earth in a stable where a young unmarried couple far from home is forced to take shelter because there is no room for them at the inn. Heaven touches earth in the face and hands and toes of helpless baby lying in a manger. And then there’s the shepherds minding their own business in a nearby field. The shepherds, who are the first see the heavens torn open, the first to witness the brilliant radiance of the glory of God. You see, the glory of God is not revealed to Augustus, the Emperor of Rome. The glory of God is not revealed to Quirinius, the Governor of Syria. The glory of God is not revealed to Herod, the Great King of Judea. The glory of God is revealed to a scattering of lowly shepherds in a random field, watching their flocks by night. Heaven has come to earth.

A remote village. A stable. A manger. A field full of sheep. Not exactly the places where you would expect to find heaven touching earth. Not exactly the places where you would expect to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. But what if God came to earth not only to bring us to heaven? What if God came to earth to bring heaven to us? Right where we are. In the messiness of life. In the pandemonium of a pandemic. In our confusion. In our fears. In our grief. Right where we are. Heaven has come to earth.

Tonight, on Christmas Eve 2021, our world needs a vision of heaven touching earth. Because it seems to me that it is more than just religious affiliation and church attendance that are on the decline. Kindness is on the decline. Patience is on the decline. Gratitude and graciousness are on the decline. Respect and respectability and basic human decency are all on the decline. We need a vision of heaven touching earth. We need a vision of the knowledge of the glory of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea. We need a vision of God’s kingdom, God’s dream breaking forth in the midst of the brokenness and confusion of this world. Today we will once pray together the all too familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. And we will offer our petition once again that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Tonight, may those words be more than words. May they represent our conviction that on this most holy night in the face and hands and toes of a helpless baby heaven has come to earth. Salvation has come. Grace has come. Peace has come. God has come to be with us. Thanks be to God. 

Strangely Good News

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? I tell you that even now the ax is sharpened and ready to cut down all the unfruitful trees among you! And the chaff, that worthless garbage, will be incinerated with unquenchable fire! So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people! Now, if this is John’s “good news,” I’m not sure I want to hang around to hear his “bad news.” He sounds angry. He sounds frustrated. John is issuing a scathing, scolding rebuke that even makes us uncomfortable sitting here two thousand years later. And to complicate matters even more, the crowd that John is addressing has come to him to be baptized. Now during my years as a priest, I have had hundreds of people approach me about baptism, and to my recollection, never once have I responded by referring to them a venomous snake! These are harsh and challenging words indeed. 

And yet, somehow, in the midst of these powerful, prophetic, words of warning and rebuke, the “good news,” the “gospel” is being proclaimed! So, what are we to make of this paradox? How do we hear these words from John the Baptist as a proclamation of good news?

Well, if we look back for moment to last Sunday, you might recall that we heard about the beginning of John’s public ministry, and in particular, we heard John describing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision for all of creation. And he said this new reality would be one in which the valleys of injustice would be lifted up and the mountains of pride would be brought low. In this new kingdom, everything that is crooked and out of alignment will be made straight and the even the rough patches, the potholes of life will be made smooth. That’s the vision! That’s the new reality of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking forth in our world! 

But if last week was about the vision, the big picture of God’s grand construction project for the world, this week is about how that vision is built. This is week is about the concrete ways that we are called to put that vision into action. In other words, John is saying, “here is what this new reality is going to actually mean for your life and for the life of the world.”

The first thing John says about this new reality is that some things are going to have to change! In other words, it’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. Did you notice that many of the images and metaphors that John uses describe a process of change and it’s a process of change and transformation will not necessarily be easy? It will require repentance, choosing to turn and move in a different direction. And to move in a new directionmeans that we might have to let go of some the things that we once relied upon for a sense of security and safety. In fact, there may be some things in our lives that are no longer bearing fruit and those things need to be cut down. In other words, there will be things that need to be removed in order to create new pathways, underbrush that needs to be cleared away in order for the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in the world. In this new reality, as this new kingdom breaks forth into the world, somethings are going to have to change. 

But according to John, this new reality is not just transformational, it’s also RELATIONAL. Did you notice that different groups keep asking John “What should we do?” We know things are changing, but how does that effect our lives? And in every case, the exhortation that John offers is about how to treat other people. The crowds asks, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “If you have an extra coat or some extra food, you should give it to those in need!” The tax collectors come and ask, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “How about stop cheating people on their taxes!” And the solders come, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “Well, for starters, don’t blackmail people in order to make more money!” 

In each and every case, John is telling folks that in the new reality of the kingdom of God, relationships matter. How we treat each other matters. This is not just about the piety of individuals, this is about the transformation of society. This is not just about the conversion of the human heart, this is about the healing of the human family. In this new reality some things are going to need to change and where they need to change the most is in the context of our relationships with one another! 

Finally, and I think most importantly, this transformational, relational work of the kingdom of God is surprisingly PRACTICAL.  Did you notice all the advice that John gives to the crowd is something they can actually do right now? They don’t have to quite their jobs. They don’t have to get a seminary degree. They don’t have to join a new ministry. There’s not even a committee or a task-force to oversee the progress of these initiatives! John simply says, you can participate in the new reality of the kingdom of God right where you are!“If you’re a tax collector, go and be a decent tax collector!” “If you’re a soldier, go and be a honest soldier.” 

