January 13, 2019

Luke 3: 15-18, 21-22

The Good News of Baptism, Epiphany and Star Gifts 

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church

A few months ago, our church council spent an evening gathered around a question about the “Good News” of Mount Seymour United Church. Together we wondered what message from the gospel is at the heart of our life in this place. What’s the message that identifies and defines us? As we wrestled with how to best articulate that it occurred to me that we would do well as a congregation to ponder what the Good News of our faith is in general.
In this morning’s scripture reading, we heard that with many exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people who were coming to the Jordan to be baptized. The good news he proclaimed was in part that someone more powerful than he was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Almost 24 years ago, when I arrived in my first pastoral charge as a newly minted ordained minister, I was told that one of the rules in my new congregation was that we would only allow three baptisms on a Sunday and we would only do baptisms one Sunday a month. The problem was that when there were more than three infant baptisms at once the service lasted too long so they needed a rule to solve the problem.
Can you imagine having such a wonderful problem to deal with today? I am not even sure when I last presided at an infant baptism. It has been a few years. And that might seem like nothing but bad news but it is not as bad as it seems.
It used to be that part of being a “good person” or a “good citizen” in North American society included having a baby baptized shortly after it was born at least for those who were part of the Christian tradition. Not so long ago that actually was the majority of Canadians. Without going into a lot of detail about how and why that has shifted, the bottom line is that there is no longer any societal or cultural obligation to have a baby baptized anymore.
That it means when people do bring a child to the church to be baptized they are doing it because they want to do it. They are doing it for religious or spiritual reasons. That’s good news because it means they are not doing it out of fear or a sense of imposed duty or familial obligation, they are doing it because they want to, because they desire to commit to the Jesus way of life and to be part of Christian community and to be open to the movement of the spirit in their lives.

If there is a difference between the baptism of John the Baptist and the good news of Jesus baptism that difference has to do with love and grace. John’s baptism begins with an obligation, a call for people to repent, to turn away from their sinful lives in order to be renewed through baptism. Although that might have been fine in his day and age, what that has become for people in our day and age is an experience of oppression.
That is why it is important for us to notice that Jesus baptism begins with a call, an invitation really, to see and understand ourselves as beloved.
When a child enters the world, we don’t look at them and say “you sinful being, what are you going to do to make me love you?” or “how are you going to earn your love today?” We just love them. It’s the beauty of the moment when Jesus is praying after his baptism and the heavens open and Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice came from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We don’t interpret that as God’s reward to Jesus for having been baptized. We interpret this as a revelation of his identity as a beloved child of God.
So the Good News of Jesus baptism is that when we are baptized we too are affirmed for who we also are, beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. To be baptized in Jesus name is to be immersed in freely given grace.
You may recall from this morning’s reading that one of John the Baptist’s exhortations about the Good News of Jesus is that he would come with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear his threshing floor. John declares that Jesus will separate out the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
That has never sounded very grace-full to me. Far too often the church over the years has taken it upon itself to literally separate out the people it declares to be good from the people it declares to be bad. Consequently, we have generations of people who want nothing to do with the church because of the judgement they’ve experienced.
What if, in the same way the farmer separates the wheat from the chaff in order to gather up the good, Jesus separates out the good from the bad in each of our lives to harvest those aspects of each one of us that are the best and most fruitful part of our being. What if it’s about separating us from our sins, our wounds and weaknesses and rendering them into ash.
I once saw a quote on Facebook that said, “Religion says God will love us if we change. The Gospel says God’s love changes us.” What if the good news of our baptism is that through those waters we are transformed not just once, but over and over again by the love that claims us there? What if those waters remind us that there is nothing we can ever do to separate us from that transforming love?
You may wonder, if baptism is about love and grace, why is it that we ask people to make statements of faith and promises for their children or themselves before they are baptized. The questions we ask people to respond to before they are baptized seem a lot like conditions. We will baptize you if you make these promises, with an emphasis on the “if.” Actually, those promises are what shape and form our identity. The church in the best of its’ wisdom knows that what helps us to actually live as people who know we are beloved children of God are the commitments we make to one another to remind ourselves of that truth.
I still remember the day our youngest child, Joel was baptized here in this church. Janet Gear who was officiating at that service spoke to all the children that day and told them that one of their responsibilities as members of our church family would be to remind Joel of his baptism, as he got older, to remind him that he is a beloved child of God. Because, like all of us, she said, there will be times when he forgets that about himself.
Part of what reminds us are the stories of our faith we teach and tell one another. Part of what reminds us is doing our best to live in community with one another as people who love ourselves and love others. Because if we can’t get loving each other right in the company of those of us who have covenanted together to do so, how are we going to have any hope of loving the world around us?
Often when people become pregnant with a second child or they decide to adopt second child they wonder if they will be able to love that child as much as the first. Then the baby is born or the child arrives and suddenly or over time, they discover that their hearts have miraculously expanded. This week as I was pondering our community of faith here at Mount Seymour, I realized how much my own heart has expanded over the years of serving together with you, not just as we have included more people in our circle of care, but for those of us who have been here for some time, as we have worked together and learned together and simply lived our lives in concert with each other, allowing ourselves to be shaped and influenced by each other’s presence. My heart has grown in your presence as together we have worked at figuring out what it means for us to love and serve God through the church.
In our baptism, we commit to this journey of faith together and if we leave this place, we will find others who have made similar commitments with whom we can also journey. That’s the beauty of being part of a world- wide movement.
The good news of our baptism is that we are in this together. It’s why Jesus gets in line to be baptized just like everyone else. He’s saying to us we are in this together. By “this”, I mean the work of ministry, the work of loving the world as we have been loved. We are all called to minister together.
We do his and more guided by the Spirit that gives us comfort and power, fueled by the refining fire of grace, blessed by the waters that deliver us from chaos into life. All of this is very good news by which to live our lives.