Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon: "God Claims", Isaiah 43:1-7/Mark 1:1-13 (January 13, 2019)

(Second of four in a series of sermons during Stewardship Season)


Here in the PCUSA, we recognize two sacraments: Communion and Baptism. We celebrate these two specifically because each of them is ordained by God and instituted by Christ. In other words, God commands it, and Jesus makes it happen.[1] The sacraments are more than just something that God wants us to do, though. They’re rituals that intimately connect us to the divine in a unique way. When we participate in the sacraments, we encounter Christ both in a mystical way as well as in a practical way, participating in these same acts the same way that Jesus did during his ministry. 

Now, most PCUSA churches share the Eucharist at least once a month, so many of us have developed our own personal relationship with this sacrament. We take communion regularly, so it’s natural that our understanding of it keeps growing and expanding just as regularly. But in contrast to the Lord’s Supper, there is only one baptism. No matter who baptizes you or what denomination they represent, it counts. Therefore, your one-and-only baptism is the only time that you take full part in the sacrament, and since a majority of Presbyterians are baptized as infants, odds are good that you don’t actually remember yours. This, of course, can make it challenging to integrate your baptism into your spiritual identity the same way we do with Communion. As a result, many people view baptism not as an integral part of their faith, but as a sort of spiritual “check-box”—something you have to get done to make sure that you’re “in,” which has little importance beyond that.

But that’s not the point of this sacrament at all. Far from a mere formality, baptism is a powerful encounter with God that sets the course for one’s entire life. Consider this: the very first story told in the oldest gospel is about baptism. The writer of Mark decided that it was important to begin his account of Jesus’ life with his baptism, instead of a birth narrative or a miracle or something more “flashy”. Do you think it’s because Jesus needed that box checked off before he could begin his ministry? I very much doubt it. Instead, I think that this may have been Mark’s way of demonstrating the centrality of baptism to our identity as followers of Christ. In JESUS’ baptism, God identifies him as God’s own, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When WE take part in this sacrament, we’re sharing in that same baptism and therefore in God’s same claim that WE, too, are God’s children. In this way, the act of being baptized transforms our very understanding of who we are through Christ. In this light, the “checkbox” understanding of it seems pretty weak, don’t you think?

But that still leaves us with the question of how we internalize this understanding of baptism. All that theology sounds great, but it’s not necessarily enough to make the sacrament “come alive” for us personally. I struggled with this for a while, too. Even seminary couldn’t quite persuade me that this sacrament was as significant as everyone said it was. For most of my youth and even the earliest days of my ministry, baptism was just a concept that I was expected to advocate for without really understanding it in my bones. But a funny thing about this sacrament is that the more times you see it and the more times you take part in it, the more readily you begin to see how essential baptism really is to each of us as God’s children—not because it earns us a place in the church or in heaven, but because it shows us, in a way that we can see and feel, that we’re bound to God because God has claimed us as God’s own. And having the opportunity to see it happening makes all the difference.

Earlier this week, I had the blessing and honor of baptizing an elderly woman who was nearing the end of her life. Her daughter had called the church saying that the mother was becoming increasingly anxious about wanting to be baptized before she died, and would I come out as soon as possible? After some scrambling to figure out the logistics and polity of an unexpected “off-site” baptism, I headed over to her home with a pitcher of water and one of our ruling elders (thanks again to Ruth for her help!). That unplanned Tuesday morning spent with a stranger turned out to be a vivid lesson in what it means to be claimed by God through baptism.

As I looked into this woman’s eyes and asked her the baptismal questions, tears welled up and spilled onto her face. I could almost hear her heart crying out desperately to God even as her tired voice faltered and cracked. And as I gently marked her with the waters of baptism, I could see a sense of relief and peace finally settle over her. God had already claimed her as God’s own even before she was born, but in her baptism that morning, she was able to see and feel that claim in a new way. I swear, I could see her own understanding of herself transforming in front of me. Through baptism, she finally believed that she was safe, beloved, and belonged to God.

