A Sermon for a Baptism
Texts: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
And now comes Jesus, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, to be baptized, just like other people, by John the Baptizer, the one whose name is his job description. They have an interesting exchange about why Jesus is doing this. John demurs, Jesus insists, God acts, the Spirit descends like - like a dove, pure and graceful and fluttery. And the voice proclaims God's pleasure in the beloved child.
And thus in a what looks like a simple ritual, and yet is full of mystery, Jesus is claimed as God's own child and, although our text doesn't explain that here, he receives his commission. Or more properly, co-mission, for he does it with God's help. He will go off into the wilderness, led by that same Spirit, and be tested, and then he will begin his public ministry, informed by the Spirit that has filled him with grace and truth.
And now comes Kiley, who doesn't know about this story yet, to be baptized, too, by a man named John who also has a special job description, although we don't call him by it. Kiley also comes to be claimed as God's own beloved child, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever. She will also have temptations and she is also commissioned for ministry by virtue of this simple but mysterious ritual. Just like Jesus.
Being Christ's own forever has a job description, too. For handy reference, we can find it in our Prayer Book, and it will be Kiley's job description as a one of Christ's own forever, just as it is each of our job description by virtue of our own baptisms. We will today reaffirm our vows to continue the work God has given us to do, initiated at the baptismal font where we were first named as God's own beloved. And together, we will vow with and on behalf of Kiley as part our work as a community to uphold her in her life in Christ.
Our baptismal covenant lays out our job description as Christians. We are to worship God, to persist in prayer, to study the Scriptures, and partake of the sacraments; we are to try to follow Jesus and turn around when we see we are going the wrong way; we are to live out the Gospel by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; we are to respect the diginity of every human being.
We are, in other words, to be servants, to fulfil righteousness, as Jesus and John discuss. Righteousness is not the same as self-righteousness. Righteousness is being in right relationship with God and neighbor. Our baptismal vows give us some particulars about how serving and upholding righteousness work, what those things might look like.
Isaiah, too, tells us something about what a servant - one who seeks and serves Christ in all persons - is all about. Our Isaiah reading today is one of the so-called "servant songs," and scholars sometimes like to discuss who they think the servant is. Is it Israel, is it Jesus, is it Cyrus the Persian king who will free the Israelites from exile in Babylon and allow them to return home? The servant is the one who will bring forth justice, another way of saying righteousness - the servant will do right by God and neighbor. The servant is the ideal, the one God loves and chooses and commissions.
Personally, I think we would do well to not worry about whether the servant is Israel or Jesus or Cyrus or anyone historical or Biblical but rather to imagine that the servant is us. We are here to do God's work in the world, as God's servants to God's people. We are here to spread the Gospel - that's what our baptismal vows say. God's servant is the one who brings good news to those who are oppressed, addicted, poor, downtrodden, outcast - to tell them that God loves them, to act in ways that do not press them further down but to act in ways that lift them up. Put in Biblical terms it sounds like this:
"Here is my servant, Kiley, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon her; she will bring forth justice. A bruised reed she will not break, and a dimly burning wick she will not quench; she will faithfully bring forth justice in a world full of oppression that crushes the poor and the bruised and the broken and deals in hatred and senseless violence. She will not grow faint or be crushed until she has established justice somewhere in the earth. The world waits for her teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called her in righteousness, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."
We have all received this commission, just as Kiley receives it today. It's not just for Jesus. It wasn't just for Israel. It wasn't just about Cyrus. It's about all of us. So often we distance ourselves from the story - but the Scriptures are the story of God's people which means that the Scriptures are our story, too. We are called to bring forth justice, to be lights to those who sit in darkness. And it all starts here at the baptismal font, for Kiley, as it was for us, as it was for Jesus when he came to John the Baptist at the River Jordan.
Well. When you see Kiley, you will notice that she is pretty small and maybe not ready to head out into the world doing this work quite yet. First she has to learn to grasp Cheerios with her thumb and index finger, and she will need to learn her shapes and colors, and learn to walk and recite the alphabet. She will need to learn how to paint and sing and skip and swim and answer the question what does the duck say? She will need to learn about sharing and discover her passions and participate in tea parties and the wearing of fancy hats and pop-bead necklaces. She has a lot to do to get ready for this work that God is giving her to do.
You may wonder what painting and skipping and pop-beads have to do with bringing light to those who sit in darkness. I think it has to do with believing that we are worthy to be God's children, being willing to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there and use our skills in curiosity and imagination - those things we learn as children and then, sadly, often forget as we grow older. We forget and become self-protective, we seek certainty, we miss the new things God is doing in us and in the world, we become afraid that our imperfections will be discovered and we live out of the place of fear and shame. We begin to believe that we are not worthy, and then we are lost. We cannot be a light to anyone if we do not believe we are worthy to be loved ourselves.
But Isaiah says, here is my servant, Kiley, John, Chris, Bert, MJ, Paulette, Leonard, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. Our Eucharistic Prayer today reminds us that just because of the fact of Jesus, the incarnate, the Word made flesh who lived among us and was baptized just as we are baptized, we have been made worthy to stand before God. And we will pray after the Eucharist for the strength and courage to go out and be servants with gladness and singleness of heart.
We are all gathered here today to promise to uphold Kiley in her life as a Christian and to make promises ourselves to shape Kiley and her world - our world - God's creation - into the kind of world that loves justice and abhors violence. And to allow Kiley to shape us through her own joy and imagination and delight in life. We are promising again to be people who do justice, who strive to be in right relationship with God and neighbor because we are God's own beloved whose soul delights in us, who are able to bring light to those who sit in darkness because God has made us able. This was Jesus' co-mission; it is our co-mission; and today it will become Kiley's co-mission.
Thanks be to God!