Baptism of Our Lord A—1/9/17
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Pr. Scott Kramer
Not many of us were here at worship last Sunday. On New Year’s Day, mostly because of snow and ice, we were only 13! Last Sunday was also the first Sunday of the New Year. This past Friday marked the beginning of a new church season, the season of Epiphany, also known as the Season of Light. We are in a season of new beginnings, and today, when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord, our scripture readings say as much: We are in a season of new beginnings.
Although a beginning is the start of something new, we Christians don’t usually start at the beginning. We’re more like a child–or adult–who begins reading a book and turns quickly to the end of the story to see how it turns out. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This is the final word in today’s readings: God is love, no matter what. This is also both the first word and the final word of our faith!
But new beginnings are not always welcome! When we are comfortable and secure, for example, we tend to do whatever it takes to preserve that security and resist change in our hearts and minds and circumstances. If change is inevitable then we are tempted to long for a return to some previous time rather than to step out in faith and risk an uncertain future. Or, if we have felt burdened by losses and endings: the passing of loved ones, moving to a new home, loss of health or financial security–we are not necessarily eager for yet another new beginning unless it promises to restore what we’ve lost.
(This morning’s Pacific Northwest magazine’s lead story is: The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be. It’s an intriguing glimpse of changing times in our region and how we respond to endings and new beginnings. What’s lost? How do we grapple with change? I leave it to you to read and ponder.)
Our new beginnings start with where the story always ends: This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Jesus is beloved of God, not because he was baptized or for anything he accomplished. Not even because of a special relationship with his Father. Jesus is the beloved, as you and I are the beloved, because that’s who God is and that’s what God does: Love. Period!
Ready or not, with or without our consent, endings are inevitable, and it’s those endings and the grief that goes with them, rather than whatever new beginnings God has in store that we tend to dwell on. According to the prophet Isaiah, the final word in today’s first reading is this word of the Lord: See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
In this morning’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus appears before John and asks to be baptized, but John says, “Wait, what? I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John experienced a new beginning in his relationship with Jesus, a new understanding of who God is and who he was that turned his world upside down.
Today’s second reading is the story of Peter, who experiences a new beginning in his own relationship with God. Peter the faithful Jew learns that God’s love is not reserved for those who follow certain laws and certain rules. You can almost see the light bulb go on, you can almost picture the forehead slap when Peter says, I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
And yet, this new understanding was only a beginning! Peter was right that God shows no partiality. Peter was right that God’s embrace extends to all nations. (This is still a hard pill for us to swallow when we become too attached to our own group!) But Peter was wrong when he said that “anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter did as we still do: Instead of saying “ALL are acceptable–period!” we put limits on God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. We decide what is acceptable. We put human conditions on God’s grace, based on fear, or based on our needs to feel good about ourselves by imagining that we are better than other people.
Baptism is about new beginnings, and new beginnings always start at the ending of the story: You are my son/daughter, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
In this New Year, many things will go right for you, me and billions of other people around the world. And, many things will go wrong. Baptism doesn’t protect us from misfortune, any more than it ensures good fortune. Baptism offers something much better than that: It reminds us that we are God’s beloved. No matter what the New Year has in store, we are all in the hands of a gracious God. Let us pray:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN