Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon on the Meaning of Baptism

Sermon Preached by Hawley Todd, TSSF, at Grace Episcopal Church, on the third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012, in anticipation of baptisms the following Sunday.

Welcome to Grace Church!

Are you excited? Can you hardly wait? One of the most wonderful days of the year is almost upon us.

I expect that you think I mean Christmas. Well that is one of the most Holy days of the year. It is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ into the world.

Yet what I am excited about is next Sunday. It is the most important day in the lives of several of our sisters and brothers. It is the day of their baptism--the day of their birth into Christ.

Of all the sacraments in the church, Baptism is the most important. It is the greatest healing service of all. It is the day we are marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever and receive the Holy Spirit. It is a day we are born anew. And we all get to participate! We all get to renew our lives in Christ!

So as we prepare this week for the baptismal service next Sunday, let’s take a few moments to reflect upon our lives. To facilitate that process, let me ask you a few questions.

What passage from Scripture grabs you the most? What passage resonates with your soul? Or let me put it another way. If God was calling to you from Scripture, what passage would He be using?

When I was a young man in my 20’s and 30’s, it was Micah 6:8. It goes like this:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

For the past several decades it has been the passage from Philippians we read today (Philippians 4:4-7):

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So take a few moments. What Scripture or Scriptures come to your heart and mind?

Take those words with you. Chew on them. Meditate upon them. Let them soak into the deepest parts of your being.

Let me ask you a different question about Scripture. With what person or character in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament do you most resonate? Think about your life and think about the characters you know in Scripture. Who are you like? Who resonates with you?

I am a little embarrassed to say that I most resonate with Elijah. And especially with a story about Elijah that I expect most of you have never noticed.

Elijah had just had the biggest “God Moment” of his life. He had been in a contest with the prophets of Baal and God had worked mightily through him on Mt Carmel. And what does Elijah do? He gets scared and runs off into the desert to escape Jezebel and the hornet’s nest that he had stirred up. He collapses in the desert and asks God to just let it all end. Yet God feeds him and tells him to get up and get on with God’s work. I am sad to tell you but I totally relate to Elijah.

So who is it that resonates with you? John the Baptist? Elizabeth? Isaac? Jacob? Esau? Ruth? Jezebel? Peter? Paul? The rich young man? Saul? Hagar? With whom do you connect?

Okay, let me ask you a different question.

When our culture looks at the Christian Church does it see and encounter John the Baptist or Jesus of Nazareth?

Or how about Grace Episcopal Church in College Hill – does it reflect John or Jesus?

Look at our reading from Scripture.

Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Some of what John says reminds me very much of Jesus. They are both concerned with caring for others and living authentic lives. Yet John seems to have an angry edge to him. Even more profound though is the comparison John made between himself and Jesus.

John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And next week, we will have a baptismal service. It incorporates the baptism of John with water for the forgiveness of sins but it is so much more.

One of my absolute favorite passages in the Book of Common Prayer is in the Baptism Service. It is the Baptismal Examination on pp. 302 – 303

Please find a Prayer Book and turn to page 302. Let’s read it together. I will read the questions and I want you to read the answers.

Question     Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer        I renounce them.

Question     Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer        I renounce them.

Question     Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer        I renounce them.

Question     Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer        I do.

Question     Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer        I do.

Question     Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer       I do.

Baptism is about making a choice. And the choice is between all the things that bring us death and Jesus Christ who brings us life. We know Him first as our savior--as the one who rescues us and heals us. And over time we learn to put our whole trust in his love and grace--and that is an ongoing process as we grown deeper and deeper into relationship with Jesus as a living presence in our daily lives. And finally our hearts and minds are so filled with his love and grace that we desire to follow and obey Him as not only our Savior but our Lord and God.

And lest we think the baptismal service is just about those being baptized, we all re-affirm our Baptismal Covenant.

Turn to page 304. I want you to read this part with me. I will be the celebrant and you will be the people. We will start with the question that is the second from the bottom of the page.

Celebrant      Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant     Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People          I will, with God’s help.

As we reach the culmination of the whole service, the candidates are washed and made anew in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And then on page 308, the Bishop says to each newly baptized:

“N, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Jesus baptizes us with fire and the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit being active in our lives and ministries that reveals, manifests, incarnates the presence of Jesus.

Irenaeus said that Jesus became who we are so that we could become what he is. That is what Baptism is all about and that is what Christmas is all about--Receiving the Holy Spirit and being born anew to life in Christ Jesus. And that is what all of our sacraments are about. Being restored in Christ and being renewed in His love.

So when you come for prayers today, open your hearts and minds to receive the fullness of God’s kingdom.

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