We know better how to go to weddings and funerals. We know the ways we are supposed to dress for each of those special occasions and how to act: happy and smiles at weddings and respectful and somber at a funeral. People usually arrive early for funerals and weddings - no one wants to walk in late. “He’d be late for his own funeral,” people use to joke about a guy I once knew. And he was. The hearse broke down and got to the church late. People just loved it. “Hank was late for his own funeral.” All-day, everyone chuckled about that one. People are still talking about it. I also know a pastor, who on a Saturday afternoon pulled up to a gas station owned by one of his members, and the member of his church said, “Pastor, aren’t you suppose to be doing that wedding right now?” It happens.
But a baptism, we don’t usually make as much fuss about, except for the family of an infant being baptized. It is a big deal with relatives coming from all over, often a baptismal gown, pictures after the baptism, and plans for lunch. However, sometimes the many meanings of baptism and the implications for our lives get lost.
So, I invite you to pay special attention to the baptism we are witnessing this morning. In the baptism to which we have been invited, it is Jesus who is being baptized. You may wonder why it is that Jesus needs to be baptized. Isn’t baptism about the forgiveness of sins? How does that apply to Jesus? Isn’t baptism about the death of our old self and rising and being incorporated into the body of Christ? Why does Jesus need to be incorporated into His own body?
One answer to these questions is that Jesus steps in line with the rest of us so that He reveals His full willingness to join all of us in our humanity. He does not try to stand apart as better than. One day when someone calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus will correct him and say, “Only God is good.” But there is another focus to this baptism that is important for all of us as well, and that is what happens after Jesus is lifted up out of the water. Jesus comes out of the water and something like a dove descends and falls upon Him. A voice from heaven speaks words of powerful blessing, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus is being called into His ministry and beginning His ministry with a baptism, and the voice of God blesses Him. Baptism is also an initiation rite. It marks a new beginning. And that beginning begins with a blessing. If you ever wonder about how Jesus could achieve what He achieved, could endure what he endured, then you might pay special attention to these words of God spoken to Him at His baptism. It is no accident that His baptism precedes his temptation. Everything in His life depends on His hearing and taking to heart these words of blessing. Jesus’ rejection by many leaders of His faith, His times of disappointment with His disciples, betrayal and abandonment and crucifixion, are times He will remember that trusting his blessing will see Him through.
However, we would be mistaken if we believe that these words from God were meant only for Jesus. Knowing our propensity to sin and all of our own inadequacies, we might want to add a word or two to our blessings before we can hear it spoken to each of us, “Through my grace and forgiveness, you are my blessed son or daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.” But I caution you not to forget that Jesus too would have begun his ministry with feels of his own vulnerability and inadequacies or else he was not a real human being. Jesus and we both need the same thing in our lives if we are to live a meaningful faith. We need to know that there is a different story that defines who we are and what our purpose is than the one imposed on us by the world around us.
There are so many ways the world we live in communicates that, in one way or another, we are not accepted. Sometimes the world does not like us and approve of us, pointing its accusing finger of judgment at us. It is not easy to hold our heads up and maintain our self-esteem in times like that. The interior echo chambers of our hearts have a brutal way of echoing the negative voices of judgment that are everywhere to be found. But if your heart is still soft enough and your heart is open, you hear that voice of God, “You are my beloved Son, my beloved daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.” Nothing in this world can take that affirmation away from you.
There is a wonderful book I have taught a class on called “Practicing Your Faith,” by Dorothy Bass. In the chapter on “Loving Your Body,” there is a story of a young girl who was plagued by outbreaks of acne. One day, she felt unable to leave the house because of anguish over her face. They must have been a particularly devout Christian family, so what the father did next would not have struck his daughter as so terribly odd. He led his daughter to the bathroom and asked if he could teach her a new way to wash. He leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her, "On the first splash, say, ‘In the name of the Father’; on the second, ‘in the name of the Son; and on the third, ‘in the name of the Holy Spirit.’ Then look up into a mirror and say to yourself, 'I am a child of God, full of grace and beauty.” For the rest of her life this girl, now a woman has remembered and practiced that blessing that comes from her baptism. It will get you through life, you know.
