The Start of a Journey
Baptism marks the start of a journey, the end of one kind of life, one world, one identity, and the beginning of another. The Baptism of Our Lord, which we celebrate this day, takes us back to the very beginning, to the first Once Upon a Time, when, “In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth.”
As anyone who sews can tell you, when you take your needle and draw it back, stitching over the stitch you just made, it strengthens it. Makes it stronger. So we are strengthened in baptism by the knowledge that this act connects us back to God in creation, to the beginning of time.
And in that creation, God spoke the world into being. He named each aspect of it to make it so. Now, when we baptize someone, whether a baby, a child, an adult, that person has typically been using that name for a while. But in calling the child by name in baptism, we do what God has done in creation: We establish relationship. We speak the name and add, “Child of God,” calling into being a new facet of life.
And so named and acknowledged, we begin a journey along a path that reaches back to God and the beginning of creation – and forward to where that journey will lead us all. For Jesus being baptized this day in the Jordan, for each of us begin baptized, the sacrament is a powerful reminder that we are connected not only to birth but also to death. In fact, the way some denominations practice it, being pushed under the water represents the darkness of death and the tomb. We don’t usually focus on death at a baptism. But that’s part of the ritual. As St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” This act, the baptism of Jesus and by extension the baptism of each one of us, connects us to the great, world-changing acts of creation and resurrection. The beginning of the journey and – not the end, but the eternal bend in the road. And thus connected, in baptism we begin a new journey with a new identity, that of a beloved child of God.
For Jesus, the act of being baptized means a new journey in that it marks the beginning of his public ministry. From this point forward, his role will be to serve as God-with-us, in his presence, by his example, teaching, guiding, healing, inviting, pointing the way so that we too can experience the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ journey is clear. He has begun his time in the spotlight. He knows what each step forward, each bend in the road, each setback will mean. For the rest of us, baptism marks the beginning of a journey whose ways are not at all clear. When he was baptized, Jesus was taking on enormous responsibility. The same is true for us – but you and I might live less aware of the responsibilities we have taken on. Jesus’ journey to the cross becomes, through baptism, our journey as well. Like Jesus, we are embarked on a journey that will include hardships and setbacks as well as triumphs. Moments of deep doubt and even anger at God as well as transcendent moments of belief that flood our souls. And if we, charged with responsibilities during our journey from creation to the bend in the road that leads to life eternal, would like to have a list, we can find them everywhere in Scripture.
But my favorite list of how to live baptized comes not from Scripture but from the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American theologian and educator. He writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
Simple enough instructions to be getting on with – until we try to live them. A straightforward guide for how to be walking wet through the world. And the Bible, our guidebook, tells us the same thing over and over again. Last week, we heard a promise for the faithful in Zion from Isaiah chapter 60. Had we ventured just a little further, we would have encountered the passage that Jesus will read from the scroll in the synagogue: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to comfort all who mourn. Jesus will point to those guidelines over and over again during his three years of public ministry. In today’s reading, the heavens are opened and a dove descends, symbolizing, guess what, the Spirit of the Lord. For each of us at our baptism, whether we can see it or not, the heavens open for us and a dove descends. The Spirit of the Lord is upon each of us, upon you and upon me, and he has sent you and sent me – not to turn our back on those in need, not to change the channel to avoid seeing weeping refugee mothers and babies, not to ignore unjust sentencing practices, but to bring about the Kingdom of God by seeing in everyone we encounter what God saw that day in Jesus. The journey of the baptized requires you and me to gaze at each person we see, in person, on the television, in a computer video clip, and to say to that other person: You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased. Amen.