Monday, January 9, 2017

Water Clean, Water Holy

Baptism of Christ Sunday
Isaiah 42:5-9, Matthew 3: 13-17
January 8, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from Isaiah, a part of one of the texts that are called “the servant songs.” These poetic passages are widely understood to be prophetic promises from God to God’s people – promises of comfort, of liberation, and of covenant. The God of the servant songs is the God whose spirit moved across the face of the deep in Genesis, the one who speaks and brings order out of chaos and whose covenant brings a future with hope, and a new vision for all of humankind. Let’s listen for God’s promise in this portion of the Servant Song in Isaiah 42:5-9

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Our gospel reading today is from the Gospel According to Matthew, the assigned lectionary gospel for this year. The writer of Matthew was a Jewish Christian, probably in the area around Antioch, and he was interested in showing his readers a direct line from the prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, there is no manger, nor shepherds. The only angels that show up do so in order to advise or warn people. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, and proceeds directly to the story of Joseph. Matthew gets Jesus born with great dispatch, brings in the magi, then shows us the Holy Family taking off for Egypt. An angel appears to advise them when it is safe to go back, and in the next chapter, we see John the Baptist at the river Jordan, and the adult Jesus, his cousin, coming to be baptized. Listen for God’s word for us in Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying,
"I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, 
suddenly the heavens were opened to him 
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said,
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I get to be involved in a lot of wonderful events. And there’s hardly anything more wonderful than baptizing a baby. It’s always such a sweet moment, that moment when the parents give me their child to hold. And when I look into that baby’s eyes, it’s like looking into the ocean, or the night sky – something so grace-filled, and eternal. And then I get to see the looks on your faces, when I walk the baby around the sanctuary, introducing you to your new little brother or sister. In those moments, I think, “I have the best job ever!”

In that moment, we can almost see all the moments –the baby, the toddler, the child, the teenager, the young adult. It’s like time collapses, and we feel connected with past, present and future. Whether we have the delight and responsibility of seeing that child raised in our midst, worshiping with us, or whether our covenant promises, made on behalf of the whole church, must be kept by other congregations in other places, we name each child, “Beloved.”

In the covenant of baptism, we connect with this child, and with the whole church. We make a sacred covenant with this child, and with this family, that we will nurture them and support them and love them. And as our children grow, we remember that covenant. We remember it when they are adorable, which is most of the time, right? And we remember it when they are not so adorable. We remember it when they are kicking the pew in front of them, and when they are rolling their eyes at us as we try to herd them into church. We remember it when they lead in worship, reading scripture, and when they stand in front of us for recognition of their graduation. Because every person we baptize, every child of God, is part of our baptismal covenant.

Just as God promised a covenant, we promise to be keepers of that covenant with one another. Just as God’s Spirit, descending like a dove, named Jesus as the beloved, we name each child of God as beloved.

You know, each year when we hear this story of the baptism of Jesus, I always like to tell a baptism story. But it turns out, I’ve told you all my good baptism stories, and apparently they’re pretty memorable. So I can’t do re-runs.

So the story I want to share with you today is not about baptism per se. It is about this covenant, the covenant we make in the water clean and holy. Ginny McDaniel is a minister in the UCC, at the First Congregational Church of Granby, Connecticut. She shared this story with a clergy group.

Many years ago, Ginny says, she attended a gospel music service. “Part way through the program a young man came forward to sing a solo. He was clearly nervous, and missed his entrance, so the pianist had to begin over. There were reassuring and understanding murmurs and the young man began to sing, though his voice was still shaky and hesitant.

Then, a few rows away, a woman stood and said loudly,
“Just sing it out, son. Sing out what you know in your heart!”

And the young man smiled a shy smile and began to sing louder and more confidently.
And all the time he was singing, the woman who called out to him 
beamed him the most radiant and loving smile imaginable.

As a mother, Ginny said, my own heart went out to both of them at this extraordinary expression of love, both given and received. After the program, I went up to the woman
to tell her how well her son had done. She looked at me quizzically, and then replied,
“Why I never even met that boy before!
I just wanted him to know how much God loves him!”[1]

Friends, this is our baptismal covenant –
this is what makes us the body of Christ.
Our God, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth, who gives breath to the people …
God has called us in righteousness,
God takes us by the hand and keeps us.

The Spirit descends like a dove.
Its wings unfurl, fluttering in the bright sun,
drops of water shimmer, glittering like grace.

In the still air, you hear the river flowing.
In the still air, you hear the water pouring out its promises.
To make us clean.
To make us holy.

This is the covenant we keep.
As the water trickles down on our foreheads,
the wings brush our faces, and the words burst through the water:

You are beloved.
Sing what you know in your heart!
You are beloved.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Ginny McDaniel “Defining Moments” Sermon from 2013

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