Comfort and Courage

The Baptism of our Lord, Year A
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I can tell when something is really important to Cana, my 1 year-old daughter.
Though she doesn’t yet have words, she has grunts.
And if she’s trying to get my attention –
while I’m reading the paper or washing dishes, for example –
    she’ll usually grunt.
Being the less-than-perfectly attentive father I’m perfectly capable of being,
    I’ll too often say something like, “just a moment, Cana.”
She usually then turns her attention to something else.
Sometimes the grunts continue, and increase in frequency,
    and sometimes I again respond, “just a moment, Cana.”
Sometimes, however, the grunts persist, at a rapid pace,
    and with a rather endearing, needy look on her face.
This is important Daddy, she is trying to say to me.
Come here and see.

Scholars of the New Testament like it when a story shows up in all four Gospels
because it’s like my daughter’s repetitive grunting –
it tells us that something’s important here.
A close look at the Gospels reveals quite a bit of diversity in the telling of the Jesus story.
There’s lots they agree on, yet much they differ on, too.
The birth of Jesus?  That’s only in two of the four Gospels.
Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after the resurrection?  Mark doesn’t say anything about this.
The Beatitudes?  Blessed are the poor, Luke tells us. 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Matthew says.
They’re different accounts of the same story – the story of Jesus.
And so, when these different writers all include a particular story about Jesus in their Gospel –
    in this case, the story of Jesus’ baptism –
    it’s like my daughter’s grunting.  It’s important.

So what is it about this story that is so important?
    The Baptism of our Lord represents a paradoxical,
unexpected, unconventional beginning
        to the ministry and work of Jesus.
Just a few verses prior to today’s reading Matthew describes John in the wilderness,
    eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair clothing, and calling on people to repent of their sins.
        Quite a prelude.
People came to John from Jerusalem and all Judea.
    They confessed their sins to him, and he baptized them.
And so Jesus enters the scene. 
He joins the masses, walks alongside the common repenter,
and comes to be baptized by John.
Here we have this man who is Immanuel, God with us, God incarnate, King of Kings . . .
    sinless, pure and holy . . .
    and he starts out by being baptized?
For what reason could the sinless Jesus possibly need to be baptized?

Think of it as a coming out party.
Up until now Jesus’ identity, role, and purpose had been largely hidden.
His teenage years, his twenties –
they were quiet times that didn’t catch the attention of most anybody.
His public ministry starts now, with this story,
    where Jesus finds himself amidst a crowd of people
deeply aware of their sin and need for repentance.
It is in this setting of human neediness that God reveals Jesus to the world.
Placing himself among the people, Jesus identifies himself with us, not over and against us,
In wonderful paradoxical tension, John pours water over Jesus head, baptizing him,
    as if Jesus says, “I’m on this journey with you.  I’m one of you.”
Yet the Gospel tells us that a voice echoes from heaven:
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The tension of that moment is perfect – the humble act of receiving baptism,
    paired with the awesome, heavenly voice of God declaring Jesus as son.
It’s a grand public pronouncement, a formal declaration, an outing of Jesus.
For Jesus – and more importantly for the crowd gathered there – this heavenly declaration
    serves as an audible assurance of who Jesus is and whose Jesus is.

An assurance.
We need assurances in our lives, in our world.
There’s a wonderful Dilbert comic strip which I’ll try my best to retell here. 
Dilbert is trying to skirt cumbersome rules in his office for getting rid of obsolete equipment.
The first frame of the comic shows him carrying a computer monitor,
    when he is stopped by a security guard.
“Stop,” says the guard.  “All equipment requires two signatures for removal.”
“Good thing you caught it,” Dilbert says.  “All it needs is your signature.”
In the next frame we see the security guard signing the form while saying,
    “I’m signing this form, but somehow it doesn’t seem right.  Are you sure this is right?”
Dilbert responds, “I’ll have to verify your signature.  May I see your birth certificate?”
The security guard says,
“I’ve never seen my birth certificate.  I don’t think I have a birth certificate.”
As he walks away with his monitor, having successfully thwarted the office rules,
Dilbert asks: “Well then, how do you know you were born?”
The final frame shows the security guard thinking to himself,
“I’ll have to bring this up with my alleged mother.”
The poor security guard.  He had no assurance that he was ever, well, born!

