Here we are, nine days into a new year. We’ve changed the numbers on the calendar, but things look the same as year one and two of what one young child calls the Pandamnic. We’re still wearing masks, the Omicron numbers are scary high. New Year’s used to be more a time of out with the old and in with the new, but 2022 feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re stuck in a very deep rut.
You may have seen the cartoon of a baby talking on a cell phone about her baptism. She says, “I tell you this guy in a dress tried to drown me, and my family didn’t do anything but stand around and take pictures!” I saw another one where Jesus is complaining to John the Baptist that he was trying to drown him. John replies, “Sorry, if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”
How many of you were baptized as infants or as a small child? For that many of us at least we have no conscious memory of that important event that was a major force in shaping our faith journey. That’s one reason this Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of the Lord; so we can all reflect on the promises that we made or were made for us at our baptism.
One of the best things about studying the Scriptures to prepare to preach or doing Bible study is noticing things we’ve not seen before in familiar stories. All of us are somewhat guilty of making what a friend of mine calls Gospel Stew. We take the different accounts of Jesus’ life and mix them all up together into one almost Bible narrative. But each of the Gospels is a unique testimony by its author, and it’s important to take time to focus on each one to see what treasures we can find when we do just that.
For example the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke we read today has one big difference from the other three Gospels. Did you notice it? Listen again to these words from verses 19-21: “…because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. [pause] Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
In the three other accounts in the Gospels John plays a much more central role in baptizing Jesus. John’s role is implied here, but Luke seems to make a point of getting John out of the spotlight in prison before Jesus hears the heavenly voice proclaiming his belovedness.
Luke gives John a lot of time on stage prior to this, but now it’s time for a new beginning for putting away the old wine skins that can’t contain the Gospel of Grace that God has come in Jesus came to proclaim. Now, it’s a new year and time to clean out the old to make room in our hearts for the incarnation of God’s spirit. The Holy Spirit comes not just in Jesus, but in all of us who have been claimed as God’s beloved.
When I was teaching a preaching class at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware one of my students, Mike Doak, dug into this text and did a really creative look at this story from the perspective of John the Baptist who is cooling his heels in jail when Jesus emerges as the Messiah John has been proclaiming.
My student imagined what it might look like if John the Baptist wrote us a Letter from the Jerusalem Jail:
“Stunned… I tell you I was stunned as these events unfolded. You could have heard a single drop of rain fall at that moment, in the midst of that gathering. As for me, one touch of a feather would have keeled me over. Where was the winnower, fork in hand, striding onto the threshing floor? What of the fire, the unquenchable fire, into which the chaff was to be cast? Was there no axe to be laid to the root? We expected a Messiah, a ruler grown from the tree of David would Lord it over Israel with a strong hand and a mighty arm. Why were there no trumpets to announce the coming king; why did thunder not clap as heavens rent open? What manner of king is coroneted with a dove in place of a crown? If I may appropriate a few of your own symbols, I preached Rambo but behold Gandhi. I expected God’s unparalleled judgment yet beheld God’s unparalleled grace. I preached unquenchable fire, but witnessed unquenchable hope. Self-doubt overtook me as days passed into weeks in the solitude of my prison cell. Though I had thrived in the wilderness all my grown life, I was then never so alone. How was it that one called “forerunner” could become “forlorn.”
John has been the star of the show. Huge crowds have come to hear him preach. Some people even think he might be the Messiah himself. That’s pretty heady stuff. But Luke makes it clear John is the forerunner, the warm up act, not the featured attraction. It’s time for a changing of the guard.
Have you ever resented someone who made the team while you got cut? Or some whippersnapper got the promotion you thought you deserved? Or becoming a big sister or brother and all of sudden not getting attention from Mom and Dad or your grandparents who only have eyes for this new little stranger who has invaded your home? If so we can understand how John might have felt.
John says he is preparing the way for Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the Messiah John and most of the Jews were expecting. John was a hell fire and brimstone preacher, a little on the wild and crazy side. He preached a Gospel of repentance based on fear of God’s wrath. He expected the bad dudes to get their comeuppance and the chaff of society to be burned and the sooner the better. We all have our own list of who those bad dudes and dudesses are don’t we!
But John didn’t find in Jesus what he hoped for and expected. This most unlikely carpenter’s son is named God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is well pleased. Baptism is all about new beginnings, but John’s new beginning is a stark reminder that God is the boss and we aren’t. No matter how much we want to pass judgment on people we think are sinners, that’s not our job. Our job is to be messengers of repentance and hope, the good news of new beginnings, and leave the judgment to God.
Baptism is still a sacrament of new beginnings, even in yet another Covid year. But it’s important to see baptism as a beginning and not the end of a journey. Baptized children are preparatory members and it’s the job of all of us– parents, teachers, grandparents, fellow church members – to be their village and help prepare them for full membership and claiming their belovedness for themselves. Now don’t go guilt tripping yourselves about your shortcomings or failures as parents because your kids or grandkids haven’t turned out as you hoped they would. Imagine how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt about this miracle child of theirs living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey! Our job as role models for the younger generation is to show them they are beloved even if they are covered in tattoos and have green hair. The rest is up to them and God.
