I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer: "The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home. But I want to stay with you guys!" OK, it’s an old one but I think it still has legs. On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we have an opportunity to reflect on what exactly we think Baptism means, what effect this Sacrament has on us, what it means to our lives.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the gospel writers believe Jesus’ Baptism is crucial. Everything starts at the river where Jesus entered the waters and placed himself in the arms of his cousin John. "And the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" The ministry and teachings and trials and triumphs and almost all that make us remember Jesus took place after his baptism. While we do hear Angel voices in the birth stories God's voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by Someone special and called to do something special.
Well-known preacher The Rev. Dr. Michael Brown believes those words, “we belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special” are vitally important to understand our Christian call. At some point in time, a voice spoke your name and said, "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased." Perhaps you were only a baby when that happened, too small to understand the concept of God, too young to know that there even is a God. But that wasn't the point. Remember, Jesus didn't say or do anything at his baptism either. It was all done from the top down. It was all a matter of God claiming him, just as in your own baptism, God claimed you before you'd done a single thing to earn it. Paul Tillich was correct when he said that, "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."
In my pastoral visits I frequently meet with couples who tell me how they met and how much they, as partners, mean to each other. One common narrative is the one where a partner was at loose ends in life until the other partner came into his/her life and “everything changed”. You’ve likely heard this story before, “little by little, because I wanted to live up to her/his love, I became less and less troubled. Ever since we formalized our partnership I've spent my whole life trying to make him/her as happy as s/he made me. The truth is, s/he loved me into loving." There is a sense in most of our lives that we need someone or something to “love us into loving”. This gift is what we need to perpetuate “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves”. And while many of us may instantly reflect on who that person or persons have been for many that reflection may take some time. Knowing that God loves us, unconditionally, is an affirmation that makes all the difference.
God claims us and Baptism is a reminder that God sends unearned, unconditional love our way. When I hear “S/he loved me into loving” my mind goes to the theological language of grace, and nowhere is it more visibly symbolized than in Baptism. "This is My beloved child," whom this day I choose as my own, not by their merit, but by My mercy! That's what God said to Jesus at the river and what God says to you and me. I choose you as part of My family. I choose you to possess Divine legacy. I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you…and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you…You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you…So fear not, for I choose to be with you" in all things, in all times, in all places, in all circumstances, now and forever. I choose to love you whether or not you are always lovable. That's the message of Baptism, one which should grip and inspire us: It is a symbol that we are claimed by Someone special.
Baptism symbolizes that we are loved free of charge. Someone special claims us, asks us to be part of the family. "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased." And that act of grace loves us into loving. We remember our Baptism and are so overwhelmed by being claimed that we suddenly feel called. "The Spirit descends as a dove" and settles into our hearts, and we want to pay all the favors of grace forward, sharing with others the gift that has been shared with us.
And so, on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, remember your Baptism…and live into your calling. Another way I might offer this reminder to you is with this evergreen bough. I intend to dip it into our Baptismal Font and sprinkle you with the waters of Baptism, receiving the Asperges or sprinkling with the baptismal water. I will do so many times, to ensure the waters have touched as many of you as possible. Each time I will proclaim, "Remember your baptism and be thankful." The "remembering" is about recommitment, the response to the gift of God’s love, a “loved me into loving”, a mission to love our neighbor as God first loved us.
Remember your Baptism and be thankful. God has loved us into loving. We belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special. God is good. Grace is unconditional. Love is a beautiful gift. Thanks be to God. Amen.