January 11, 2015 – The Day God Showed Up
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According to any kind of human logic, the moment of God’s appearing in the world should have been at the pinnacle of human virtue and holiness. when people had finally reached high enough or became wise enough, or offered enough sacrifices, or performed enough acts of goodness, to be worthy of his appearing. But where do we find John the baptizer, who was the long-awaited herald of the long-awaited Messiah? John, as it happens, didn’t turn out to be a venerable holy man or a well-dressed clergyman or anybody with any kind of credentials, and he didn’t announce the coming of the Messiah from the beauty and majesty of the Temple, or even from the holy city of Jerusalem.
As Isaiah had foretold, the Voice came out of the wilderness, calling people out of the towns and villages, far from the synagogues, far from the Temple, far from tradition and ritual and solemnity and reverence. John called to the children of Israel, a wild man calling them out into a wild land, to confess their total unworthiness and helplessness, to admit their coming-to-the-end-of-their-rope-ness, to come to God with no offering but their sorrow and discouragement, powerless to make anything of themselves.
And such was the perfect timing of God that the people were so ready to hear it, that they responded to John’s call by the hundreds and by the thousands: all of the region of Judea and all Jerusalem came out to John, Mark tells us. And Luke tells us how they were cut to the heart by John’s preaching, and they cried out to him, “What shall we do?” It turns out that the baptism of John, the long-awaited voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Messiah, was not about God’s people reaching the top; it was about his prodigal children hitting rock bottom, and finding God there, where they least expected him.
As a preacher, John was a huge success. Enormous crowds poured out to be baptized by him, moved by his words of judgment. But his purpose was always to point beyond himself, beyond the baptism that he offered, to Jesus Christ, who was coming with an entirely new baptism, not baptism in the currents of the Jordan River, but baptism in the life-giving breath of his Spirit. Because we all needed so much more than just cleansing from our sins and our past. We needed more than to be let off the hook. We needed so much more than a fresh start. Have you ever given your dog a bath so that his fur is all fluffy and soft and sweet-smelling, and then as soon as you let him out into the yard he finds something nasty to roll in so that he is as dirty as ever? We human beings are so much like that. Repentance and forgiveness bring us comfort and joy, but left to our own devices, just trying to be better people, we never seem to make much headway. Repentance gets us pointed in the right direction, but it doesn’t change us, and it is change that we need. And real change, transformation, is exactly what Christian baptism – the baptism Christ came to offer us – does.
Probably most every person in this room has been baptized. Maybe you were a baby and don’t have any memory of being baptized at all, or maybe you were baptized as an adult or a teenager, and you remember it pretty well. But I don’t think any of us think very often about what our baptism means to us. What difference does it make to you that your parents brought you to the church all those years ago in your little white gown and the priest poured water on you? Would it have made more of a difference if it had been your choice to be baptized as a young man or woman, or if you had made a public confession of faith, or if you had been baptized in a proper river instead of a baptismal font? There are certainly theologies that would argue that. But my own belief, and the belief of our tradition, is that baptism is not about what we ourselves do or how much we understand at the time of our baptism. The baptism of John was about human decision and understanding, because it was all about repentance and confession of sins. But the baptism that Jesus brought was something altogether new, and because it was of the Spirit, it is not primarily about what we do or what we choose; it is first and foremost about what God chooses to do in us.
John, the evangelist, not the baptizer, wrote that everyone who receives Jesus Christ becomes a child of God, not born in the natural way of bloodlines and genealogies, not conceived by the desire of the flesh or the decision of our human will, but purely by the desire and decision of God. He is talking about Christian baptism – our baptism. That God-conceived birth into a whole new kind of life is what happened to each and every one of us at our baptism, whether we were baptized at forty days of age or forty years.
It is what Jesus told Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees who was a sort of secret disciple, when he came to him by night. “We all know that God is with you,” he told Jesus, “because nobody can do the things you do unless God is with him.” And Jesus replied, “There is a way – only one way – into that divine life that you see in me, and that is to be born into it.” Nicodemus, not surprisingly, found that just a little puzzling. “What do you mean by that – how can an old man like me be born? Obviously nobody can go back into their mother’s womb and be born all over again. What are you talking about?” And Jesus said to him, “Why are you so surprised – you, a teacher of the Scriptures! I’m talking about spiritual birth. The way into the kingdom of God is the birth that comes by water and the Spirit – I am talking about the re-birth of baptism.”
Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that we were born, I don’t think. But clearly, if we had not been conceived, and developed within our mother’s womb, and come into the world by the messy and painful process we call birth, we wouldn’t be here today, we wouldn’t exist at all. There would not be, there would just never have been Kathryn, or Joe, or Irene, or Alice. And whether we think about it or not, whether we remember or not, it is equally true that because we were baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there has been born in us something divine, something eternal, that truly exists, and that is growing to fulness as surely as we are growing older in the way of this world. We don’t always recognize it. Very often I think we just see the part of ourselves that is wasting away, that old self that holds on with a passion to everything we most hate about ourselves. But our new self is coming to life all the time, because God is with us, just as he was with Jesus. And that is a bold and almost scary thing to say, but it’s true all the same. Jesus promised us that his Spirit would dwell with us, and be in us. And the thing about the presence of the Spirit is that it may not be something we notice ourselves, but the world around you can see that God is with you, and will see it more and more as you grow up in him.
If you have been baptized, you have been given the right to be born again as a child of God – born into life that comes from God, life that cannot be destroyed by any power in this world. If you have never been baptized, and you would like to be baptized, come and ask. You may not remember the day of your baptism. My own baptism was 58 years ago; I was a tiny baby. I had no idea what was happening, as far as I know (although I think babies have much more spiritual awareness than we can tell). I certainly had no choice in the matter, and I have no memory of it at all now. But I believe that my baptism was an outward sign of the real work of God in my life. I believe, but I have also seen the faithfulness of God working in my life year after year, and I know that God has always been with me. I can see, looking back, that God still shows up everytime I come to the end of all my depending on myself and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps and wallowing in discouragement. Every time I finally give up on myself and turn to him, saying, like the crowds said to John, “What shall I do?” then I find he is there with me, And somehow, by his grace, I am not still the person I was thirty years ago, or ten, or five. Somehow, miraculously, I have grown up a little. Because even though I forget it time and time again, my life is not just my own.
In the Book of Common Prayer, the priest makes this declaration when he (or she) anoints the person who has been baptized – you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. If you have been baptized, however long ago it might have been, you bear the seal and the mark of God’s commitment to you. Forever. You are God’s child, born of the water of baptism and the Spirit that works in you. You have life the world cannot take from you, and a promise even you yourself cannot undo, because the promise is from God, the work of growing you is God’s own work. And our part is to hear the promise and to believe with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength in the one who made it.