White, green, purple, white, red, green, blue. Probably not the rainbow the last time you saw it. White, green, purple, white, red, green, blue. But that is the cycle of colors you will see here in the paraments from today on, around through the rest of the year. White, green, purple, white, red, green and blue. It's the same every year. The same cycle on the same Sundays every year. For some it might seem boringly repetitious. But those are the colors that match up with the liturgical seasons of the year. A cycle of worship seasons that are the same year after year after year after year. Perhaps they seem hopelessly repetitious to you. Perhaps they seem so old and ancient you may wonder why ever can't we think of something new in the church? Why do we have to stay stuck in the same rut of the same repetitious cycle every year?
But I would ask you, "Are you learning anything?" It's a reality of human learning that, at least for most of us, it takes repetition in order to learn. Now, perhaps you're one of those wonderfully gifted folks who can see something once, who can read it once, who can do it once, and you've got it forever. Not me! And probably not you. The only way I seem to be able to learn is by a certain measure of repetition. It's discipline. It's routine. It may even seem sort of wearying at times, but if I'm going to learn something new, I must practice some discipline of repetition.
Well, the church has discovered, in two thousand years, that there is learning that takes place as we repeat things, year after year after year after year. That it's useful to have an Advent that prepares us, to have a Christmas to celebrate the birth of Christ, to have a season of Epiphany, in which we are now, a season about the light coming into the world, a season in which we focus upon the teaching of Christ. Then Lent, a time of confession, self sacrifice and preparation, as we get ready for Good Friday because every year, at least one day of the year, we must remember the cross. Then Easter and Pentecost. And so on it goes in a repetitious cycle to come around again to Advent. But it teaches us. And if we allow the rhythms of our lives somehow to take up the rhythm of the year, we will discover Christ coming into our lives in new and different ways in the various seasons of the year.
Today is one of those obscure liturgical holidays. Today is called the "Baptism of the Lord" Sunday. Just as at Christmas every year we celebrate Jesus' birth, and at Easter every year we celebrate the resurrection, so it is here, a few Sundays after Christmas, we have the much less well known Sunday, "Baptism of the Lord," remembering that Christ went down to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, remembering the importance of that event in the whole scheme of his life. And in so doing, remembering the importance of that event in the scheme of our lives.
Baptism. It would have been nice if we would have had a couple who had chosen this day to bring their infant for baptism. But, as Will Rogers once said when he was asked whether or not he believed in infant baptism, "Believe in it! Why, I've seen it!" You've seen it, and you remember it. What is baptism? Why do we do it? What is it about? What possible significance does it have? Those are questions I would like us to consider on this "Baptism of the Lord" Sunday. Baptism, of course, is a ritual—a ceremony—involving water. It is one of the two sacraments that Protestant churches practice. The first, baptism, a sacrament of inclusion and welcome. The second, Holy Communion, a repetitious sacrament of renewal and remembrance. Sacrament, ritual, custom. But why? What does it mean? What truth does it participate in?
This morning I would have us think about two dimensions of baptism. The first is that baptism is about grace, the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When parents bring an infant for baptism and I meet with them, one of the things I frequently do is ask them whether or not their infant child has discovered the cure for cancer, or whether their infant child has solved the problem of world hunger, or whether their infant child has brought peace and disarmament, or whether their infant child has taken care of the homeless. They look at me like I'm crazy, which I probably am. They say all the infant child does is eat and make diapers, nothing more glorious than that. And I respond, "Yes, and that tells us something about baptism." For baptism is about God's merciful grace to people who haven't earned it. The infant has not earned anything. Any of you who are laboring under the notion that somehow newborns are innocent and sinless, have forgotten what newborns are like. They are the most selfish creatures on the face of the earth. They demand attention when they want it. They don't pick up after themselves or clean up after themselves. There is nothing innocent about a baby. And there is nothing about a baby that would merit, earn, or demand God's love and mercy and acceptance. Baptism is about God. It's about what God is like as we know God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is about the way in which God reaches out to humanity when we do not deserve it. It's about the way in which God loves us when we are unlovable. It's about the way in which God's mercy touches us when we are self serving and don't pick up after ourselves. It's about the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is the way in which we participate with God in God's reaching out and embracing humanity. Welcome, humanity! Welcome, people! Welcome, sinners! Welcome, those who are stumbling and falling! Welcome, to those who are not good enough! Come to me and be cleansed. Be bathed. Be baptized in grace and mercy.
