Monday, January 10, 2011
A sermon for the Baptism of our Lord
The Vicar of Wakefield was recently invited by Dean of Student & Community Life Clarence Butler at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge to return to the School and preach and celebrate on the occasion of EDS's commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord. This was the first time that I had ever been invited to celebrate in St. John's Memorial Chapel, and my first sermon delivered there since I graduated in 1999. It was a pleasure and an honor to be back in this special and sacred place, where 4 years of my life were spent in discernment, prayer, and song, and also in admiration at all of the amazingly faithful people who taught there and had gone before me as students.
St. John's Memorial Chapel
Episcopal Divinity School
January 10, 2011
In the Name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen.
Matthew writes: "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased'.”
Well, it seems that the shepherds and the wise men have gone home, and we are once again standing along the banks of the Jordan River, as John baptizes those coming to him in search of repentance and new life, just as we were a month ago as Advent began. But this time, Jesus himself is among the crowds, seeking this baptism. In the space of just a few days, we have passed over Jesus’ infancy and youth, and we find him here now as an adult, ready to begin his ministry. I always have hard time letting go of Christmas. I like twinkling lights and sparkling trees. I like carols and bows and garlands. But, of course, we can’t stay in the stable, gazing upon the tiny baby, forever. Jesus grows up and he has so much work to do.
The reason for this very quick shift in focus is probably because the Bible tells us little about Jesus’ growing up years. The only biblical story we have of Jesus’ youth is his family’s visit to the temple when Jesus was about 12. You, of course, know that story–Jesus wanders off from his family, and when they leave the temple area they are shocked to discover that he is not with them, because he is busy teaching the elders about the laws of God. Like any good parents, Mary and Joseph are not amused. While we in the church believe that Jesus lived without sin, I don’t think this means that he was an easy child to raise. Certainly if this story is any indication, Mary and Joseph must have had a rough time of it. You who are parents can probably understand their consternation–he was always thinking that he knew more than everyone else; he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut; he wandered off on his own; he didn’t really seem to think that the rules that applied to everyone else applied to him. Hmm. Does that sound familiar? So, when Mary and Joseph agreed to the angels’ proposition that they raise God’s Son, I suspect that they had no idea what sort of messes they would be getting themselves into.
I remember once when my brother Andy and I were separated from our parents. We were on a family vacation to the Black Hills in South Dakota—I grew up in Minnesota, so it was just the next state over. And one of our stops was at Mount Rushmore. I was probably 7 or 8, Andy two years younger. So, there we were, blissfully walking along; and rather than actually paying attention to where we were, Andy and I were busy looking into our View Master Viewers–do you remember those? You would put round color slides into them and hold them against your eyes as you clicked a leaver on the side and watched slides of any and everything imaginable. Being crazy little kids, Andy and I were probably looking at slides of Mt. Rushmore, rather than appreciating the real thing—or maybe it was Star Wars or our favorite super heroes. In any case, somewhere along the way we were separated from our parents. As I remember it, I think that the sidewalk took a fork and my folks went off in one direction enjoying the view of Rushmore, and Andy and I in another, our faces firmly pressed against our View Masters.
You might think that this would be especially scary for two boys by themselves. The funny thing, as I remember it, though, is how calm Andy and I were once we discovered that we were lost. With hundreds of tourists around, there really was no way that we would be able to find our parents. So I told Andy that we should head back to the car and wait there. Our parents, of course, were very panicked that we had been kidnapped and spoke with a ranger, who suggested that they, too, should go back to the car, because, they said, that’s usually what kids do when they get lost. My mom says she was certain that we would never think of such a thing on our own, but when they got to the car, sure enough, there we were, waiting for them. Our parents were at once relieved and terrified, and angry and proud.
I suspect that for Mary and Joseph, too, life was like that a lot–they never knew what Jesus would be up to next. And given his inability to conform to the world around him, they probably never stopped worrying about him, even after he was an adult. I imagine that long after Jesus moved out on his own, his mother dreaded the news she would hear–the people he’d upset, the things he would say, the places he would go, the sketchy people he associated with. They must have wished, often, that Jesus were an ordinary child like any other. Why couldn’t he be like that nice young Benjamin down the road? He was always so well-behaved.
