January 7, 2018
The Baptism of the Lord
The Rev. Rod Sprange
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-9; Mark 1:4-11
Which word do you prefer. Change or renewal? Are we constantly experiencing change or continual renewal? I think that is generally a question of attitude rather than fact.
The idea of change can be difficult and anxiety provoking for some, or a time of opportunity and excitement to others. Whereas renewal may be a positive idea to most of us - as long as we can agree that the particular renewal is beneficial and we are not throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The story of God and God’s people - the Bible, both Old and New Testaments is a library of stories of continual renewal. However, there are significant moments in the biblical narrative where the renewal is clearly ushering in a major change. I like to think of these times of change as compressed renewal - where everything is made new from that moment on. We read of two of these events this morning and if we look carefully there was a third for some 12 individuals that has a clear message for us today.
The first major event was in the Genesis text where we read a theological account of the first day of creation. It tells the story of the first moment of the Big Bang theory - there was nothing - except God and the wind or spirit from God - and God said “Let there be light, and there was light” literally in a flash. Scientists understand the Big Bang to be as far back in time as we can ever hope to see, even with the most incredibly powerful telescopes - because before the Big Bang there was no light in the cosmos. There was yet no cosmos.
From that moment of creating light the cosmos has been undergoing change or renewal. The old dies to make way for the new. Exploding stars create the stuff of new planets. In God’s creation the old is always dying to make way for the new.
Scientists help us to understand how things are and how they came to be - the Bible and it’s theologians help us to understand why. Through theologians we begin to understand why everything has purpose and meaning. The alternative is a bleak emptiness where nothing has meaning - where nothing matters. As the speaker at our recent Faith Horizons said “We believe matter, matters”.
Let’s move ahead from the creation of the cosmos to the Baptism of Jesus, the incarnate God. After the birth of the Messiah this, chronologically, is the next most significant moment of renewal in the Bible. Mark, the author of the earliest of the four Gospels, tells us nothing of the birth narrative - he takes us directly to John the Baptizer calling people to repentance and forgiveness in order to renew themselves because great change was about to occur with the appearance of the long awaited Messiah - the hoped for Christ. John the Baptizer has a different message for the people than the establishment; and people are flocking to his call for renewal.
We then witness Jesus, Emmanuel, submitting himself to John’s baptism of repentance. This raises a puzzling question. Theologians say Jesus was without sin - so why did he need this baptism of repentance? Remember, repentance means turning around - going the right way. I think Jesus’s baptism represents him turning away and leading the chosen people away from the corrupted ways of the temple priests, and Herod and his cronies, and demonstrating the right way for the people of God, the Way to God and salvation. Jesus though, wasn’t rejecting what was good and true in traditional Judaism, he was revealing the nature of the God they had always been worshiping. Revealing what it means to be the Chosen People.
Jesus had come to bring renewal to God’s people. Mark’s account tells us just how significant this event was, as through Jesus’s eyes the veil between God’s realm and the world is momentarily torn away. God’s voice is heard saying “You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased”. Tom Wright translates these words a little differently:
You are my wonderful son, you make me very glad 1
God acknowledged that through his baptism Jesus had shown that he understood what his mission was all about. God was pleased with his demonstration of humility and submission in starting his mission as the Messiah.
This also marks the beginning of conflict between Jesus and the Jewish establishment; between Jesus and those in power. And, conflict between Jesus and those who were comfortable with the status quo. Whenever someone brings in noticeable renewal or change the comfortable become anxious. But what we discover about Christianity is that we should never become comfortable. If the liturgy or the Gospel doesn’t astound us or make us a little uncomfortable, we are missing something.
Being a Christian means to be in a constant state of transformation and renewal. Most of the time it’s a gradual thing - the liturgy changing us bit by bit each week, as God’s truth seeps in. But once in a while we get a sudden opening of our eyes, something reaches our heart and we are changed, and this can be unsettling for us and for our families. The peace of Christ isn’t about comfort and stability, It’s about trust - we are at peace with all the storms raging around us when we know we can trust Christ, trust God. That’s real peace; not the superficial peace of regularity or the comfort of the familiar.
