At the Water's Edge: A Crazy, Holy Grace
August 6, 2017
After all these years, there are still times when I am disappointed in myself. Disappointed, not so much with particular things I have done or not done, as with aspects of who I have become.
Some of my disappointment is neurotic. I remain too concerned about what others think of me. I am too dependent upon other's approval. I am motivated by the applause that I hope I might receive from others.
Some of my disappointment runs deeper. I know, for instance, the kind of father and grandfather I want to be. I want to help create wonderful memories for our children and grandchildren. I want them to see me as loving, open, generous, and approachable. I want to laugh with them, and play with them, and just be with them. Still, I know there are times I withdraw and sit back and watch rather than join in.
I also find myself disappointed in my discipleship. I always imagined that by the time Ireached seventy I would be closer to being the person I assumed senior adults were back when I was young. Now I find there is still so far to go. I can't pray very long before my mind wanders—often into the most embarrassing areas. There are even times when I am disappointed that these various dimensions of who I am don't bother me as much as I think they should.
When I am caught up in my disappointment with myself it is natural to assume that God is just as disappointed in me and is ready to give up on me. I am fairly certain that some of what I do causes God pain. God longs for me to become the beautiful work of art God sees me to be in Jesus. When I mar the work God is doing in me there is the pain of a parent who sees a child falling short of her or his great potential.
But, no matter how often I disappoint God, God will never give up on me—or on you. Our baptism is God's promise of an unbreakable bond and an unquenchable love. That commitment is grounded in Jesus' baptism—the story we hear this morning.
You remember how it goes. John the Baptist is standing waist deep in the river, camel-hair coat hitched up around his waist, thundering out a sermon about repentance and the need for a fresh start. He challenges everyone to seal their decision to get ready for the Messiah by being baptized in the Jordan River. A single file line of people reaches from the shore to where he stands. One by one John dunks them, brings them up, and then reaches for another. He is getting them ready for the kingdom of God. John glances up from time to time. Soon Jesus is next in line. John knows who Jesus is. He is uncomfortable. He blurts out, "I should be baptized not you."
Do you know the feeling? I remember one of my earliest Ash Wednesday services, years ago. I stood at the front of the sanctuary and, as people came forward, I marked their foreheads with ashes and said, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." Some of the saints of this congregation came forward. I wanted to say to them, "You should be doing this, not me."
That is how John feels. But Jesus answers; "Let it be so for now; for in this way I can fulfill all righteousness." Which is like saying; "You're right John, but do it anyway. If I am going to be who I am called to be, this is where I must start. I need to stand with people in their sin. I need to identify with them."
After Jesus is baptized, the heavens open, the clouds part, and light pours through. A figure that looks like a dove comes straight from the heart of God and settles on Jesus. Then a voice that comes from somewhere other than earth tells Jesus what it means, "You are my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased."
Why Jesus chose to begin his ministry this way is something of a mystery. It is like the mystery of the incarnation. Why did Jesus become a human being when he could have stayed with God and enjoyed all the glories of heaven? Why was Jesus baptized with us when he could have stayed on the banks and shouted a few words of encouragement to the sinners in the water? Why does Jesus come to us when he could save himself the grief, the pain, the death by insisting that we come to him where he is?
The only answer the Bible gives to any of these questions is that Jesus loves us. He has come to lead us through life and death, success and disappointment, into life eternal. It isn’t Jesus’ style to declare his love for us from the safety of the shore. Jesus comes among us. He joins us in the water—in the mud—in the flesh—to show us that there is no end to his love for us.
If you were privileged to be here two weeks ago when Jon Opgenorth preached, you heard a sermon in which Jon said that there will be times in many of our lives when God calls us to serve beyond our capacity, and accompanies that call with a promise beyond our comprehension. At Jesus’ baptism God reverses that order.
First God makes a promise to Jesus beyond comprehension. When the voice says, “You are my chosen, my beloved,” Psalm 2, a psalm for the coronation of a king, is referenced. In this way God is promising Jesus that no matter what comes, whatever challenges he confronts, in the face of every challenge, God will be with him to empower and sustain him.
Then the Holy Spirit adds, I am well pleased with you.” The reference is to Isaiah 42, one of the “servant songs.” It is a call to Jesus to take on the role of the suffering servant—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief—the one who will save God’s people from their sin.
Jesus heard a promise beyond comprehension—God loves him with an unconditional, never-ending love—and that promise gave him his identity. The promise was accompanied by a call beyond his capacity—to be the suffering servant that saves God’s people from their sin.
This is significant because this story is not just about the baptism of Jesus; it is about ours as well. The promises made to Jesus in his baptism are also made to us. The call to service that flows out of those promises also comes to us. In our baptism we hear the heavenly voice telling us, "You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son. I am well pleased with you."
I have a colleague who, like many parents, wants to make sure that his children know that nothing they could do would make him stop loving them. When they make a mistake or disobey he assures them he will always love them no matter what. Sometimes he makes it a game. He asks, "What could you do that would make me stop loving you?" “If you made a big mess in your room, would I stop loving you?” “No!” “If you fought with your brother or sister, would that do it?” “No!” “Well what would make us stop loving you?” Of course the answer is, “Nothing!”