While we can easily imagine Mary and Joseph’s frustration, we don’t really know how Jesus thought of himself in his early years. I doubt Mary or Joseph would have tried to sit him down to explain it all, in the way that parents explain the birds and the bees. Besides, I’m not so sure that Jesus would have believed that he was the Incarnate Son of God anyway. He may have grown into such an understanding over time, but probably not at first. The idea was so anachronistic that no one would have even thought it a possibility. God was too big and human beings too small.
And so, we don’t know what drew Jesus to be baptized by John. Obviously his profound faith in God and God’s redemptive power played a major role. But we don’t know if Jesus thought that he needed to baptized; if perhaps he was a disciple of John, like so many of his contemporaries; or if he was just an adventurous sort who thought he’d try it to see what would happen.
What we do know, however, is that like all the other pilgrims in the wilderness, Jesus waded into the river and had flowing water poured over his head, submitting himself to God’s love and grace and mercy. He dedicated himself to living in God’s kingdom. Only, when Jesus was baptized, something extraordinary happened. God spoke in a clear voice and declared who he was: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well-pleased.” Or if you prefer Mark’s earlier version (which offers more of a private message for Jesus): “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased.” Now, I don’t think this meant that Jesus finally had it all figured out. I don’t think he suddenly saw the trajectory of his life with crystal clarity. But I do think that after his baptism, Jesus saw his life and his life’s purpose in a new, deeper way. The frustrating little boy, who couldn’t keep quiet and wandered off had grown into a man who understood in a way that he couldn’t have before what his life would be all about.
Most especially, Jesus understood that his life was not meant to be lived solely for himself, but for others, and through them, for God. He understood that he would be called to make difficult choices, that he would have to go to uncertain and even frightening places, that life would never be the same, for him, or for anyone in the world. And you know what? Our baptisms mean the same thing. When we are baptized, God claims us as beloved sons and daughters, too. God calls us to make difficult choices and to go to uncertain and even frightening places. God tells us that our lives will never be the same. Because, like Jesus, through baptism we are transformed.
When I was a student here at EDS, I discovered the great nineteenth century Anglican theologian Frederick Denison Maurice. I hadn’t heard of him until I was in Carter Heyward’s Christology class my first term, and she suggested I read him. It was a suggestion that changed the trajectory of my life, sort of like a re-baptism for me. Fifteen years later, Maurice is my constant companion--a major figure in my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Toronto, as well as my model for ministry, combining a pastoral ministry with a life in the academy. He was a theological hero of the founders of this school as well, inspiring generations of ETS, PDS, and EDS students and faculty. He even has a window here in the chapel. I used to sit across from it and contemplate his wise (if often unclear) words. So I thought it would be appropriate to conclude by sharing some of Maurice’s thoughts regarding baptism, which he described as the “sacrament of constant union,” meaning that in baptism we are ever united to God in Christ and through him, to the whole human race and even the whole universe.
He preached (and please excuse the non-inclusive nature of his nineteenth century language, but do appreciate the inclusive nature of his thought): “Each of us is baptized as a sign that his life is not in himself but in Christ, and Christ gives us His Holy Spirit in baptism to testify that we are united to Him, and are the sons [and daughters] of God in Him, and have power to do the work He gives us to do.” And elsewhere he writes, “Men are told that they are made in the image of God: how could it be that they knew not. Here is [God’s] express image, not shown in the heavens above, nor in the earth beneath, but in a man.… In [Christ] we find how humanity has been a holy thing, though each man felt himself to be unholy…. In [Christ] it is proved how humanity us meant to have a dwelling with God.”
These have been inspiring words for me. Of course, I suspect that since you are here at EDS you already know these insights, even if you aren’t familiar with F. D. Maurice, as yet. You are preparing yourselves to do the work God gives us all to do in baptism, as beloved sons and daughters, just like Jesus--to go to those difficult, frightening places, whether in the inner city or in the hospital room during CPE, or maybe even just searching the depths of your own soul in prayer. We, too, are called to live in and for the kingdom of God. And with Jesus, we can be confident that all those we touch, all those we minister to, and all those with whom we share the love and grace and mercy of God, will be likewise transformed–transformed more and more into the wonderful, holy people that God wants them to be, into the wonderful, holy people that God wants us all to be together, as F. D. Maurice says, dwelling with God.
Matthew writes: "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased'."
May we, like Jesus, hear God’s voice speaking to us, and be inspired and challenged to be God’s beloved sons and daughters, this and every day. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell