So we survived one of the coldest weeks in decades in the U.S. and in our area. Niagara Falls was frozen over. My son loved the fact that it was colder in Chicago on Monday than at the South Pole. In Florida the temperature was in the teens. There is a joke about two guys from the DC area who died and woke up in hell this week. The next day the devil stops in to check on them and sees them dressed in parkas and mittens warming themselves around the fire. The devil asks them, “What are you doing? Isn’t it hot enough for you?” The two guys reply, “Well, you know, it’s been really cold in DC. We’re just happy for a chance to warm up a little bit.” The devil decides that these two aren’t miserable enough and really cranks up the heat. The next morning he stops in again and finds the two guys grilling hot dogs and drinking beer. The devil is astonished, “Everyone down here is in misery, and you two seem to be enjoying yourselves.” The two reply, “Well, ya know, we didn’t get too much warmth in DC recently so we’ve just got to have a cook-out when the weather’s THIS nice.” The devil is absolutely furious. So he comes up with an idea. The two guys love the heat because they have been in the cold. So the devil decides to turn all the heat off in hell. The next morning, the temperature is below zero, icicles are hanging everywhere; people are shivering and moaning. The devil smiles and heads for the room with the two men. He gets there and finds them jumping up and down, cheering and screaming like mad men!!! The devil is dumbfounded, “I don’t understand, when I turn up the heat you’re happy. Now it’s freezing cold and you’re still happy. What is wrong with you two???” The men answer, “Well, you know. If hell freezes over, it must mean the Redskins have finally won the Super Bowl again.”
Anyone from Michigan here? There is actually a town called Hell in Michigan and temperatures in the town of Hell, Michigan, plunged to below zero this week. Hells was frozen over.
Scientists say it wasn’t just the coldest week it was one of the most depressing. We began the week with “Blue Monday,” a day when millions of Americans returned from the holidays to face lots of work and also the bills that come with Christmas. It was dark outside and freezing. Researchers analyzed electronic communications and found that this past Monday was the day of the year when more people felt sad and guilty than any other.
So in the midst of all this today we have Baptism of the Lord Sunday to begin a new week reminding us that even when it’s dark and cold we are not alone. Jesus came to identify with us. And we must respond by identifying with him.
Let us pray. Gracious and loving God. Shower us with your love so that we might share it with the world. Through Christ. Amen.
There is a story of a kindergarten teacher who wanted to teach her students about self-esteem. She started out by asking, “Everyone who thinks they are no good please stand up?” The teacher didn’t think anyone would stand, therefore making her point that no one is worthless! Well, around that same time Little Johnny stood up. The teacher thought “Oh no, now what am I going to do?” She asked, “Now Johnny, do you really think you’re no good?” Johnny replied, “No ma’am, I just hate to see you standing there all by yourself.”
We all want to identify with someone. To make a connection. To know we have value. Today we celebrate that God chose to identify with humanity, showed we have value, modeled humility and gave us a sacrament by being baptized by a human, John the Baptist. Baptism in the Bible does not literally mean the dipping in waters. It means identification with a person or group. An example is 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul writes about how people were “baptized into Moses,” that is they identified with Moses.
Luke tells us a voice from heaven identified Jesus as the son of God. At some level this completes a cycle of Christmas. White as the color of Baptism of the Lord Sunday connects it with Christmas and Epiphany. Angels, wise men who, according to Saturday Night Live, had GPS “going places by star” voices from heaven and doves to help distinguish the baby in the manger as something more, as the son of God. Later in his ministry, Jesus would ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” That question is answered in part at his baptism. He is God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
The phrase “you are my son,” comes from Psalm 2 and the tradition of the messianic king. “In whom I am well pleased,” builds on the suffering servant motif in Isaiah 42 and 53. The term “beloved,” agapetos in Greek, is also used by Luke to describe Jesus’ transfiguration.[i] Thus the voice from Heaven at his baptism emphasizes Jesus’ holiness, strength and humility, all important qualities with which we should identify.
Now I don’t believe God requires baptism for eternal life, yet at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commanded, “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Jesus was telling his followers to identify themselves with God, with things of the spirit, with him. So we baptize infants and before people join the church. Baptism marks our belonging to God. We share our life with members of the community in the church.
So the question for those here who have been baptized is, what does your baptism mean to you today? By the way you live, how do you show that your baptism has meaning to you?