I want to pause here to acknowledge everyone involved in the amazing children’s ministry here at Northwest. I’ve been part of 8 different congregations in my life and the amazing job Doris Ing and all her servant leaders do with our kids here is by far and away the best I’ve ever seen. Our children get a balanced spiritual diet of hearing the stories of the Bible, and then they practice those values by living them out working in the children’s garden alongside adults and a whole host of other service projects that teach them to treat all of God’s children as the beloved people they are.
Those kids grow up before our eyes oh so fast. Diana and I have been part of the Northwest family for almost 8 years now, and I am amazed when I see children who were toddlers back in 2014 who are now singing in the children’s choir, and teaching us elders what love in action looks like. They grow in wisdom and stature like Jesus to help deliver brown bag lunches and go on youth mission trips. One of my favorite projects in recent months came out of the concern from youth in our confirmation class about climate change. They’ve helped us implement new recycling opportunities and designed these wonderful reusable cups so we can stop adding to the problems Styrofoam cups cause for mother earth. And best of all they put on these cups words that remind us whenever we drink from it that “Love Has No Zip Code.”
I already knew in my head how unjust our society is based on which zip code you happen to be born into. But I really learned about that in a heartfelt way when I was working at Ohio State several years back. I was helping facilitate a partnership between OSU and Columbus City Schools. Many of us at OSU volunteered to be tutors and my school was Medary, one of the elementaries in the University District. At the same time my grandkids were in elementary school in the Olentangy School District. I loved working with the kids at Medary, but it hurt my heart when I would go from there to visit the Olentangy schools on grandparent’s day or other occasions. The differences between the new school buildings and the resources available to my grandchildren were like visiting another planet.
I am grateful for the amazing experiences my grandkids have had at Olentangy, but very troubled that the urban kids are not getting the same benefits.
I’m using Olentangy as an example, but we know the same stark differences apply to Dublin and Hilliard and other suburban schools. The way we fund education via property tax, i.e. by zip code, is inherently unjust. That system has resulted in the resegregation of our schools and perpetuated and widened the gap between the privileged and the marginalized. And those disparities have only been multiplied by Covid.
Climate change and education are just two of many injustices we are called to address. None of us can make a big difference in any or all of them, but we can start by asking God how we can make a difference wherever we are. Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in 2 verses and then devotes 12 verses to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that immediately follows. This warns us that we are all tempted forever as Jesus was to cave in to the seduction of worldly comfort and power, but because we are followers of Christ we can say no to Satan’s clever sales pitches.
I don’t know about you, but when we baptize cute babies up here I don’t pay much attention to the words of the baptism ritual. I’m just oohing and aahing over a precious beloved child of God. Babies are such a miracle that they melt our hearts. But there are important words in the ritual that we all need to hear. As a congregation we promise to help raise those children in the faith; so we shouldn’t just sign on for that important job like we click agree without reading all the fine print on a new app.
Listen to what one of those vows asks us to agree to: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” That’s a heavy promise, and it comes before the next promise where we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and put your whole trust in his grace…?” We can’t renounce and resist the forces of evil on our own. We can only do that through the power of the Holy Spirit descending on us and declaring we are God’s beloved children.
The last line of the baptismal vow says we “promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Brothers and sisters, all means all. Just as we can’t choose our relatives, even the crazy uncles and the weird cousins, we can’t exclude anyone from the body of Christ. I know how hard that is. The partisan paralysis in our government that has made this pandemic last so much longer than it needed to and taken so many beloved family members and friends from us makes me furious. But the Gospel message is that even those I vehemently disagree with about vaccines and masks, yes, even those people are God’s beloved children.
Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe long before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet. God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one. And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire.
In one of those special God incidents, I got a wonderful idea for how we can all practice our baptismal vows and celebrate our blessedness every day. It came just yesterday in a daily devotion I get from Father Richard Rohr, and it suggests this simple practice.
The exercise goes like this; looking, really looking lovingly, not staring or seeing any flaws, look at yourself in a mirror or at another person, and as you breathe in and out pray silently these words:
Breathe in: I see you with love
Breathe out: gifted, cherished.
Breathe in: Grateful
Breathe out: for who you are. [Repeat this with congregation, looking at another or imagining someone]
And here’s the best part–Father Rohr goes on to say,
“We can also bring this practice out into the world. How often do we really see another person beneath their role, under our expectations? What if we paused at the grocery store and for a moment brought eyes of love to the stock clerk or the cashier. They don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to stare, just take in their image, then close your eyes for a moment, breathe, and bathe them with love. Pause and see the other person as beloved and beautiful as they indeed truly are.”
My beloved sisters and brothers, this is a day of new beginnings because God’s “Belovedness Knows No Zip Code.” Amen
Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 9, 2022
Recorded from Livestream @ https://youtu.be/bLS32pkXHAU