The Rev. Helen Havlik
Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 2020
This year between now and Lent, our focus is discipleship. Another word for disciple, of course, is student. Or follower. We can be disciples of anyone, really—some people or groups who attract followers on Facebook or Twitter have a positive, life-affirming message and are worthy of “following.” But no one is more worth following and learning from than Jesus himself. Becoming his disciple, following him, learning from him changes our lives because we find out who we are and how to live here and now. Today we remember the baptism of Jesus—the beginning of his ministry, just as baptism is the beginning of our ministry. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 3, beginning with vs. 13. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
A lot of quilters, knitters, crafters and woodworkers are part of this congregation. How many of you like beginning a project more than you do completing it? How many of you get the most satisfaction from finishing something? For me, beginning something is always more exciting than finishing it—which means I have a lot of half-finished projects going at once! There’s something about starting some-thing new—which may be why so many of us jump into the new year with a basket-ful of resolutions: lose weight, get organized, de-clutter, read more, keep in better touch with people. And it’s also why a lot of us who start something new don’t always finish. Even when we enjoy our projects, the beginning is more exciting than the harder work of the middle or even the ahhh of the end. I know quite a few quilters, for example, who like picking fabrics and piecing better than they do the quilting—so they do the parts they like and find someone else to do the rest. If only all of life were like that!
In the Bible, as in our lives, beginnings are important to pay attention to. Both Genesis and John’s gospel actually begin with the words, “In the beginning” —and right away we wonder what comes next. Matthew starts his gospel not with a story about an angel as Luke does or a poem about creation like John—he begins with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It’s the first century equivalent of Ancestry.com! Tracing Jesus’ roots back to the very beginning so that when Matthew introduces us to Joseph, followed by the arrival of the Magi and the escape of Jesus’ refugee family into Egypt, we already know who this is who’s now coming to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
Baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but a lot happens before that. We don’t know a lot of details about his early life, but something led him to be baptized. Whether we’re baptized as infants or young people are adults, something leads us to that point. Baptism is the beginning—but before the beginning—what? Was Jesus the beloved son because of what he did? Helping people, praying a lot, never getting angry for no good reason, having faith. Is that why God loved him? Are we acceptable to God because of what we do and don’t do, because of having faith?
I mention my great nephew, Marshall, a lot, I know. But he’s a special kid. My love for him began before he was born—when I had no clue about him at all—and it hasn’t wavered even when he’s not behaving perfectly. Even when we had an overnight recently and he rejected the fun project I’d planned—“Can we go to the store and buy something else?” I love him not because of what he says and does, not even because of who he is—but simply because he exists. That voice from heaven says as much to Jesus: “You are my beloved son—with you I am pleased.” This love is before the beginning. This love called Jesus to the Jordan—it calls us into this sanctuary to gather at the baptismal font, to be baptized and to baptize our children. And it’s important to know this love is there, before and after and in between, whether or not we ever are baptized, whether or not we ever have faith.
So why, then, be baptized? John’s baptism of repentance got people’s attention—don’t you sometimes want a do-over? You started a project that isn’t working out. You made a dumb mistake. You offended someone. John offered people the chance to start over. Get stuff behind them. Repent. Go home to a fresh slate. A new beginning. John’s baptism is full of hopeful New Year’s resolutions, even if we end up not keeping them. John knows this—he knows his baptism isn’t enough. He says so when he tells people someone with real power is coming. Real power that won’t give us just a do-over but make do-overs unnecessary, because God loves and accepts us unconditionally not as we should be but as we are.
Baptism is the point where Jesus hears and knows clearly who he is, what his relationship is with God and exactly how God feels about him. It’s the point where God’s love and Jesus’ response to it meet. Baptism is the point where we know clearly that we are God’s beloved children. We may not hear a voice from heaven, but in baptism, the Holy Spirit makes us aware of God’s love for us so that, if we’re open to it, we see ourselves in a different way. You’d think that would be a given, but it’s easier to start a project than to finish it; it’s easier to make New Year’s resolutions than to accept ourselves and others as we are. The theologian, Paul Tillich, has said that faith “is the courage to accept acceptance.” (quoted by P.C. Enniss, Christian Century, 12/27/11, p. 21) “Accepting acceptance” means that we live in the love that gives us strength and purpose and hope.
Baptism means we’ve been received into the fellowship and family of the church—and it’s a sign and seal of our becoming part of Jesus Christ himself and of the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Most of all it’s the sign and seal that we do not belong to ourselves, we belong to God—God claims us in a way that changes us forever. I’ve said before that Martin Luther wrote that whenever he was depressed or discouraged, he reminded himself that he was baptized, accepted and beloved by God. For Luther, baptism wasn’t just a one-time event, but an on-going process of beginning again that kept him going. We aren’t anonymous, but known—and what God intends for us will be revealed to us. That’s where Jesus was when he met John at the Jordan. His ministry was just beginning. He had no great works to prove himself to God or anyone else. He couldn’t point to a church he had built or the number of souls he had saved. He came simply and humbly to the Jordan River, stepped into the water and the skies opened to him. And with them God’s love and power in his life were confirmed beyond doubt.
God’s gift of baptism never fails us, not because we are so good and deserve it, but because God is so good. Even we who are baptized get off-track, but God never turns away from us. In tough times, that truth is what we cling to—in good times, it allows us by the power of the Holy Spirit to say yes to Jesus and to discipleship. As the Apostle Paul told the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” For those of us who start far more projects than we finish, that indeed is good news!