A chap named Ralph Wood, in the Christian Century in 1992, wrote an article called "Baptism In A Coffin."1 It seems that Ralph Wood was invited by one of his former students, who is now a chaplain at a prison, to accompany him at a baptism of a prisoner. Ralph Wood really didn't want to go but you know how it is with some of your former students, you do things that you wouldn't ordinarily do. So he accompanied his chaplain/former student to the prison, and they were escorted out into the courtyard of the prison with high fences and, at the top of the fences, razor sharp barbed wire all around. In the courtyard was a very crude box that had a plastic lining in it so it would hold water, and it was full of water. As Ralph Wood looked at this wooden box, he realized that it was a coffin. It was one of the standard order prison coffins in which prisoners were placed when they died while incarcerated. It was lined with plastic so it would hold water, and filled with water from a garden hose. He wrote, "This was no oversized, nice, warm bathtub at First Baptist Church." A cold water, plastic lined coffin was the sight of baptism. Wood writes about how the prisoner got into the box, and the chaplain lowered him down into the water pronouncing the traditional words, "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit," then lifted him back out of that watery grave and raised him up to eternal life. Though the water was cold, the new Christian, up to his knees in the box of water, was not eager to get out. When invited to leave the baptismal box and hurry away to change into dry clothing, the prisoner said, "No. I want to wear these clothes as long as I can." So they sat down at a nearby table in the warm Carolina sun, listening to this prisoner explain what baptism meant to him and why he never wanted to dry off again. He said, "I am now a free man. I am not impatient to leave prison because this wire can't shackle my soul. I know that I deserved to come here to pay for what I did, but I also learned here that someone else has paid for all my crimes.” Baptism. Grace. One way or another, in the eyes of a holy and righteous God, we're all criminals. And all loved. And all bathed. And all baptized not by our merit but by God's grace.
The second thing I would have you remember about baptism is that baptism is about our identity. It marks us, identifies us and helps us know who we are. If you are traveling on an airplane or bus or train, seated by a stranger and they ask who you are, the first thing you're likely to do is tell them your name. And the next most likely thing is to tell them your work. You say, "I'm a teacher" or "I'm a preacher" or "I'm a butcher, baker, candlestick maker," or whatever it may be. Then you may say, "I'm a husband," "I'm a wife," "I'm a mother," "I'm a father," "I'm a son,” "I'm a daughter," “I'm a brother," "I'm a sister," "I belong to this organization and this organization," "I'm a fan of these teams." In those various ways, we set some boundaries around ourselves and give definition to who we are. The chances are very high when you are in that conversation with someone on an airplane or a train, it's unlikely that you mention that you're baptized. But I want to suggest to you that, long after you are no longer a husband or wife, long after you are no longer a son or a daughter, long after you are no longer working at your profession, long after you are no longer a fan of your favorite teams, your baptism will still be there. It will still be the defining moment of your life. Who are you? You are forever and forever and ever and ever among the welcomed—the baptized.
I don't know who the greatest preacher—by that I mean deliverer of sermons—in America is but, in my opinion, the greatest writer of sermons at work at this time is an Episcopal priest in Georgia named Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara Brown Taylor has written a number of books of sermons, and they are among the best I have ever read. In one of those sermons she writes about baptism. As an Episcopalian, she writes from the point of view of someone who, when she baptizes, takes water and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptized. She writes, "I often wondered whether the church would be even smaller than it is if that cross (of baptism) were made, not with water, but with permanent ink."2 Think about it. She suggests we use purple ink. What if, at our baptisms, there would be indelibly placed upon our faces the mark of the cross, saying to all the world who we are and whose we are. Our baptism defines us. Our baptism identifies us. Our baptism teaches us in a perspective far beyond what passes so quickly in life, who we are, to whom we belong. It's our identity. It is said of Martin Luther that, when he faced a great temptation or a terrible challenge, he would often be heard mumbling to himself over and over as a kind of mantra, "But I am baptized. But I am baptized. But I am baptized." In the rehearsing and the remembering of that identity of his baptism in Jesus Christ, there was a different way that he faced challenge or temptation. It helped him understand where he stood and who stood with him and how to stand. Because his baptism was the bedrock of his identity. I invite you to consider that the most permanent thing in all your life and experience is your baptism. More permanent than your work or your family, more permanent than your likes and dislikes, more permanent than your opinions, more permanent than your hopes and dreams, more permanent than your retirement fund is your baptism. The most permanent and dependable, reliable and unshakable part of your life is your baptism. So, on this Sunday of the "Baptism of the Lord" I would ask you to remember your own baptism, the grace and the identity that it gives you, and be thankful. Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck, Senior Pastor
1. Wood, Ralph C., "Baptism in a Coffin', The Christian Century~ 10 21 92, p. 925 926 2. Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Preaching Life, 1993, p. 30