Baptism Of Fire
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Matthew 3:13-17
You probably missed it but today is one of those obscure religious holidays. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It comes every year on the Sunday after Epiphany. Oh, yes, that's another one of those obscure religious holidays. Probably few, if any of you, knew that today was Baptism of the Lord Sunday -- or cared. The chances are pretty good that the alarm clock went off at your house this morning and, as you emerged into consciousness, the first thing that hit you was "Oh, boy, Baptism of the Lord Sunday." I doubt it. Yet this is a very ancient holiday of the church.
In the first three or four centuries of Christianity the Christian faith was sprung new upon the world. It was creating its traditions. The people of the Roman Empire didn't understand, they didn't generally know the stories of the Old Testament or the stories of Jesus. Over the first three or four centuries the church developed holidays -- holy days -- customs that were teaching tools so that an opportunity would arise with each of these holy days to tell the story. To tell and retell the story to people that had not heard it since childhood, to a culture that did not know the story and you know, more and more, I have the feeling that our time and our culture is more like that than we realize. The very fact that maybe none of us knew it was Baptism of the Lord Sunday illustrates the secularism of our society and the fact that most of us belong, in a sense, more to the non-Christian, secular society than we do to the traditions of the church. So maybe it's not so bad that we reach back to the first century or two or three or four and bring it into our own time, into a society that knows not the stories, these obscure holidays that invite us to think about the stories again.
Well, having said that, I'm actually not going to tell the story today but I am going to talk about Baptism. I really have just one point to make today. Although I'll run around that mulberry bush several times, there is one thing that I want to say to you and that is our Baptism is the most important thing in our lives.
Now you may be thinking that over the Christmas and New Year's holiday your pastor has gone fanatic or something. To say that our Baptism is the most important thing in our life seems pretty fanatical. If we were to ask all of you to write down on your bulletin the five most important things in your life, you'd probably put family, home, jobs, health and things of that nature. How many of you would have put down your Baptism? On the one hand it does seem sort of fanatical to suggest that our Baptism is the most important thing in our life -- but it is. It's so foundational to our lives, identities and our future that we take it for granted -- that we forget about it. I would hope that we would learn that on the road to spiritual maturity each milepost along the road has a sign on it. The sign says, "Remember your Baptism." Because, if we would bring to mind our Baptism daily, that remembrance would begin to shape our lives, our values and our spirituality. Our Baptism is the most important thing about us. All those other important things -- family, home, health, jobs -- they're precious and wonderful. In saying Baptism is the most important, I'm not diminishing the value of health and home and family and jobs; rather I'm lifting up just how incredibly important Baptism is. For you see, life can take away everything else, but our Baptism reminds us that God's love for us in Jesus Christ is a given. It's foundational, it's fundamental, and it undergirds everything else. No matter what changes in our life, God's love in Jesus Christ for us does not change. That's what our baptism is about. Our Baptism says that, no matter what, that cannot be taken away. And everything else could be.
Last summer I met a young woman named Peggy. I met her in connection with preparing for her wedding. She was ready to begin her last semester of her graduate work for a Master's Degree, which would credential her in one of those fields where you could really get a job. All my college children major in things there are no jobs in. Peggy had the wisdom to have chosen an educational path where there was a job at the end of it. She had only one semester to go and then she had really great opportunities. Her fiancée was about three years younger than she. He was entering his junior year of his undergraduate work and he, too, was one of these rare people who was getting a degree that there was a job in. He was studying electrical and computer engineering. Here were two really smart young people; they came from wonderful families and they were the kind of young folks that it seemed like they had the world by the tail. Oh, there were poor as church mice at the moment but that wasn't going to last very long.
On the third of January they were to be married. On the third of September Peggy was diagnosed with cancer. She had surgery and began chemotherapy. At first, the whole idea of a wedding seemed suddenly unimportant. Peggy didn't even know if she was going to live until January third; though, as things unfolded, it appeared that her prognosis really was quite positive. It was clear from what the doctors had said that she would still be in the midst of her chemotherapy come January third. She has had all those normal visions of a big wedding, a church full of people, beautiful bride, parties, festivities. The wedding happened on January third. Peggy was not the bride she imagined herself to be -- thin and gaunt and pale and bald from the ravages of the chemotherapy. She was neither the bride she imagined nor the wedding the event that she and her fiancée had planned for so long.
You know, none of us know what's around the corner of life. We just don't know. Most of the time it's health and the love of our families and prosperity in our work, secure homes and all of those wonderful things. But life does not guarantee that these will last forever. God's love and mercy for us in Jesus Christ is solid, unmovable, unshakable, and unchangeable -- no matter what.
I hope you listened to the Old Testament lesson we heard a while ago. There isn't time to give you the background of the passage from Isaiah other than to say it was a terrible time. The prophet, Isaiah, said to the people of Israel, "God knows you and loves you. God even knows you by name." God knows your name. What do we do in Baptism? Whether it be a little baby in the pastor's arms or whatever, when you were baptized someone put water on your head and did what -- said your name. I say to you that in the same moment God was uttering your name and has never forgotten it, and will never forget. The most important thing in our lives, the most secure thing in our lives, the most dependable thing in our lives is our Baptism. St. Paul said, "Nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Remember your baptism. Every day, remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck Manchester United Methodist Church