In a world filled with voices telling us we are not enough; we hear the only voice that truly matters—the voice that spoke to Jesus—addressing us, "You are my beloved...." I will never stop loving you and I will always be with you. In me, you are enough!
God spoke those words to Jesus before he had proven himself. God speaks them to us as well to tell us we don't need to prove ourselves worthy of God's love. We can't earn it. We don’t deserve it. It is a gift of God's grace.
One of my favorite tasks when I served this congregation as a pastor was to meet with parents and elders for a baptism class offered before parents brought their children for baptism. As part of that class we reviewed five of the key promises that God makes to us and to our children through baptism. I believe that parents are still reminded of these baptismal promises.
- We remember that all of our children’s sins are already forgiven in Jesus Christ
- We acknowledge that our children already share in the gift of eternal life
- We celebrate that our children are full participants in the household of God
- We claim the promise that our children have already received the Holy Spirit
- We are assured that our children are engrafted into Christ—they live in Christ and Christ lives in them
These baptismal promises are beyond our comprehension. God’s love is unfailing! God’s grace is unending! These promises establish our identity as God’s beloved daughter or son.
Among our deepest human needs is the need to be loved and accepted; not because of what we accomplish or achieve—but simply because. Beneath much of our pain and our need to perform is the fear that we will never be enough. We need to know that somewhere there is someone who loves us even when terribly disappointed in us.
In a short story by Flannery O'Connor, "The River," a little boy named Harry, the son of alcoholic parents, is taken to a river by his baby-sitter. A revival service is being held there. The preacher addresses the crowd,
"Listen to what I say people! There ain't but one river, and that's the river of life, made out of Jesus' blood. That's the river you need to lay your pain down in, that's the river you need to lay your disappointments down in: the river of faith, the river of life, the river of love...."
Harry is caught up in what the preacher is saying. Before he knows it he is in the river and the preacher has hold of him. "If I baptize you, you'll be in the Kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed in the river of suffering, the river of life. Do you want that?"
"Yes," Harry answers. So the preacher plunges him under the water and when he brings him back out he says, “You count now, Son, you count now!"
The preacher was right. Baptism gave Harry—gives all of us—an assurance that we count to God. Baptism isn't something we do. Baptism is something that is done to us. In baptism God gives us something we could never earn on our own—our identity as God's beloved child. We are told that we are unique, beloved children of God. God is pleased with us.
Like Jesus, the promises that God makes in baptism are the foundation to a call to serve beyond our capacity. In our baptism classes we tell parents that baptism is everyone’s primary ordination to ministry. There may later ordinations as a deacon, elder, or minister of Word and Sacrament. Those will always be secondary to the ordination that we all receive in baptism to join Jesus in his ministry of restoring creation to God’s desired design and reconciling all people to God.
We to come to worship from a world of “shoulds” and “oughts;” of duty and law—a world in which we constantly feel the pressure to prove ourselves. We tend to hear the call to serve, to do, to perform; before we hear the promises of grace, acceptance and love.
Baptism reverses that order. In baptism we begin with the many promises from God. As those promises take root in our spirit we are filled with energy of gratitude. Our identity, established in baptism through promises beyond our comprehension, empowers us to answer God’s call to serve beyond our human capacity.
In Jesus Christ, God's Son, the heavens have been torn apart. The Spirit has descended and is on the loose. The voice of God has spoken and continues to speak to us, "You are mine. You are unique and special. I am pleased with you." You and I are loved, not because of what we have done, or who we are, but because of who God is.
On this morning, when we remember Christ's baptism—and our own—God asks us, "What could you ever do that would make me stop loving you?" The answer, by God's grace, is, “Nothing!” Even when we resist God’s call or fail in our ministry; could God ever or become disappointed enough in us to stop loving us? The Good News of this story is a resounding, “No!”
Frederick Buechner calls this "A Crazy, Holy Grace" It is crazy because no one could predict such love from God. No one could imagine a God who never gives up on us, and never lets disappointment dictate the divine response to us.
It is holy because these moments of grace are so special, so rich, so unlike anything else in this world, they can only come from God. It is a grace that is capable of transforming our ordinary lives into sacred journeys in which we receive God's grace—and then gladly turn around and offer it to others.
Whether we are carried to baptism in our parents’ arms as helpless babies; or walk into the water on legs of faith, baptism declares that whatever the sin, pain, or disappointment in our lives, we can't make God stop loving us. Baptism is a promise beyond our comprehension.
Out of that promise God calls us to serve beyond our capacity. God calls each of us to join Jesus in ministry—not to earn God’s favor, but because we already are God’s favored ones—God’s chosen, God’s beloved daughter or beloved son—in whom God is well pleased.
It is A Crazy, Holy Grace, meant to sustain us and bless us today and through all our tomorrows until at last we stand together in the presence of the One in whose name we have been baptized and who loves us always and forever