Though most of us are confident that we were indeed born,
we all need assurances.
An assurance is a fixed point in a world where everything seems so fluid.
I think of the childhood assurances we make –
    cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
These words serve as a kind of oath, attesting to our honesty, assuring that what we say is true.
Contracts, oaths, affirmations, sworn testimony, affidavits . . .
these are all ways that we assure truthfulness.
Monuments, too, are assurances to our nation’s confidence.
When I walk down the National Mall and look upon the statues and monuments,
    the placards and buildings,
    I feel an assurance that things will be ok. 
Our country has been though so much in its history,
    and yet its democracy and freedoms continue to thrive.
Those monuments and statues serve as an assurance to me,
    and assurance of the strength of our country and its people.

After our second child, Cana, was baptized,
    I wrote on my blog some questions,
wondering about what this whole baptism thing is.
Was there some big difference in her life now,
some dramatic change in her relationship with God now that she was baptized?
Did baptism make a difference?
Surely in days past the church taught about and practiced baptism in a way that
    turned baptism into a sort of required insurance against eternal suffering.
Parents would come and get their babies done – I mean, baptized –
to assure them a place in heaven.
But that’s not what baptism is about.
Before her baptism, Cana was already a beloved child of God,
    blessed by God and filled with His love.
As God tells Jeremiah, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.
And so the deal had already been sealed, long before her baptismal date.
So why do the baptism?

As an assurance.
Baptism is for us an assurance of God’s love and grace,
the time that we hear God’s explicit and personal declaration that
        you are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
        you are a child of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit,
and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Marked with the cross of Christ forever?
Yes, baptism involves death.
    That is the visual image of baptisms,
    drowned to sin and raised to new life.
In baptism our death is foreshadowed.
    We have already drowned, we have already died.
    As we descend into the waters of baptism, we are joined with Christ’s death.
As we are lifted out of those baptismal waters, we are joined to his resurrection.
Indeed, Jesus referred to the cross as his baptism,
    where he died to sin and raised to new life.
In baptism, we die to sin and rise to a new life in Christ.
Baptism is the power of the cross, the promise of new life.

Because of this power and promise, baptism can be for us comfort and courage.
Let baptism be for you a comfort.
Martin Luther insisted that “We must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way
that we may draw strength and comfort from it” when we feel oppressed by anything –
sin, death, brokenness, pain, injustice –
anything that would deny us our full God-given calling.
In those moments, Luther says that we are to shout out: "But I am baptized! 
And if I have been baptized,
I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life,
both in soul and body."
Baptism is our assurance.  Baptism is our comfort. 
Baptism is our monument, our birth certificate, our fixed point in a fluid life
    to which we can point and say
“I have the promises of God!  See?  They were proclaimed to me!
That’s God’s Word that was spoken to me.  You can’t take that away from me!”
Take Luther’s advice and shout it out, dear friends – I am baptized!
    Those are some amazingly comforting words.

Let baptism also be for you a source of Courage. 
Baptism grants us the courage to live in this world. 
We have been baptized into Christ’s death…and into his resurrection.
Because of that promise, we have courage to live.
Courage to go into the world on a calling of discipleship,
    Courage to face death and all its ugly forms in this world
    Courage to hope and dream and live into the New Life we’ve been promised.
    Courage to be.
    Courage to publicly proclaim the good news that Christ has come into this world.
Courage to follow Christ wherever he may lead.

At about this time, my daughter might very well be grunting,
    and Luther calling on us to shout out: I am baptized!
However you acknowledge this Good News,
May the comfort and courage of your baptism strengthen you in all that you do.
Thanks be to God. 
Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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