Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany we remember the baptism of our Lord as we also prepare to baptize little Vincent and each one of us will have an opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant. What do you expect to happen? I can imagine that Vincent’s parents and godparents and grandparents all have hopes and dreams and expectations for Vincent. But what about you and what about me? If you listened carefully to Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, it was quite the happening. The heavens were torn apart. God’s own Holy Spirit descended. God’s voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
What would it mean for us if we felt God’s own spirit descend upon us fresh and anew and could hear God claim us and proclaim us beloved? We might not want the heavens to be torn apart; I’m cognizant of the fact that I have a very large platform over my head, so we might want to put that on hold. But baptism means something. God is very near.
I think sometimes we don’t really appreciate the awesomeness of God and if you listened carefully to the Scriptures appointed for today, you heard in that Genesis passage, God spoke creation into being; and listened as the choir sang Psalm 29 with the repetition, the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Lord like thunderclaps reminding us of the power and the awesomeness and the sovereignty of God. And then Jesus ascending from the waters of the Jordan and the heavens being torn open, the Spirit descending and God’s voice proclaiming divinity, belovedness and “with you I am well pleased.”
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Ramsey once said, “Beware of attitudes which try to make God smaller than the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus. ”We have a big God, an awesome God and that’s part of what we claim today. I read a wonderful story about baptism some years ago and it’s no doubt apocryphal but it’s a great story. The story goes that there was a man who was an assembly line factory worker for 35 years, worked for the Ford Motor Company. After his baptism as an adult, he had a spiritual conversion. The day after his baptism he started to feel really guilty about the fact that over that 35–year period he’d managed to steal spare parts along the way and he’d amassed quite a collection. So he decided that part of the baptism was repentance and putting things right so he got a great big truck, filled it up with everything that he’d stolen over the years, drove to the plant, found his boss, presented all the parts to the boss and explained that he’d been baptized. He was now marked as Christ’s own forever and that made a difference; that mattered. Well, as you might imagine, the foreman was somewhat flabbergasted with this whole scene of the great big truck and all the parts and this man professing a spiritual conversion and he didn’t know what to do. So he picked up the phone, he called Mr. Ford, explained what had happened to which Mr. Ford said, “Quick, dam up the river and let’s baptize the whole plant!”
It’s a funny, cute story but don’t miss the point. Baptism when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever matters. It’s supposed to make a difference. With a great and awesome God, I invite you to think large on what that might mean, not just for Vincent today, but for you and for me. Where might it take you if you were touched afresh today by the Holy Spirit and could hear God calling you beloved? Diane Roth writes that “Our baptisms are passports to places we never thought we would go – to be an emissary of the living God in the desert and the wilderness, to plant seeds of hope and healing and life.”
Some 20 years ago my husband John and I co–led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a Methodist pastor and his wife. It was a big group: over 60 United Methodists from all over the country. Suffice it to say, that one of their lifelong dreams had been to go to the land of the Holy One, to experience the living Christ right where it all happened. To say this was on their bucket list would be a gross understatement; they’d saved for years to make this trip of a lifetime and none of them wanted to miss anything on that trip. On about the fourth day we went to one of the traditional baptismal sites. If you know anything about the Middle East and the Holy Land, you’ll know that there tend to be disputes on where things happened and, of course, why not have a dispute about where Jesus was baptized? It was in the Jordan somewhere, but the place we went to was at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee.
Now, to help set the stage, one of my responsibilities in this pilgrimage was to stand by the bus and make sure, after each outing, that all the sheep got back safely and that we didn’t leave anyone behind. And it became easy for me because over the course of several days the same person was always the last one on the bus. Her name was Mary Carol. Mary Carol was last because she had a physical disability. When she walked she had to swing one leg way out and so she was just slower than everyone else but totally determined not to miss anything that God intended for her on this trip.
So, sure enough, we get to the baptismal site which, I confess, initially looked to me a little touristy—over a half–million people go there every year. It’s configured so it’s easy to get into the river. You can rent or buy a white robe to go into the waters and there you would either be baptized or renew your baptismal covenant, as we will in this service. Well Mary Carol wasn’t going to miss it. She slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully made her way into the River Jordan and as she was immersed three times in the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, she emerged from those waters changed. Dramatically changed. Because, you see, our God chose to heal her in that baptism. She ran out of the Jordan River giving God thanks and praise and glory for what had just happened to her. Much like Thomas, I might’ve doubted it if I’d heard it, but I saw it, witnessed it with my own eyes as did everyone else who was gathered there.
Why did God choose to do that in that moment I have no idea. Maybe so she could proclaim what God had done for her. Maybe so I could proclaim to you what God had done for her. We don’t know why sometimes people are healed physically and why they’re not, but what we are confident of is that our God is an awesome God. Nothing is too wonderful or too great for the Lord.
Today we will renew our covenant with that Lord. It is my prayer and my hope that each one of us will be touched afresh and anew by the Holy Spirit; that we, too, can hear God claim us as beloved and that we will renew our baptismal passports and go as emissaries out into the desert and the wilderness, planting seeds of hope and healing and new life. Amen.