A Sermon for Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, Sunday, January 13, 2019, Guest Preaching on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
This is an exciting time in the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church as the congregation anticipates the February arrival of Mike and Melody Watson’s first child. And there couldn’t be a more perfect occasion to throw them a baby shower, following the worship service, than on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On this day we recognize Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism with Christ—of how God showers us with grace and calls us beloved, just as you will shower Mike and Melody with that same love and affection.
The event of Jesus’ baptism, recounted in the scripture lesson from The Gospel of Luke, inaugurates his public ministry of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth. Although it doesn’t have quite the flourish of Christmas, Jesus’ baptism is just as significant, if not more so, than his birth.
It is such a big deal that Jesus’ cousin—that camel-hair coat wearing, locust and honey eating wilderness preacher John the Baptist—loudly proclaims that the people need to prepare for this sacred moment by repenting and receiving baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John shouts to the crowd gathered at the Jordan River:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The people immediately ask the preacher: What do we need to do differently? How can we repent?” John replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Next, the tax collectors approach John and ask the same questions. He tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Finally, Roman soldiers come to him and also inquire about their behavior. John says: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
The people, according to this morning’s gospel passage, are filled with anticipation and wondering if John is the messiah. John reminds them:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
After John finishes baptizing everyone, he baptizes Jesus who somehow snuck into the crowd earlier without being detected by anyone else. As Jesus is praying, the skies open up and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, accompanied by a booming voice from heaven that says:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism is quite a spectacular scene—a hundred times better than the climatic images of any blockbuster super hero-sci-fi-fantasy movie. It is so awesome that it may seem initially challenging to determine it’s meaning for our own lives.
When we ponder stories of baptism, they seem on the surface to be dull in comparison to what happens to Jesus. Church steeples didn’t rip apart for a dove to dive bomb our heads. Nor did a thunderous voice speak to us from above the clouds like Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie: “I am your father.”
Despite the lack of such a grand display, however, our baptisms (and reminders of them) are just as powerful, poignant, and full of surprises when we take time to contemplate them.
In the last week, I’ve thought a lot about baptisms. Baptisms I’ve been a part of, as well as the holy experiences of water in unexpected moments…
Five years ago this coming March, my wife Elizabeth and I had our son Davis baptized at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church where I was serving as an associate pastor. It was a wonderful day. Extended family and close friends drove many miles to witness the baptism of a plump, bald, chipmunk cheek 4-month-old. The sacrament went fairly smoothly. Davis was alert but calm as the senior pastor placed water atop the child’s head. Even Davis’ precocious big sister Katie, who was 5 years old at the time, stood quietly next to Elizabeth, a large smile radiating from her face.
That is, until I stepped forward to give the closing prayer. As I wrapped up the prayer, I glanced down to see Katie walk up next to me, mouth the word, “Amen” and then take a dramatic bow as if she had just performed the lead role in a play. She was, apparently, expressing how “well pleased” she was with her brother’s baptism.
Then there was the time before my senior year of high school, when my family was living in Birmingham, Alabama and my parents went through an ugly divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent several days sitting in a recliner watching TV. One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and two of my good friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey were standing on the front stoop, smiling. Before I could say hello, they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”
A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. Never once did we bring up the mess at home. Words weren’t necessary. Their love and care for me was evident by their actions and the hours we spent together in the cool, clear water of the lake.
And lastly, in the summer of 2013 I took a group of middle school youth to North Carolina to participate in a week of service at Asheville Youth Mission. We closed out the trip with a morning spirituality walk through the city of Asheville. Led by AYM’s co-founder, the late Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan, we paused at various spots to read and discuss stories about Jesus’ ministry to the sick and the poor. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of the week, due in large part to the love of God that flowed from Aimee as she greeted her brothers and sisters who were living on the streets.
Toward the end of the walk, we stopped for a few minutes to look at a fountain located in Pack Square Park. The fountain is beautifully constructed fountain with a large bronze-ring surrounding a mound of quarried stone. Water covers the entire ring, creating a reflecting pool, and then flows slowly over the edge onto the ground to form a circle around the fountain’s base.
It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters clean, refresh, and sustain us on our journeys. And then, as a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given, Aimee encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. With a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was instantly soaked from head to toe.
Some tension had arisen among the group that week between a few of the 6th grade girls and me (the typical “you’re being an over-bearing jerk with the rules” v. “you’re not listening and acting immature” battle). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.
In both our baptism and the everyday reminders of that sacrament, we re-discover what it means to be human and a citizen of God’s kingdom. We learn again that we are each a beloved child uniquely created by a loving God for the purpose of living a life of love. We realize that while it’s not in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, God does speak to us loud and clear in the ordinariness of life. The writer Debbie Thomas observes:
(Jesus is) the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are…. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved. 
In baptism, we hear the voice of God who beckons us to turn away from our complicity with practices that cause brokenness in the world, and instead look toward a kingdom that offers opportunities of healing and wholeness for all of God’s beloved children.
Jesus’ baptism signaled that God was taking steps to reform this old world of earthly kingdoms and corrupt rulers by establishing a new world in which “all things live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom and dignity.” God continues to make that world even now; signs of transformation all around us:
There’s the Oklahoma mom, 54-year-old Sara Cunningham who offers to stand in as the parent for LGBTQ couples if their own parent or parents choose not to on their wedding day. 
And there’s 13-year-old Jerry Hatcher, Jr., who, over the last six years, has woken up before dawn on Christmas Eve, and asked his parents to drive him to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital so he can buy breakfast for the families who have to spend the holidays with an ill child. 
Or there’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the emergency and refugee program of the PC(USA) that has provided $50,000 in grants to presbyteries in the southwest to support local churches and partner organizations that are providing food and temporary shelter for asylum seekers. 
And of course, there are the members of this church who faithfully serve their community on a regular basis, like last year on the MLK Day of Service when some of you made a delicious pot of chili and sandwiches to give to cold and hungry folks living on the streets of Atlanta.
The ministry Jesus did and the work we do in Jesus’ name is a manifestation of God’s vision for a world that is different from our own.
And the Holy Spirit empowers us by our baptisms with Christ to be a part of the kingdom and to invite others to heed God’s call to welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, feed the poor, free the enslaved, and make space for the marginalized to lift their voices.
This is the message that John the Baptist delivers from the wilderness to those with ears to hear.
In baptism, God dusts us off and rinses us clean of our mistakes—our failure to cherish God and to treat our neighbors with dignity, fairness and generosity. And God calls us to try again and again and again.
In baptism—where we gather together as a community to witness God’s unconditional love for humanity in Christ—God clothes us in the garments of a new social world and movement: kindness, compassion, humility, courage, hope, patience and mercy. And God calls us to share those gifts with others.
The faith-based non-profit media company known as SALT eloquently put it this way in a recent blog post regarding Jesus’ baptism:
“In Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal. And it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion! Indeed, following Jesus means setting out with him on this path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is ‘well pleased.’ Jesus is baptized and calls us to follow him on a path of unassuming generosity, never looking down our noses at anyone, and always gladly embracing the Spirit’s sanctifying, restoring, empowering renewal. For each one of us – and everyone we meet – is a beloved son or daughter of God, and Jesus’
The voice of God—who in Christ has claimed us through the baptismal waters and deemed us beloved creations—has spoken and still speaks.
In response, may we—with humility and grace—continue to listen, follow and love.