Hers was obviously an incredible experience, and one that I was immensely grateful to have been able to share with her. It helped my own understanding of baptism to evolve a little bit more, and it helped me to see in real time how a person can be truly changed by this sacrament. When baptism “comes alive” like this, it’s easy to understand why some people might want to be re-baptized: why wouldn’t we want to experience the comfort and reassurance of being bound to Christ in the sacrament again and again? But even though baptism moves us and changes us, it ultimately isn’t about how we feel or our own agency. It’s about something that God has already done, long before we were even born: GOD has claimed US as God’s own. And while for some it might seem better to wait to be baptized at an age when you can remember feeling this claim, there’s also something equally extraordinary about having never known anything different. Because as significant as the “before” and “after” experience might seem to us, the truth is that absolutely nothing about God’s love for us has changed. It always has been, and always will be—God has never known anything different, either.

Scripture reminds us that God’s claim on our lives has nothing to do with our choices, good or bad. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” says God through the prophet Isaiah. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” God spoke these words to the Jewish people in exile. They and their leaders had been disobedient and consequently scattered into foreign lands, where they could no longer practice the rituals that had defined them as a people. They were lost, both figuratively and literally. They felt separated from their religious identity. And yet, God still claimed them. God had always claimed them. Nothing they had done or would do could change that. They just had to figure out how to help themselves understand and believe it. And whenever they did—God would be there waiting for them.

And so it is with us. The sacrament of baptism is a gift from God that gives us a way to hear, feel, and know what it means to be claimed by God unconditionally. But even though our actions can’t change God’s desire for us, we’re more than just passive recipients of God’s grace when we come to the font. We still have a role in this relationship. In baptism, the transformation of our identity in Christ is accompanied by vows made either by or on behalf of the baptized. These vows might sound like just more checkboxes to mark off, but they go so much deeper than that. If we take these vows seriously, what does it mean for us, once the water has dried from our hair and the service is over?

Since we celebrate sacraments that Jesus took part in himself, we can look to his experience for guidance about what comes next. Notice that, unlike many of us, Jesus doesn’t follow his baptism with a party and photos with his family. He doesn’t calculate what he can still “get away with” now that he’s good with God. He also doesn’t spend his time trying to figure out how his baptism makes him better than others, demanding respect or claiming superiority. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even have time to think about it much at all. Instead, he’s immediately driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan. For forty days, he’s challenged physically, mentally, and spiritually. His baptism is the prelude to struggle.

Actually, that’s not too far off from what happens to us, too, if you think about it. Whether we’re baptized as an infant or as an adult, the peace and assurance of the moment eventually gives way to the reality of the world in which we live. And it’s not pretty. We face many temptations of our own every day: the temptation to give in to fear, to put ourselves before others, to hoard our resources, to play it safe. And at one time or another, baptized or not, we’ve all given into these temptations. But Jesus shows us that we have another choice. He doesn’t use his baptism as an excuse or a weapon to shield himself from difficulty. In a way, Jesus uses his baptism as a tool—something to remind him who he is and whose he is, and to equip him for the challenges that lay on the road ahead of him. THAT’S how we should understand our baptism: not as a checkbox, not as something solely to make us feel good or protect us…but as an instrument to be used in service of the life to which God has called us. How we choose to let it shape our lives is up to us.

Baptism is a moment in which our desire to choose God meets God’s claim on our lives. Will our desire to choose God persist even as the temptations of the world close in on us? Because I’ve got a news flash for you: God’s claim on US will certainly endure. And this claim comes with responsibilities. As we reaffirm our baptismal vows, listen closely to what it is you’ve promised. DO you turn from the power of sin and evil in the world? DO you trust Jesus’ grace and love? DO you obey Christ’s Word and show his love as a faithful disciple? How do you live into those responsibilities as a member of Christ’s Church? And if you’ve stumbled, as we all do…how will you do better in responding to this remarkable claim that God has laid on you? God tells us, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Nothing we do can change that…but what we do in response can change everything. You are a new creation in Christ. May knowing that give you peace, as well as the confidence to step boldly into the wilderness without fear. Amen.


[1] c.f. Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:18-20, Matthew 28:18-20.

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