Recall in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that all in the audience were baptized into Moses, but that God was not pleased with everyone. That is because the people in Corinth were guilty of idolatry and of breaking all sorts of ethical and moral boundaries. God says just the opposite of Jesus: “with you I am well pleased.”
Our baptism is the beginning of our new way of life in Christ, where pleasing God should matter to us. Now most of us were baptized as infants and as a parent of young children I know many young kids who don’t do or do not even know what is pleasing to the parents let alone to God. But because we belong to God, we always have another chance.
All four Gospels tell of Jesus’ baptism. His baptism marked the start of Jesus’ ministry. The spirit descended upon Jesus and stayed with him throughout. From the time of his baptism, people began to find their new way of living by identifying with Jesus. Disciples who gave up selfish ambition or immoral conduct; followers who were searching for meaning found it in Christ. Christians affirm that the spirit is with all who are baptized for us to draw upon when we seek forgiveness, meaning and hope.
Whether we recognize it at the moment of baptism or not until many years later, we are called to live a life in Christ. We remember that it is into Jesus that we are baptized. Our identity lies in him and for his sake we seek to bring his values and love into the world.
Jesus understood his baptism, and knew who he was: a child of God who would be loved forever. He let the river of God’s love flow through him. And people responded by following him.
At his trial, his baptism by fire, before the bishops, Martin Luther kept protesting, “But I’ve been baptized.” No matter how cold the world can seem inside or out, he and we are not on our own. We belong to God.
A friend told me once that he was so busy that he didn’t have a chance to schedule his son’s baptism so one Sunday he just took some water from the font and baptized his son himself. And he said it helped him feel closer to God. Now I am not suggesting that the recent parents among us should just start baptizing their kids themselves. As Presbyterians, we feel these moments of holiness belong to the community and that our practices of having someone else baptize us matter. In fact with my four kids we chose pastors other than me to baptize them. We are baptized just once and I think there is something good about the tradition of someone outside ourselves baptizing us. But there was also something meaningful to my friend about his action of choosing to identify with Christ that I affirm. We can never do that too often.
In our liturgies when we baptize a child we say, “Child of God or Child of the Covenant,” but we also say to all, “Let us remember with joy our own baptism as we celebrate this sacrament.” In a moment we are going to encourage you to remember and renew your baptism with the help of the community. Just as we baptize children in part because we believe God’s grace calls us before we are even able to respond, we will place the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads as a sign of God’s love.
Our faith is renewed when we internalize the life-giving promise that we are loved by God. Whenever we do something Christ-like in our lives, when we are the bigger women or man, take the high road, step down off our high –horse, sacrifice for someone else, share what we have and receive an honest word in love, shower others with mercy; when we do something Christ-like, the Spirit helps our souls know we are pleasing to God. That we are loved by God. And so by the spirit we are baptized in love again and again.
Just because we are baptized doesn’t automatically make God well pleased. Our actions matter. And that is why we must remember our baptism. We must remember who we are, whose we are and who we are trying to please.
Are signs of our baptism visible in our way of living? Our baptism comes alive through our choices.
Each one of us has some way to show signs of our baptism. In how we volunteer, how we care, what we invest in, where we put our time, how we bounce back, who we identify with.
A friend sent me a thought he read recently about extreme weather and baptism: “In the remote deserts of Southwestern United States, temperatures soar above 120 degrees every summer. The earth cakes and cracks. To lift one’s face to the early afternoon sun is like standing too close to the open door of a hot oven. Yet, in spite of the terrible heat, even the most isolated desert areas are home for many people. The reason is simple: there is more to the blazing desert than meets the eye. Below the parched expanse of rock, cactus and sagebrush there are pools, streams and rivers. Residents dig wells, sometimes as shallow as six feet, and draw all the water they need. And as long as they have water, they can live — in even the most blistering of (weather) conditions.”[ii]
Even when we face the most blistering conditions, there is more to us than meets the eye. Deep down there is a sign of the holy. We are beloved children of God, marked as Christ’s own. And Christ goes with us.
In a world where so many of us are searching for meaning, the waters of baptism give us meaning, for our baptism means we belong to God. In a world searching for purpose, our baptism helps us know we can contribute to God’s plan. In a world that can feel lonely, our baptism reminds us that we do not stand alone. In a world that can be cold and dark and hurting, our baptism reminds us that we are beloved by God. In a world lacking in love, our baptism helps us remember that God’s river of love flows through us to the world.
Let us always remember that. Amen.