He is someone’s grandson. He is someone’s beloved son. He is sixteen-years-old, and he walks down the hallways of his school and on Sunday mornings into the sanctuary of his church with a secret to hide. It is a secret that confuses him and never goes away from his thoughts for very long. The longer it stays a secret, the more shame it gathers. When the other students joke with him about anything, he is afraid they know his secret. He is told that anyone who has feelings like him is “unnatural,” so he tries his best to put them out of his mind and to just find a way to fit in. But it just doesn’t work, try as hard as he does. He feels a moral failure, a flawed human being. He thinks sometimes seriously of ending his life that that is the only way out, but he doesn’t want to, he just wants the find a way to feel ok and apart.
The last thing he needs when he walks through the doors of the sanctuary of the church is to hear some of the same judgments of the world on the lips of his pastor and members of his church. What he needs to hear is not that he is an abomination to God but the words of his baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Those are the only words that are going to save him. He needs a different story from the world around him by which to live.
One of my favorite people in the world was an older woman I knew when I was a pastor in Shelby, Mississippi. Ms. Emma was well-liked in our small town, but most people thought her a strange one. She had outlived two husbands, and after the last husband passed away, she started painting again, something she had not done much since graduating college with a fine arts degree. Like many artists, she looked out at the world and saw shapes and colors and life from a different vantage point. I suppose that made her weird from most folk's point of view. For me, it just made her more interesting.
Emma’s caretaker, yardman, and culinary chef was the same person whom she had grown up playing in the yard behind her antebellum home. His dad had been the caretaker for Emma’s family, and his grandfather the caretaker of the generation before that. One wondered how far back the relationship between these two families went. Slavery days? He lived in the well-maintained shack behind the house until he went through an illness and Emma had him move into the house where she nursed him back to health. When I was there, he would bring out the meal from the kitchen to a formal dining table where we were seated for lunch. Truth be told they were the best of friends. Many wondered about them and use to talk about it. It was not the usual thing for a woman of their generation and social group to be living in the same house with a man of another race. Like I said, Ms. Emma had a different way of looking at things.
So you would not be surprised that people found her spirituality rather odd as well. She is what I could call a mystical Christian, one who looked out to the world and saw that life was a united whole, with Christ at the center holding everything together in reverent love. Most could not understand exactly what Ms. Emma meant when she talked about her faith, so that when she stopped talking there would be an awkward silence, as people tried to make sense of what she had just said and quickly change the subject.
Once a year, Emma would go to the baptismal service. The congregation marched down to the river singing the old spirituals, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside…”.
They would get down to the river and the singing continued until the preacher was out waist-deep in the water. Looking at those to be baptized, he asked them,
"Are you ready to give up your old ways and become new in Jesus?”
“Yes, we are.” they responded.
“Are you ready to be made beloved children of God?”
“Yes, we are.” came the response.
“Hold your breath and count to ten,” he said. “By the authority given me by God, I baptize you in the name of the Father...in the name of the Son...in the name of the Holy Ghost.”
Each new child of God coming up from the water with smiles on their faces to shout of "Amen's" and songsof praise.
Ms. Emma would go home after the baptisms and start painting. One of those paintings was a large canvas painting of the baptismal scene. The figures were large and deeply spiritual. You could make out with clarity the black faces and the muscular arms of the preacher and the congregant about to be dipped into the muddy swamp water. Both were dressed in pure white and brilliant blue baptismal robes, and the woman being baptized wore a white turban. The painting captured the pain and burden in the faces of these descendants of slavery. But it also transported them to a different reality. Ms. Emma painted them as see-through figures, transcendent spirits. As real and concrete as the figures were portrayed, they also were transparent figures, as much spirits as bodies. You get that they have a second identity that the world does not usually see.
You see Ms. Emma's painting of these people and you understand how they survived hundreds of years of brutal slavery and what came after. “They had a different story they lived by.” In the same way, people thought Ms. Emma odd. And indeed she was. She just had a different story she lived by.
This morning you are invited to a baptism: your own baptism. You are invited to remember the blessing of that baptism: “You are my beloved daughter (son) with whom I am well-pleased.” You are invited to hear that blessing to hear it again, and again, and again, because it might be just what gets you through. It is a different story to live by.