This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
You’re not going to remember today.
In the church we call what we do to you today a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is a way in which God communicates something to us about us. And, you’re too young to have any idea what any of this means.
So I’m writing you a letter.
Hopefully one day your parents will sit you down and explain what happened to you, perhaps they will even apologize for the unenviable course this set you on (at least according to the world), and if you’re really lucky they’ll let you in on the secret of all secrets: It’s not just you who can’t understand what happened, none of us really do.
Baptism, at its best, is a people called church fumbling around in the darkness hoping God can make something of our nothing.
And, to make matters even stranger, getting baptized is a whole lot like getting married: A bunch of people gather together to hear promises exchanged knowing full and well that, as humans, breaking promises is precisely our cup of tea.
No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we never quite live up to the expectations we place on ourselves.
And yet God remains steadfast to us precisely when we don’t return the favor.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Today we baptize you into the Good News of Jesus Christ which, upon first glance, might actually seem like bad news. You know, the whole turn the other cheek and love your neighbors as yourself stuff. I promise you will discover moments when turning the cheek seems like the worst possible decision and I guarantee you’re going to find a neighbor with whom love appears impossible. And, contrary to how you will probably see baptisms in your own future, whether in the church in some movie, it’s not a picture perfect rainbows in the sky moment of bliss.
You are baptized into the death of Jesus so that you, to use the language of Paul, might become the gospel.
It’s actually quite strange.
Lucia, decades ago, when your great-grandparents and even grandparents were baptized into the faith, it was done so under the cloud of what we call Christendom – a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify the difference it meant to be Christian. Those differences were often defined by what the church said you could or couldn’t do. But those differences were relatively indistinguishable from what the country or community thought would be best anyway.
It was a time when it was assumed that just about everyone went to church on Sunday morning, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christian, and that so long as you said your prayers and put the right amount of money in the offering plate and made sure you did more good things than bad things everything would work out in the end.
That time is long gone and its not coming back.
And that, my dear niece, is truly Good News. What makes it Good News is the fact that you are being baptized into a radically different time for God’s church, a time of rediscovery for how unusual it is for us to be the church in the world.
It is not an overstatement to say that what happens to you in baptism makes you different from other people. What I hope you come to know and see and believe is that the difference has little to do with you and everything to do with Jesus who is the difference who makes all the difference.
In time you will come to discover that we who call ourselves Christians are a weird bunch – After all, we worship a God who became one of us, a Lord both fully human and divine, who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later.
Even your baptism, this solitary moment in the life of faith, is a pretty bizarre endeavor. Should someone have walked by when I held you in my arms dumping water on your head they might’ve thought, “Is he trying to drown her?” And the truth is, yes, in a sense. Baptism is about drowning you in the Holy Spirit that you might arise different, because of Jesus.
Lucia, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus says you are the light of the world. If that’s true it is only and forever because Jesus is the light of the world first. He shines in the darkness, he is the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, he is the divine Word dwelling among us.
The best we can hope to do is reflect that light.
For, the more we think we’re the light of the world, the more we screw everything up. That I used “we” in that sentence is indicative of your baptism incorporating you into the church, a church that will forever be fallibly messing up the words from the Word.
And we’ve certainly messed this one up from Matthew’s gospel.
For years, centuries even, this little bit of the story has been used to defend the example that Christians are supposed to make for the world to follow. Which is to say, you shine as a light for others to see the errors of their ways.
Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so too will your faith shine gloriously in order to transform the world.
But that’s a little backwards. For one thing, as I already noted, Jesus is the light of the world, not us. And secondly, the proclamation of the Lord here actually calls into question the very habits and practices that have so hindered the faith.
Let me put it this way: You are like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view. The desire to appear perfect as an example for others is all good and fine, but you’re going to fail. We all do. That’s the reason we need Jesus.
Therefore, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that you, or any other Christian for that matter, is the perfect example to follow, perhaps we should consider how visible we are to the world and to God. That is, God already sees and knows you better than you will ever know yourself. And knowing that you won’t live up to the promises made in your baptism and in the proclamation of the gospel, God already nailed to the cross every one of your sins before you even had a chance to make them.
Or, to put it another way, God has imprisoned all to disobedience in order that God might be merciful to all.
Lucia, when you read this one day and you wonder why I rambled on and on about all of this, don’t blame me – your parents picked this text for your baptism. I think it’s rather notable that, right before this passage, Jesus offers what we in the church call the Beatitudes.
