Sunday, January 9, 2011

Following the star to the waters of baptism

Today's sermon is based on Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17.
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Have you seen a star lately? Out in the country, where we live, we only need to go out on our front porch to see a stunning display on a clear winter night.
Not all stars are in the sky.
This morning, in a little while, we will meet again the wise men as they follow a star to the crib of Jesus.
Nowhere in the biblical story does it say anyone else but the wise men saw the star. They were the only ones to see this star. I like to think the star was inside them. They followed this star by faith and faith alone.
They did not know where they were going, or how the journey would come out, but they went anyway. That is the definition of faith – going somewhere and doing something without being certain of the outcome or even the final destination.
This year, as we hear the biblical stories once again, we will hear about many people – human beings not unlike you or I – who have strengths, and flaws, courage and cowardice, and sometimes a mix of both.
We will meet sinners and saints alike, and like most of us, people who are somewhere in between.
In these ancient, sacred stories, we will hear of a few people who get it right, and a lot of people who don’t. Some are lovable characters. Many are not. That is the nature of the people of faith.
Today we meet once again one of these characters, who maybe didn’t always get it right, who was probably pretty unpleasant: John the Baptist.
We meet him in the River Jordan, baptizing Jesus.
Sometimes people ask: Why did Jesus need to be baptized? That is the wrong question. Instead we should ask: What does Jesus want us to see and hear when he is baptized?
When people in the time of Jesus heard about John the Baptist standing in the river drenching people in water, they might have thought of the Prophet Isaiah proclaiming that God will bring life-giving water to “the poor and needy.”
They might have thought of Isaiah when he tells about the leader who comes as a servant to bring “justice to the nations.”
And this leader would be anything but a conquering Caesar.
The messiah who comes, Isaiah says, is a gentle servant, “a light to the nations,” Isaiah declares.
This servant springs from the people of Israel, the people of Abraham, yet he comes for all the people of the earth. This servant brings not exclusion but inclusion, not revenge and hate, but reconciliation and healing.
Isaiah is describing in Hebrew what is called shalom.
When Jesus steps into the water with John the Baptist, God’s shalom comes alive in the river.
“This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased.”
By being baptized, Jesus signals the beginning of his life of servant ministry.
We, too, stand in the river. We, too, are the beloved. We, too, begin our life of servant ministry through our baptism. All of us are ministers by our baptism, no matter our age or status in life.
By experiencing the same baptism we experience, being drenched with the same water, Jesus enters into the same community we share – this circle of faith we have come to call our “communion.”
This is a circle that is infinite in time and space, and has baptism at its center.
Today we will baptize a young child, Cassiopeia. We will welcome her into our circle of faith, and with outward symbols of water and words, we will acknowledge the reality that God has long been present and working in her.

With her, through our own baptism, each of us is a member of the entire body of Christ, all over the world, in every place and in every time. All of us are connected through our baptism, with Peia and each other, and with Jesus at his baptism.
All of us are members of the One Body. It doesn’t matter whether you change locations or even change church brands. The circle is unbroken.
This is not an intellectual thing; it is relational. But there are words that go with baptism – and those words are our baptismal covenant. These words are our charter for ministry as the people of God.
We pledge to pray together and share in the breaking of the bread.
We promise to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we promise that when we fall into sin – as surely we will – that will return to the Lord, again and again. And we promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
There are many challenges to each of us in these words.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the terrible events yesterday in Arizona: the shooting of a Congresswoman; the murder of a nine-year who was standing nearby; and the chief federal judge of Arizona and four other people.
The details are still emerging, and I don’t know much about the killer. But this I know: Our personalizing of politics can have real consequences, emboldening an unhinged person to act murderously.
If we truly love our neighbors as ourselves, if we truly respect the dignity of every human being, then we need to take responsibility for our politics – all of it. We need lower our voices and change the tone of our politics – all of our politics of every stripe.
Changing the tone starts with us. We respond to nasty politics and so politics gets nastier. Changing the tone begins with our everyday conversation. If we respect the dignity of every human being, then let it start with us and how we talk to each other.
And there are more challenges that come through our baptism. We in this church are challenged to widen our baptismal circle, to practice God’s hospitality of shalom by bringing others in. We do not get the comfort of a closed circle. We have to keep opening it up.
That is why Jesus stands in the water with us, to widen the baptismal circle, one at a time, starting with us.
Our baptism makes us servants of each other, right here, and servants of our community and of every nation. You and I are ministers together by our baptism.
The only privilege we have as Christians is the privilege to serve.
And, by our being here today, together in this place, we can declare with Isaiah: “The former things have come to pass, and new things we now declare.” Amen.
Artwork above: The Bayeux Tapestry (ca. 1070-80 AD) depicting Halley's Comet during the Norman conquest; Frescoes in Danish churches, ca. 1430.