I can remember a time when I was a disappointed and slightly embittered young single person, and it seemed that all the people around me were pairing up, getting married, and planning families. It was in one of those really down on myself moments that a friend said to me:
“So long as you expect a partner to arrive in your life like some kind of Messiah to rescue you or make you happy, you will never be happy in a relationship, in love, or in life for that matter.”
At the time, that felt like a slap in the face of my agony and suffering! As I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser) those words have come to matter more and more as I have struggled with my sense of self and personal accomplishments. Those accomplishments and life decisions have come to be outward signs of a much deeper meaning within me. And that deeper meaning within me makes sure to ask from time to time which Messiah I am now expecting in my life.
Today’s gospel reading sort of begins in the same manner.
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. (Luke 3:15, CEB)
And then John, the prophet, and the one who baptized many, did what he did. He appealed to them and proclaimed the Gospel. He tried to shut those false expectations down, and point to the One who we all ought to be looking for. The One we can expect to be present in our lives and the one who actually saves us.
We can count on it, even if we can’t see it, plain as other perhaps more outward signs. And today’s reading shows us why we can expect God to be present in our lives – and also gives us a sign by which we can mark and remember the occasion.
Today is the day that we mark the Baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It’s a meaningful day, in part, because this Sunday is the marker of the beginning of the time after Epiphany and before Lent. We are beginning at the beginning of Christ’s ministry in the world. And his ministry begins with something pretty special: baptism.
Just as John baptized many, there eventually came a time when John baptized Jesus – and God came down and spoke to the world. God came out of the heavens, out of the place that seemingly separates God from humanity, and spoke. God speaks words of endearment, words of connection, words that put God very presently into our midst.
There is an immeasurable strength of meaning in that. In that simple action, God is changing all that separates us from God so that we can encounter God where we are.
And I think we have sort of learned to expect that it happens when we baptize someone into our community. We know that God is doing something when we baptize somebody. At least I hope we do.
Our baptisms are an outward sign of something happening deeper within. Here’s the thing: what’s happening is a bit of a mystery.
And humans don’t do so well with mysteries.
I can tell you that at a baptism we gather, we pray, we pour water over an individual’s head, we draw a cross on their forehead, and sometimes we anoint them with oil. We bless, we light a candle, and we pray again.
But that is not the sum of what baptism is, is it?
In the Small Catechism, Luther says that baptism is neither plain water, nor simply God’s word. Baptism with water and God’s word and God’s command do a number of pretty significant things: “forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”
Pressed to explain it further (read: humans and mysteries…), Luther says:
How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5–8)
Even if we say we know exactly what Luther means by all that, and even if we could quote it word for word when asked to explain baptism, my questions about baptism remain. Do we really know what baptism is? Does our rite of the sacrament of baptism really capture all that baptism is?
I think my answers are still ‘no’ because I don’t think we really can. Baptism in our church remains an outward sign of something happening much deeper – and ultimately beyond our thinking.
But I think that’s okay.
Here’s another example, with apologies to all the single people out there.
Wedding ring shopping was a very important couple experience for us both. We both had individual ideas of what we thought we would like to do as married partners. And with time and a few outings, we came to make a decision together about the rings that we would exchange at our wedding ceremony.
Since the wedding band has been placed on my finger, I play with it, I find myself rubbing it when I am thinking of my spouse or if I am anxious, and it sparkles in a way that captivates my attention from time to time. I rarely take it off. Because something doesn’t quite feel right without it there. It took a while to get used to seeing it there – and it was frequently stranger still to look at my partner’s hand and see a wedding ring there. Kind of a – who was this married person out with me?!
Those rings have come to mean a lot for each of us because of something we did together.
Those wedding rings are not what a marriage is.
I’d have a much harder time explaining what exactly marriage is.
Those wedding rings symbolize something deeper to the people around us who see them. They bring up all sorts of emotions and thoughts and experiences for each of us that help us to reconnect to our vows to each other, our commitment to building a strong marriage together. Those symbols, or outward signs, are ever-pointing to the bigger and less containable meaning.
Over time, the candle of baptism burns down and out. The water and oil of the ceremony dry up. The feeling of a finger-drawn cross on the forehead becomes less felt. The memory of the event fades, and more often than not, the person who was baptized has no memory of the event at all.
The candle, the water, the word, the embroidered cloth, and the oil are not what baptism is.
Those are all outward symbols that ever-point to the bigger and less containable meaning.
And in our gospel reading for today we get another reminder that through baptism God comes to us, much like God came to Jesus, where we are at and tells us all that we are all God’s children.
You are mine, whom I dearly love.
And in taking the time to know Jesus’ story and ministry, we discover again and again that he came as The Messiah, Son of God and son of humanity, to show us God’s in-breaking presence with us where we are, God’s death and resurrection for our sins and lives eternal.
We don’t need another Messiah to come and rescue us or make us happy or give us meaning. God already did it. Whether or not we can really define what exactly baptism is, we can trust that baptism is God’s work in giving us an identity in who we are and whose we are. Meaning and accomplishment aplenty as we move into the world, by God’s creative power, called and equipped to be whom we are wherever we find ourselves in life.
Let us pray:
blessed are you for the outward signs that are a deep, deep, well of meaning in each of us. Blessed are we that you call us into God’s family and give us a such an incredible identity. Help us to remember your work in this relationship: that we cannot destroy or screw up something that you have done for us – however we might try sometimes. Help us all trust in what you do that we can give ourselves so completely to the important relationship in each of our lives. We pray for those who feel alone, isolated, ignored, or without purpose and meaning. Send love and light in the form of human connection to each of them. We pray in the name of God who comes to where we are in a variety of forms, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Inspirations for today’s sermon
Karoline Lewis. “Baptismal Epiphanies.” Dear Working Preacher, Working Preacher.org.
David Lose. “Baptism of our Lord C: Expecting the Messiah.” Dear Partner, Jan 4, 2015, …In The Meantime.
David Lose. “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.” Dear Working Preacher, Working Preacher.org.
Martin Luther. “Luther’s Small Catechism.” Concordia Publishing House.
Today’s image is “Baptism of Christ,” Oil on canvas by French Minaturist. The image is public domain, and borrowed from wikiGallery.