I read something last week that I found very helpful. So I’m borrowing and adapting from Richard Rohr,
“…[Jesus] did not let the old get in the way of the new, but like all religious geniuses revealed what the old was saying all along. [He] was a conservative, [in the sense] he conserved what was worth conserving, the core, the transformative life of the Gospel - [he] didn’t let the accidentals [superfluous] get in the way and ended up looking quite progressive, radical and even dangerous to the status quo.”2
The world and society in which we are church has changed dramatically in this post modern era - our context has changed and we need renewal in how we live as church to demonstrate the transformative life of the Gospel. That’s where the reading from Acts comes in as it tells the story of a small group of followers in Ephesus who had been baptized yet had not received the Holy Spirit. When Paul questions them it becomes clear that they really have very little idea of what the Gospel is about. They had received the baptism of John. They understood the need to walk through the waters of baptism for repentance and forgiveness, but didn’t seem to understand this repentance meant learning a whole new Way of being God’s people. But when Paul had taught them and explained about the Holy Spirit their baptism was completed and they too received the grace of the Holy Spirit. They would never be the same again.
And we have a bit of a crisis in today’s churches, because many who bring children to be baptized don’t fully understand what it means, what the baptismal vows mean and how they should take precedence in their lives and in the lives of the children they are presenting. At some point in the recent past, baptism became an automatic ritual, rather than the final step in preparation to coming to Christ or presenting our children to Christ. If something is too easily offered, if there is no real cost or sacrifice involved, it can often lack value to the receiver. We have seen the church become a lower priority in people’s lives.
But when we are baptized it is a major turning point in our lives. It is our promise of commitment to Christ, and we receive the free gift of the Holy Spirit. Nothing should ever be the same for us or for the children we present. It is critical for us to remember we are the baptized, even if we were too young to remember the event.
To help us remember whose we are we will be renewing our baptismal vows this morning. But recognize how serious this is. This is a solemn undertaking. We are not making these promises to one another, we are making them to God. Recognizing that these are not easy vows to keep, we end many of them with “with God’s help I will”. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. We can’t complain and say, “well God wasn’t there helping me”. The point is we should keep these promises in our hearts and do our best to live them, and as one of the promises says, “…will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Whenever we fail to live out one of these promises we need to repent and keep trying.
Do we properly understand what each vow means? Have we thought about how that vow should change our way of life. How those vows should change our priorities. If we are serious we will spend time thinking about and understanding the implications of our vows. If necessary we should seek guidance from a knowledgable person we trust.
Whatever you do, please don’t take these vows lightly.
Last Friday night Susan and I were watching an episode of The Crown. It was the one that retells the story of the relationship between Princess Margaret and Tony Armstrong-Jones. The episode ends with us waiting with the crowds outside Westminster Abby, hearing the voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury taking the couple through their marriage vows. To each he says “Wilt thou take this man/woman…and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him/her, so long as ye both shall live?” Armstrong-Jones said “I will” almost before the Archbishop has finished asking the question. Margaret did not hesitate in saying “I will”. What we know is Armstrong- Jones was already in another intimate relationship which he had no intention of ending, and had many extramarital affairs while still married to Margaret. And Margaret also had several such affairs. They clearly did not take these vows seriously despite the fact they were made not just to one another, but to God.
We should be very careful about too quickly answering the questions we will be asked today. Maybe we should leave a little pause before we say “I will”. But more than that, our baptismal promises make us ministers of the Gospel, servants of Christ and ambassadors of God in the world.
We believe the model of collaborative ministry we have begun to implement at St. Peter’s, is a faithful response to God’s call to renewal in how we are church in this parish and this community. This understanding of our baptismal ministry within a collaborative model, calls each of us to examine our own gifts - our own abilities and how we are called to take our part in providing appropriate ministry within the parish and in the wider community.
This understanding is not new, we have always had the responsibility of sharing ministry here. Our new model is a renewed way of acting it out - being more intentional.
We are in the midst of renewal, and that is the Christian way, let’s pray that as we move forward, this renewal will reveal to us the truth that the old was saying all along, and preserve the core, the transformative life of the Gospel.
1 Mark for Everyone: Tom Wright
2 Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation: Monday, December 25, 2017