Saturday, January 12, 2013

a view of the water: a sermon for Baptism of the Lord

Rev. Teri Peterson
A View of the Water
Luke 3.15-22, Isaiah 43.1-7
13 January 2013, Baptism of the Lord

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. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. 

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. 

For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you; 

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth— 

everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’

I wore a white cardigan too, obv. it was chilly.
This is the dress I wore when I was baptized. It was April 25th, 1999—so this dress has been hanging in my closet in 8 different houses for 14 years. It doesn’t fit, of course, nor is it my style anymore. But it hangs in my closet nonetheless, a daily reminder of that day.

I almost said “a daily reminder of that day I did something that changed my life.” But that’s not exactly true, is it? I didn’t baptize myself. I didn’t proclaim myself to be a child of God forever. I didn’t walk by myself down the aisle and hear the welcome of a community that called me one if its own. Even Jesus didn’t baptize himself—the verbs are passive. When Jesus “had been” baptized. When I “was” baptized. It’s something that happens TO us—something God does.

God says “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Remember that in the ancient world, and still today in some cultures, a name had incredible power. To know someone’s name was to have power over them—to speak someone’s name was to exert control. This is one of the reasons why our Jewish brothers and sisters do not speak, or even write, the name of God. It’s why the Hebrew scriptures leave out the vowels in God’s name—so no one would accidentally say it when reading or praying or copying a scroll. And God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” We can’t keep any secrets from God—we are already known as we truly are, known in all our deep dark secrets and all our potential and all our wonder. And the One who knows us still insists that we are a treasured possession—not something to be cast aside, not something to be forgotten or put away, but loved.

Of course, the Israelites to whom the prophet Isaiah spoke may not have been feeling the love lately. They’d spent decades in exile, removed from their land, their homes, their temple, their language, their comfort foods. They felt abandoned, lost at the back of one of God’s unused bottom shelves. I suspect many of us have felt something similar before. As if God has wandered off and forgotten us at the mall, or left us at the campsite and gone home with all the cooler kids. That feeling may have come in the midst of grief, or illness, or uncertainty about the future. I suspect there are moments of a pastoral transition that feel a little like exile—why are we out here all alone, and why is it taking so long to find our way?

And yet God speaks: I have called you by name, you are mine. You are my beloved. I will be with you.

Whenever we read an account of Jesus’ baptism, there’s always some wondering about that voice. Was he the only one to hear it? Or did the voice boom out from the clouds for all to hear? It’s unclear. But I like to think that the voice was for him…and that everyone else heard one too. Coming up out of the water, giving thanks and praising God, a still, small, yet unmistakable voice in each ear: John, Mary, Joanna, Levi, Kate, Steve…You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are precious in my sight.

Because that’s what baptism is about—it’s not a way we earn God’s love, it’s a way we experience God’s love. It’s not about what we do, it’s about what God does. God proclaims, and marks, and calls…all in a few drops of water.

Whenever someone is baptized, especially when a child is baptized, in the Reformed tradition, the congregation makes promises. We promise to "guide and nurture, in word and deed, through love and prayer, teaching and encouraging them to know and follow Christ." Because baptism isn’t the end of the story, any more than this dress is the last one I ever wore. It’s the beginning of a story—a story of God and God’s people, together, making the world into the kingdom of God. We don’t just drink from the stream of living water ourselves, we fill up a cup and offer that water to others. We don’t just walk beside the still waters and lie down in the green pastures, we look for ways that all might know an abundance of peace. We don’t just draw water from the well, we run and bring the others to the well too.

It’s easy to say “we will” when there’s a cute baby at the font. Easy to smile and think how wonderful it is to have young people in our midst. It’s less easy to actually fulfill that promise. Sometimes the practicalities of guiding and nurturing, through word and deed, love and prayer…well, they’re messy and demanding practicalities, often inconvenient. Sometimes it might mean waking up early to teach Sunday School, or staying up late at a youth group lock-in, or risking an honest conversation with a young person, or reaching out to pull a child into your pew so their overwhelmed parents can worship for a moment. It will always mean continuing your own Christian education and deepening your own spiritual life, because you can’t offer a cup of cold water from a dry well. We who make those promises need a constant view of the water just as much as the newly baptized will. It’s easy to forget who we are—beloved—and who we are called to be—the hands and heart and feet and voice of God in the world.

God calls us by name…and hopes we’ll come running, answering the call. Baptism is our common call to join in the mission God is doing in the world. It’s our call into beloved community and beloved service. You’ll notice that Jesus didn’t get baptized and then sit on the riverbank for three years. He prayed, and then he got to work teaching, healing, and showing us what life abundant looks like. Even in Isaiah we aren’t called just for kicks—we’re called by name to bring God glory. And as we know from the greatest commandment, what most brings glory to God is when we love our neighbors and God and ourselves all in the same breath—every breath.

No one said it would be easy, of course. If it were, God wouldn’t have needed to say “when you pass through the waters” or “when you walk through the fire.” But God will be with us even when life seems overwhelming, offering us a view of the water that matters.

Martin Luther used to remind himself of his baptism in the bath—when he washed his hair he would pause a moment, hand on his head, to say “I am baptized.” It was a way of remembering who he really was and what he was really called to do. My dress functions in much the same way—each day when I look in my closet I see it there and remember, not what I have done, but what God has done and who God calls me to be. It helps me live in view of the water, rather than in view of the dozens of other competing claims the world tries to make on my identity and life.

Maybe you have something that helps improve your view of the water. Maybe there’s room for a morning shower ritual in your day. Maybe you haven’t been to these particular waters yet, but you know that God calls to you through every water in every time and place. Water is the stuff of life, and of life abundant. Whenever we see it, drink it, offer a cup to someone else, we remember who we are and who God calls us to be: beloved, God’s hands in the world.

Today we celebrate and remember. And so you are invited, no matter where you are on this journey of life and faith, to come to the water and improve your view. At the font, use the water to make the sign of the cross on the palm of the person next to you—ask their name, if you don’t know it, and tell them: “you are God’s beloved, called to be Christ’s hands in the world.” Then let them do the same for you. As we come to the water, we lift our voices in sung prayer to God, the wellspring of life.

And all God’s people say Amen.


  1. Beautiful sermon. I forgot about Martin Luther's bath-time baptismal remembrance - I talked about how he would claim "I am baptized." when battling despair or temptation. Thanks for reminding me!

  2. Beautiful. I love that you begin with a little bit about you - the dress and what it means to you - and also the sign of the cross made with the waters of baptism on the palm of a neighbor - seriously love that!

    will be thinking of you tomorrow, your first Sunday with a community I hope you come to love deeply and they you. You are awesome!