Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A few weeks ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Last week as we celebrated Epiphany, we brought the wise men into the Nativity scene.
This week Jesus is all grown up and we meet him at the river Jordan.
We hear his cousin John the Baptist’s prophecy. A few weeks ago we heard Mark Barnes tell us about Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus and John yet in the womb. And here they are again. The fiery preacher John humbly stepping back pointing to Jesus – “One more powerful than I”, more worthy. And Jesus is baptized in the river waters along with the others, then comes the dove, the Holy Spirit and a voice…
“You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Jesus is claimed as God’s child, as the One.
Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry, taking on his life purpose. In the midst of this happy event, just as in the narratives of Jesus’ birth, there is another Herod, who appears to arrest John – evil lurks throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, but it doesn’t stop him.
Jesus’ baptism is a model for our own.
Today we are Invited to meet Jesus at the river, to reflect on the meaning of baptism. Remember our baptism….even if for most of us, we were too young to remember the event except maybe in pictures or videos. For some who have yet to be baptized to consider the power of this sacrament that the church holds dear.
We are people who have been “called by name”, “chosen and marked by God’s love”, and in the sacrament we have “passed through the waters”. Initiated, and welcomed into a very special community, God’s family.
We take baptism seriously here at CHPC and live out the promises as this community nurtures its young and stands with each other through the ups and downs of life – even as we challenge the Herods of our day. It is important that we take the time in worship to “remember our baptism”.
I learned about baptism in Sunday School, in confirmation class, and in seminary, but I really learned about baptism from the people of southern WV where I was ordained. I was fresh out of Princeton Seminary, child of the suburbs, and found myself the pastor of a small coalfield congregation in Dry Creek, WV. I hadn’t been there long when, on a beautiful summer day, I got a call that one of families of the church community had lost a teenage son in a freak accident. Boys headed to football practice came around a curve, saw a dog in the road. Driver swerved, and the car went over the embankment into the river. 3 kids got out. Mark didn’t and drowned.
His parents and his younger sister Jennifer were distraught. The whole community was stunned and grieving. Over 200 people came to the funeral. The football team served as pall bearers. We buried him on a hillside.
In the months that followed, the family grieved. The mother almost became a recluse. Father and daughter began coming to worship. Jennifer became part of our small youth group and then our confirmation class of 2. When it came time for confirmation at Easter, she also needed to be baptized. As I talked with Jennifer and her parents about this, she shocked me by saying, “I want to be baptized in the river like Jesus was” (the same river in which her brother had died). And then she added, “Isn’t that what it is all about – dying and rising with Jesus?” Wow!
Her parents followed her lead and agreed and the session did as well.
River baptism is common in that region, but not taught at Princeton Seminary!
I wasn’t at all sure of myself – the river baptism, the family’s pain, the ritual.
I had been a lifeguard so the water didn’t scare me, but the Clerk of Session, Buster, a retired coal miner offered a suggestion –“Preacher, that water is deep and fast. You are a little bit of thing. You could be down to Whitesville in no time. How about if I go in and hold on to you and you hold her and do the baptizing?”
I said that sounded like perfect shared ministry to me!
Palm Sunday dawned cold. By the time we came to the baptism and left the church to walk down over the bank to the river, it was spitting rain/snow. Jennifer, Buster, and I waded into the icy cold waist deep flowing stream as her parents stood huddled under an umbrella with tears pouring down their faces. The congregation circled around them and us. The family had every reason not to come, to remain stuck in tragedy, despair, hopelessness of life without their son. To hate God. To avoid that river of all places.
And yet they came.
I said the familiar words about new life in Christ, asked the baptismal questions, and then with Buster holding onto me, I baptized Jennifer. As we turned to walk out of the water, I said
“See what love God has for us that we should be called children of God and indeed we are. Welcome our new sister in the faith“ and noted for the first time that the congregation held blankets to literally enfold us in the embrace of the community of faith. We were all touched and found powerful healing that day.
Still so fresh – the memory of terrible tragedy, but we came anyway and found healing and hope in the powerful waters of baptism.
In this season we come in midst of the hopelessness and fears of our times, we bring the hurts of the headlines and our hearts, the brokenness of life, hoping, expecting that Jesus will come to us with (in the words of the carol) “Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.”
Jesus was the one who came to baptize with spirit and fire. Baptism is a sign and seal of the power of being claimed as a child of the Almighty God. Power greater than the tyrants who rule, power greater than Death itself. Instead of being something to fear, the waters of baptism are powerful waters of life. As we remember our baptism, we remember that we are claimed by God and we claim the power of life over death.
Claimed and marked by God’s love, we are enfolded into the arms of God’s family. Surrounded for a lifetime! Someone has our back!
For some strains of Christianity that are very prevalent in the WV mountains, baptism is an individual thing and the conclusion of a journey rather than the beginning. My elder/mentor Buster talked about how every time there was a revival come through town, resulting in baptisms, he would go and invite the newly baptized to the Presbyterian church. When they refused, saying “I don’t need that. I’ve been saved”, he would respond, “That’s like being born an orphan.”
We are not born orphans – even if we have no blood kin. It doesn’t matter how much water we use, it is the commitment made to the Way of Jesus and the implications for the way we care for one another. The community of the baptized will make sure the government worker doesn’t go hungry and will welcome the refugee.
“See what love God has for us that we should be called children of God” and the baptized child or adult is introduced to the gathered family.
Now a word about this family of our baptism. As in many, families there is the overzealous aunt and strange cousin. We don’t get to choose. We are family God has chosen. That is Good News!
Christ was baptized in the waters of the Jordan and we are baptized in Christ. And each time we remember our baptism, we claim again its power in our lives. With water and holy spirit, we are marked by the Almighty. With that power and with the family that comes with baptism, we can get through the challenges that come our way. We can stare evil, tragedy, or despair in the face, knowing that we are not alone and death does not have the last word. In life, in death and all in between we belong to God
…now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Thanks be to God!