And, I must confess Lucia, I’m not sure why the baptized are not included in the list. Surely it would’ve been better for the Lord to say, “Blessed are the baptized for they will be surprised by what God has in store for them.”
Perhaps Jesus did not include what is done to you and for you today because the baptized either make the choice for themselves or, as in your case, the choice is made for them. Whereas the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted name the different states of life that happen to those who are baptized.
Today, your baptism, is not a choice that you, or frankly even your parents, made. That Jesus has to the gall to call you a city on a hill is indicative of it. The only decision possible for you was made on another hill 2,000 years ago on top of which stood a cross.
The only thing you have to do Lucia, is be what you are. How you live and move in the body of Christ called the church will be a visible act that will forever separate you from the rest of the world.
Today you are made different. Not because of me, or your parents, or Godparents, or even the church. You are different because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference.
So welcome precious lamb to the strange new world of the baptized in which in spite of your worst, and even best intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.
Acts 2.14a, 36-41
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Think and Let Think · Too Good To Be True
He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.
He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.
Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.
At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living.
He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”
The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”
So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.
He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.
The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”
“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”
But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.
“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”
So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child.
The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.
After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”
That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.
And, I love that story.
I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.
Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead he offered absolution.
He gave him the Good News.
The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”
Repent and be baptized.
Turn and join us.
Your sins are forgiven.
Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.
It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.
Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.
Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.
But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?
Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.
That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.
Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!
But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.
And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely.
Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.
Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change.
We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it.
We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention.
We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.
In short, we no longer call sin, sin.
And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.
Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.
But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.
And yet, it’s true.
We’re all sinners.
There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves.
Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”
You notice anything missing in all of that?
Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you.
Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.
But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place.
Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse.
When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.
Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.
If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.
Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.
We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word.
While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”
Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”
The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen.
What happens when a presidential candidate is refused communion at church? Ryan Couch wrote a brilliant reflection on the subject and Jason Micheli and I invited him to join us for an episode of Crackers & Grape Juice to talk about grace, closed tables, and baptizing the town drunk. If you would like to read his original post you can do so here: Joe Biden, The Town Drunk, And The Sacraments
And you can listen to our conversation here: Fencing Grace
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.
For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.
But don’t blame me for your new life.
You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.
But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.
If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.
You don’t get a choice.
Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.
A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment.
Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”
Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one.
They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.
But instead, they trusted me.
So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.
Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.
One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.
Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”
The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.
Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.
And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”
The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.
It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.
This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created.
What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.
Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.
But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it.
At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.
Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”
Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”
You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less.
Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.
It’s up to Jesus.
Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us.
Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that.
Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer.
But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me.
The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.
We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story.
You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love.
But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love.
In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.
The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.
The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.
The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.
Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.
And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.
Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”
So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the Sunday school class at Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to have a crazy pastor, Cub Scouts, proper preparation, being delivered through water, cutting down trees, feeling freedom, patience, and God’s sense of humor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Slaves To Freedom
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was.
When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.
And I meant it.
Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.
And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.
Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.
Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.
In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.
Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?
Apparently we do.
The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.
While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise.
Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.
You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.
Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.
But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.
Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.
Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.
And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything.
In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.
Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross.
My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.
Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.
That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.
The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.
We do not deserve what has been done for us.
This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper.
But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.
In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.
And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us.
In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.
We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.
However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough.
You are enough.
And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.
It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.
Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.
I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.
Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.
So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.
But I was honestly just being selfish.
I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.
But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.
Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.
You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.
Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.
It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us.
So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.
As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.
And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus.
But that’s not actually new.
All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter.
Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.
It’s about what has been done for us.
In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!
To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible.
And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.
And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not.
But 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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else.
There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.
Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”
The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”
She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”
The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.
And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.
Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.
She has children.
She finds herself back in church.
She leaves the church.
She buries her mother.
And then her father.
She brings the first child to college, and then the second.
She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.
She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.
She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.
The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
What give me worth?
These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.
And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.
But those things never bring us what we need.
What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.
“But 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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
I have redeemed you!
The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.
We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.
But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!
Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.
In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.
But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!”
They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.
Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.
Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.
And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious.
To God we will always belong.
However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us.
God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.
We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.
Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.
Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.
In the water, we are precious.
Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.
And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.
Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.
That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!
While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 2.15-17, 21-22). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lighting stuff on fire, unpacking redemption, being comfortable with sin, Maggie Smith as the voice of God, shouting “glory!” in church, the gray area of sentimentality, baby baptism, and youth group initiations. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Asking The Right Quanswers