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Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2013

Suppose you are attending a Mardi Gras parade or the Rose Bowl parade for the first time. You don’t know what to expect. As you watch, the floats get more elaborate and the bands bigger. People get more and more excited. Finally you see a float that is just marvelous. This has to be the best float ever, the big deal of the parade. But then somebody says to you, “No wait, there is another one coming.” And sure enough an even bigger and better float appears. There are more roses, more beads thrown than ever before, and the crowds go wild. This is the end of the parade, the truly ultimate showcase.

This experience is like the people’s experience of John the Baptist today. They are wondering whether John is the Messiah or not. His prophetic preaching and his insistence on baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins make him a likely candidate. But John says, “No wait, there is another one coming that is much greater than I am. I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And sure enough, there is another. But something is different. Instead of doing what John says he will do, sit in judgment on the people and set off fireworks unlike any other, he joins a line of people coming to be baptized. He is one of many others who comes to the water for cleansing.

How many of you remember your baptism? If you do, you said yes when the priest asked you if you wanted to be baptized. You went through the ritual, saying your own vows, and you became a part of the church community and of the Body of Christ. If you are like me, you were baptized as an infant and do not recall what happened. I know that since I was baptized before the 1979 Book of Common Prayer insisted that baptism should take place during a Sunday worship service, I was baptized privately, with just family, my godparents and a few friends in attendance. I did not become a full member of the church because I had yet to be confirmed. In my day, Confirmation completed what was started at baptism. You received an extra booster shot, as it were, of the Holy Spirit, to guide you through those difficult teenage years and into adulthood. You also became eligible to receive Holy Communion for the first time. Baptism today is the sacrament of full membership in the church, the Body of Christ. You are sprinkled with water, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is baptized, he prays and he is called beloved by God. The power of God is in all those actions, and this power strengthens him for his mission.

There is power in baptism. In baptism, we join together for a common purpose – to turn away from sin and turn toward God to do God’s will. Jesus had no need for repentance, but he joined the line to be in solidarity with the human beings he would save, to be in community with them. And baptism is all about community. A colleague of mine once said she didn’t go to church but she tried to live a Christ-like life. It is hard to do that outside community. We need one another to help us keep the vows we make. That is why the congregation affirms that in addition to our parents and godparents they will uphold us as we grow in our Christian life. Baptism is also about identity. The bond created by God in baptism is indissoluble. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are God’s people. God has called us by name, and we belong to God. Though we are all made in God’s image, each of us is a special and unique creation.

Baptism means being buried with Christ in his death. Our baptism has consequences as we represent a counter-cultural kingdom that the world does not agree with. Baptism means we take risks. Right now in Egypt, the Coptic Christians are worried about their safety in a culture where they fear Islamic law may be taking over. Marking the first Christmas under Muslim rule, some said that their lives had gone “from bad to worse in the almost two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak”, according to the Washington Post. In his sermon, Coptic Pope Towadros II urged worshipers not to be afraid but to remember that God takes care of you. Fear is contagious, he said, and this is a message of reassurance. We are given a message of reassurance too. For as we are buried with Christ in his death, we are also raised with him in his resurrection. Baptism leads us from death to life eternal with God in Christ.

Jesus also prayed after he was baptized. In Luke Jesus is always praying – before he calls his disciples, before asking them who he is, before teaching them how to pray, before his arrest and during his crucifixion. Prayer is a powerful tool for changing things. When we pray, the Holy Spirit within us helps us align ourselves with God’s will. When we pray, says Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Seminary, we make room for good things to happen in the world. We do not pray of our own choice, but because we are called to it by God, as Jesus was called. The bond that God establishes in baptism is not static; it is a relational bond. God wants relationship with us and we do this through prayer. We adore God, we give thanks, we pray for ourselves and others, and we confess our sins and pray for forgiveness. When we pray, we put ourselves not only in communion with God, but in community with those around us who are praying too. In the Washington Post, there is a picture of the members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington praying together. The church, started in 1863 by freed slaves from Fredericksburg, “has survived two fires, a nearby open-air drug market and gentrification of its neighborhood”.Shilohis now celebrating its 150th anniversary, and they got there through prayer. JoAnne Beasley, general chairman of the celebration, says the church has had its trials and tribulations, but they just want to thank God for what they have and let God know that the church is “moving on in God’s name”.

Then there is the power of being beloved. God says to Jesus as the Holy Spirit descends on him, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” God says this to Jesus before Jesus has done anything. And God says it to each of us. We are God’s beloved. In other words, God loves us and there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot destroy the relationship. We can ignore it or turn away, but God loves us too much to let us go. Even when God punished Israel for evil deeds, God still cared for them and loved them and eventually brought them out of exile.

Jesus hung onto these words. They helped him through his temptations and the ups and downs in his ministry. They also surely helped him during his passion. And words of love help us too. If we are affirmed by parents or others whom we care about, we see ourselves as competent and confident to live our lives with God’s grace. If we are not affirmed, we have low self-esteem.

Washington Cathedral is now going to host same-sex blessings, says the Washington Post. Other churches have done this, of course, but Dean Gary Hall said, “[I]t’s something for us to say we are going to do this in this very visible space where we pray for the president and where we bury leaders”. The subheading of the article says “Episcopal Church Has Long Backed Equality”. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people can now experience the same belovedness they were blessed with as straight people can because the church is giving them a way to express their love for one another.

Jesus’ baptism, prayer, and call to mission are made possible by the power behind them all, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, which was unleashed on the world in the person of Jesus, has been given to each of us in his name. I also know many who have been graced with the gift of the Spirit even if they do not know its name. When we are baptized, we are also given our mission in life. Jesus knew his specifically and often we only know ours generally – to trust Jesus as our Lord and Savior, to follow him where he leads and to work for justice and peace. Our calls come later, many calls in a lifetime. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry and it is the beginning of ours too. With the knowledge that we are God’s beloved children and with the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us in prayer, we can put God’s purposes first in our lives and act together to bring in the kingdom.


  - Rev. Ann Barker