You can fill in the blank with whatever life-situation describes you right now. “If you’re a parent, go and be a faithful parent.” “If you’re a supervisor in your company, go and be a good and trustworthy supervisor.” “If you’re a teacher, go and be a passionate and dedicated teacher.” And the list could go on. The point is that this transformational, relational work of the kingdom is something you can do today, right now, right where you are! The small corner of the world where you live and work and laugh and play is precisely where God has called you to be – and that is place where God is working in you and through you to bring about his kingdom in this world.

Our brother John the Baptist came onto the scene with a powerful, prophetic word of warning and rebuke – but he also came with a word of HOPE. He came announcing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision of a world turned right-side up. And John made it very clear that he was not the one to bring about this new reality – but that the One coming after him – the One whose coming we await – the One whose name is Jesus – He would be the One to bring about this new vision for the world. 

It’s a vision that’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. It’s a vision that’s RELATIONAL. And above all, it’s a vision that’s PRACTICAL – a vision that starts today, right now, right where you are. And my friends, for you, for me, and for the world – this is indeed incredibly good news indeed!!

Begin With the End in Mind

Just over thirty years ago, author and business executive, Stephen Covey, published his wildly popular book entitled, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 25 million copies. The second habit that Covey describes is the habit of beginning with the end in mind. According to Covey, beginning with the end in mind means that our lives should be guided by a vision for the future, a desired direction and destination. We should be intentional about imagining who and what we want to be. Just as you would never start constructing a house without first creating a blueprint to follow, we shouldn’t go about the work of building our lives without first discerning a vision and developing a sense of mission and purpose to guide that process of growth and development. In everything we do, we should begin with the end in mind.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “What do Stephen Covey and the habits of highly effective people have to do with the season of Advent?” (I’m really glad you asked!) The season of Advent marks the start of new liturgical year. Today is New Year’s Day according to the Christian calendar. Today is a new beginning. And yet, did you notice that our gospel reading is not about the beginning but about the end? There is nothing in our gospel today about getting ready for the birth of a baby, but there is a lot about getting ready for the birth of a new creation. There’s nothing about in our gospel today about getting ready for the commencement of a new liturgical yearbut there is a lot about getting ready for the eventual consummation of all things. In other words, the season of Advent is all about beginning with the end in mind

So, what does that mean? What does it look like for you and me to begin with the end in mind? In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about signs in the sun, moon, and stars. He speaks about a time when the heavens will be shaken, a time when people will faint from fear and foreboding. Jesus speaks about distress and confusion among the nations of the earth. All we have to do is add a global pandemic to the list, and Jesus could be reading the headlines from the latest edition of the New York Times! But notice that in the midst of all of this impending doom and destruction, Jesus tells his disciples to do two things: stand up and lift up your heads. We you see these things beginning to take place, stand up and lift up your heads. In other words, in the midst of the confusion and chaos of the world around us, we are called to live as a people of conviction and courage

First, we are called to live with CONVICTION. To stand up and lift up our heads implies that there is something worth believing in. There is something worth fighting for. There is something worth standing for. We believe that God has a vision for all of humanity. And not just for all of humanity, but all of creation. A vision of healing and restoration. A vision of abundance. A vision of new life and new creation. And so, to be a people who begin with end in mind is to be a people who live with the conviction that the present condition of the world is not the end of the story. We stand up and lift up our heads, because we believe that one day God will renew all things. One day there will be no more pain or sorrow. No more disease. No more injustice. No more hatred and division.

So, we are called to live with CONVICTION and we are correspondingly called to live with COURAGE. To stand up and lift up our heads means that despite the challenges going on in our world and in lives, we can be confident in God’s promises. We can stand with courage knowing that God is working all things for our good. We walk by faith and not by sight. In just a few moments, we will join Chase and Jen in renewing the promises of our Baptismal Covenant. We commit ourselves to live a particular kind of life. We commit ourselves to the radical ethic of serving and loving one another as Christ as served and loved us. We commit ourselves to strive for justice and peace among all people. We commit ourselves to seek wholeness and to respect the dignity of every human being. The promises we make in our baptismal covenant are not for the faint of heart. They require conviction and courage. They require us to stand up and lift up our heads. They require us to hold fast to God’s vision for the world. They require us to begin with the end in mind.

And all of this is really hard to do. Because we look at our world and we see so much brokenness, so much pain, so much distress and confusion among the nations of the earth. That it can be hard to even glimpse God’s vision. So, in conclusion, I invite you to consider the follow analogy. In 1501, the Renaissance artist Michelangelo began work on his massive sculpture of David. He was forced to work with a slab of marble of inferior quality that had already been worked on by several other artists over a period of nearly 40 years. The large marble slab had been neglected and exposed to the elements for 26 years before Michelangelo was granted the commission to complete his masterpiece.

According to tradition, later in his life when Michelangelo was asked how he accomplished these amazing works of art, he is reported to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I ever start my work. It is already there, and I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I ever start my work. Michelangelo looked at an inferior, neglected and forgotten piece of marble and he saw something beautiful. Michelangelo looked at what others had rejected, and he saw a masterpiece. All because he began with the end in mind. 

My friends, do you and I have the conviction and foresight to look at the world around us and see God’s masterpiece? Do we have the vision to look through the brokenness and fear and pain and catch a glimpse of God’s dream for humanity and all of creation? Do we have the courage to take out our chisels and to chip away at injustice, division, hatred, and all that seeks to separate us from God and one another? As we begin this season of Advent, as we begin this new year together, my prayer is that we will begin with the end in mind, that we will stand up and lift up our heads, and that we will commit ourselves to be a part of God’s dream, God’s vision, God’s mission for each one of us, for this church, and for the world.