Sunday January 12, 2020

Baptism Of The Lord  - 2020a

Old Testament - Isaiah 42:1-9

New Testament - Matthew 3:13-17

Taking Baptism Seriously 

INTRODUCTION: And so the planning has started. While May 1st when my sabbatical begins is still several months away, the Yates Clan is already busy making preparations.


The first order of business, of course, was getting passports updated and renewed. A process, thankfully, that went much more smoothly and quickly than anticipated. Outside of the dour and menacing looks we all have in our photos because the person at the Post Office kept insisting that we not smile, our passports are now in hand.


The next big box to check off the list has been finding lodging for our three-week trip to Scotland in June. And I can now report that we have found a place in the heart of Edinburgh just a short walk from a few parks and an area known as the Royal Mile. As those of you who have been to Edinburgh already know, the Royal Mile, considered Edinburgh’s oldest street, is at the heart of  a major historic district in the city.

Running down a hill from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyrood House, the main street is almost exactly a mile long. But in between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House are all sorts of other historic and important places to visit.


There’s the home of John Knox, the founder and architect of the Presbyterian Church. There’s also Saint Giles’ Cathedral where he preached and spread John Calvin’s Reformed ideas throughout Scotland.


On the newer side, the national gallery can be found just off the Royal Mile, as well as the new Scottish Parliament building, which was opened in 2005. But most importantly of all, you will be shocked to hear I am sure, I am most excited about getting to visit the Scotch Whiskey Heritage Centre right next to Edinburgh Castle!


So the Yates family is already well into planning and getting ready. Even though May is still months away, preparations are well underway.


Of course, as a congregation, you all, believe or not, have also been preparing for my pending sabbatical. Yep, without maybe even knowing it, you too have been slowly getting ready for my coming time away.


You see, ever since Advent started, you may have noticed we have been doing something a little different during worship services. If you haven’t been dozing in your pew, you will have picked up that our opening invocation has frequently been replaced by a Thanksgiving for Baptism - just like it was today.


And while that might not seem like much, the idea of giving thanks for our baptisms actually goes straight to the heart of my sabbatical. You see, sabbaticals are never just times for people to twiddle their thumbs. While they are certainly defined breaks from work, they are also intended to be periods of renewal, reflection, and contemplation - never bad things to do, right? 


And so sabbaticals, especially if you want to get money for them like we have done, often involve a particular focus and purpose. And my sabbatical? Well, my sabbatical will be time for me to reflect upon the significant people, places, and events in my bapstismal journey up to this point in my life.


After all, I haven’t gotten to this point in my life all by myself, right? Nope. I am at this point in my life because of the people, places, and tradition that have been so important in shaping, guiding, and leading me. Ever since my baptism, I have been on a kind of journey. A journey that has been replete with important and defining moments and encounters.


And so my sabbatical is going to involve celebrating and reconnecting with those moments and people. There will be a trip back to Honduras where my call to ministry began. There will be a trip back to Knoxville to meet with and interview three mentors who were so important in my life as a teenager. And yes, there will be a trip to Scotland to celebrate and see firsthand the home of the Presbyterian Church - that church which has been my spiritual abode for all my life.


But you all as a congregation will also be spending time doing much the same thing. While I am away, you too will be asked to contemplate and give thanks for the significant events and people in your own baptismal journeys, as well as the collective journey of FPC Tullahoma down through the years. For you and this church haven’t gotten to this point all by yourselves either, right?

Nope. Just like for me, you have made it this far because of the people and events that have been so important in shaping and guiding you as both individuals and a congregation. And so we’re priming the pump, so to speak. We’re preparing ourselves for my sabbatical now by remembering and giving thanks in worship services for our baptisms.  


You see, here is the thing. We can forget that baptism is always more than just an event from our past. Sure, there is the day we were baptized and given that baptismal certificate with the minister’s signature on it. But that day was anything but an ending. It was, instead, rather a beginning.


For baptism is always an ongoing event. Yep, when baptized, we were all set off on a lifelong journey of change, renewal, and growth. A starting gun, so speak, was fired off when baptized and a kind of race was officially begun. And it’s a race that won’t come to completion until we finally shuffle off this “mortal coil” in that grand return to God once and for all.


No wonder Jesus’ own baptism happens so early in Matthew’s Gospel, as well as in the others. For all that follows in Jesus’ life after his baptism is tied to that moment. Jesus comes up out of that water in Matthew’s Gospel and he is promptly set off on a whirlwind adventure. Or to paraphrase the thought of another person, everything that happens in the Gospels to Jesus, happens because he takes his baptism seriously.


First, he’s driven out into the wilderness where he is tempted for forty days and nights. Or as Matthew likes to put it immediately after our reading for today, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”


But then, after that, Jesus begins his ministry, right? He comes back from the wilderness and gives that famous inaugural sermon where he talks about all kinds of strange people being blessed: the poor in the spirit, the meek, the crying, the merciful, and even peacemakers. From there, Jesus is then off as an itinerant preacher wandering around the Galilee preaching, healing, and calling disciples.


Eventually, of course, he finally makes his way to Jerusalem where he ends up draped on that cross. But even then, there is more to Jesus’ journey. For God raises him up three days later, and after assorted appearances he eventually commissions his followers to be about his business as a final act.


And all of it, the preaching, the healing, the dying and living again, it all goes back to his baptism. For just like with us, when baptized, Jesus was set off on his own journey.


So baptism is never just a past-tense event - as if it were something we did once years ago and can now just check off our to-do list and no longer need to think about or ponder. For it is always ongoing. Even now we are on a baptismal journey. No wonder one minister likes to tell people they are baptized rather than they were baptized. For people who are baptized are still very much on a journey.


Now watch out, though! For if you start carrying around in your mind everyday the idea that you are baptized, well then your life is slowly gonna start taking on a different tone and character.


For baptized people, people who are on that journey of growth and change, well they just don’t get to run around doing whatever they want. Discipleship, despite what some slick and silver-tongued preachers would have us believe these days, is not a self-help program designed to make it possible for us to get whatever we want from God. Nope. Discipleship, instead, is a lifelong journey of actually striving to get out of our own way so God can get from us what God wants. So people who take their baptisms seriously often have a funny way of being in the world.


There is the story of a young woman who was facing an ethical dilemma at work. Her bosses, apparently, were asking her to fudge a few numbers on some reports. Nothing too big, mind you, just a few small additions in some places and subtractions in others. And besides, the altered report would guarantee her company getting a much needed loan. And yet the young woman still felt a bit uneasy.


She went to talk to her minister she had known for years and who had actually baptized her when she was just a baby. And you know what her minister said to her? In the midst of her ethical quandary and uncertainty about what to do, her minister just looked at her and said, “Child, you are baptized.” And suddenly that young woman came to her senses in a flash.


Or as she later described the moment when talking to some friends, “I suddenly remembered that I was a Christian, that I am asked to live by a different set of values. I remembered that I have been claimed by God and that there are some things expected of me. After that, I knew exactly what I had to do.” She decided, I think, to take her baptism seriously. 


CONCLUSION: Well, life is full of all sorts of quandaries and sticky messes, isn’t it?


But thankfully, as those who are baptized, we don’t have to face them rudderless or aimlessly. For with baptism we have all been given a code to live by, right?


Granted, that code can be hard to live into and we can surely stumble along the way, as we all have and probably will. But that’s why baptism is always ongoing. For learning to live the way God wants us to live....well, that takes lifetime.


Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.