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Up Close and Personal
January 13, 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
01-13-2013 Sermon The rain in Austin this past week was most welcome and much needed. Here at UPC, we can always tell when we get a good rain, because a puddle of water will appear in the hallway on our lower level. Just how the water gets in is something of a mystery. It may be coming through some tiny crack in the wall. Or perhaps it seeps up from underneath the window well. Then again, maybe there’s a seam higher up on the wall, and the water trickles in this way and that until it puddles in that one particular spot. However it gets in, water has this uncanny way of penetrating and seeping into places we know not how.
Well, this morning we’ve gathered around the waters of baptism. The font is the focal point of our worship on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Even so, do we really know what Baptism is, why we do it, or—and here’s the real question—how it impacts our lives on a daily basis? Sure, we can always pull up a definition of baptism from one of our confessional statements. But we need more than a better doctrinal understanding of baptism, important though that is. Like the water that collects in our lower level, what we really need is for the meaning of baptism to seep into the very core of our being. So let’s endeavor to move from an abstract, doctrinal view of baptism to one that is more personal and thereby life-changing.
Our scripture this morning opens with John the baptizer out in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Even as John baptizes, though, he anticipates that one is coming who is more powerful; one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s telling of the story, by the time Jesus appears at the Jordan River for baptism John is no longer on the scene, because Herod has had John thrown into prison. With John out of the picture, Luke rivets our attention solely on the presence and action of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. Listen again to the voice from heaven that speaks to Jesus in the first person: You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s action in Jesus’ baptism is intimate, personal and loving.
Let that soak in for a moment. As it does, our perception of God should begin to change from a God “out there” to a God “with-us-right-here.” When Luke tells us that the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit descended as a dove, we should not picture—as we typically do— the clouds parting high up in the sky while a shaft of sunlight bursts through and a distant dove descends. Instead, imagine heaven as the invisible realm of creation, while earth is the material realm of creation. They are not separated by distance, but they are separated as by a veil. At Jesus’ baptism, the veil was lifted, the heavens opened, and God’s intimate relationship with Jesus was revealed through water and the Holy Spirit.
And friends, this is the same Spirit that baptizes us! We say in baptism, “By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made one with Christ.” Still, much has been written lately about the apparently growing number of people who feel disconnected from God and from the church. Why is that? Is it largely because, if they believe in God at all, they tend to conceive of God as some distant deity, some impersonal force, a being who dwells somewhere way up in heaven and who might on rare occasions intervene in the affairs of earth?
Yet Baptism is the church’s visible sign that God is always with us and never far away. Our baptism helps us re-imagine God. God is like water that seeps into the very marrow of our lives; God is a Holy Spirit who is closer to us than breathing. In short, baptism proclaims the good news that God is not an occasional visitor, but a constant presence.
This morning when we baptized Addison, we poured the water of baptism on her head and said the words, “I baptize you, Addison, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Have you even noticed how in baptism we always call the person by name? That’s because we believe that God has called Addison by name, and that her name is joined forever to God’s name.
The truth of the matter is that we can’t predict what the future will hold for Addison. We pray that her life will be full of joy and health and peace, but because she’s a human being, we accept that she will also face loss and sorrow. But we know—and we must help her to know—that she’s been baptized. The God who created her, formed her, redeemed her, and calls her by name will never forget her, will never leave her alone, but will be with her at every turn.
This morning we called ourselves to worship with words from the prophet Isaiah. These are the very words that God addresses to Addison, and to all of us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, the flame shall not consume you. For I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
In a sermon on Jesus’ baptism, Tom Long tells a story abut a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was more than 100 years old in 1976, our nation’s bicentennial. Burnham remembered being taken, as a little boy, in a wagon to see his great-great-grandmother, who was then over 100 herself, and who had been a little girl when George Washington was inaugurated as the first American president.
Burnham was asked what he remembered about this visit with his great-great grandmother. He said he remembered being taken to the old woman’s house. She was blind and feeble. She was sitting in an old chair in the corner of a dark bedroom. “We brought Burnham to see you,” his father said. The old woman turned toward the sound and reached out with long, bony fingers and said in a cracking voice, “Bring him here.”
“They had to push me toward her,” Burnham remembered. “I was afraid of her. But when I got close to her, she reached out her hands and began to stroke my face. She felt my eyes and my nose, my mouth and my chin. And all at once, she seemed to be satisfied, and she pulled me close to her and held me tight. ‘This boy’s a Ledford,’ she said, ‘I can feel it. I know this boy. He’s one of us.’”
Friends, in an even deeper way, when we are baptized, God holds us close and says, “I know this one. I called this one by name. This one belongs to me.” And while we’re only baptized once, we live out our baptism every minute of every day, in the sure and certain knowledge that God is closer to us than our own breathing. In baptism God’s voice sounds forth: I know you. I have called you by name. You are mine.