In The Beginning…

January 8, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

View, print or save PDF: sermon-01-08-17-inthebeginning

“In the Beginning…”

January 8, 2017

Rev. Melanie Homan

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”

My oh my. Please tell me I am not the only one who finds it hard to get back into the routine of life after Christmas and vacation! It’s been a hard week. I got sick the day of Christmas and have been under the weather ever since.  It’s also been a good week.  I was so happy to put the kids back on the bus last Tuesday morning.  It has also been a very cold week!  Brrr!  Plus, we’ve had 8 whole days to make resolutions and break them, to worry about the pipes freezing, to explore how many layers of clothing we can wear at one time, and to cook up some good old-fashioned, warm comfort food.

About the only good thing that I can think of, when the weather gets this cold, is that there are some very cool science experiments that only work in these conditions.   And most of them involve water.  This past week, as the kids stood in the warmth of the doorway looking out at me, I ran out into the freezing cold to throw boiling water up into the air, to see if it would evaporate before it hit the ground.  It didn’t work exactly like the youtube videos I watched, but it was still pretty cool.  Janet Bomar was sharing with me a whole list of things their family has done when the temperatures get this cold – like blowing bubbles that freeze.  And cracking an egg and leaving it outside, and hammering a nail through it.  You can turn a banana into a hammer if you leave it out long enough.  Or get a beach towel soaking wet, lay it out to freeze, and you have your very own free sled.

There’s a common thread between most of these experiments and our scripture passage for this morning. Water. Water. It’s everywhere. We’re made up of it. We drink it. Bathe in it. Splash around and swim in it. Drive on top of it in the winter. Grow our food with it. Go through massive amounts of it to force natural gas up from deep beneath the ground. It’s everywhere.

And through this “everywhere, necessary for existence and life” substance, we see how God uses it to transform us.  John the Baptist is spending his days on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people with water and preaching repentance. And Jesus comes to be baptized. At first John refuses…no…this isn’t how things are supposed to be…until he realizes that with God, God is always doing new things and you can ignore it and dig your heals in, or you can go with the new thing. Jesus insists and so John baptizes him with water from the river. And then the skies break open and a voice from the heavens says, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This whole skies breaking open and God speaking thing – is what we call a theophany. A theophany is an appearance of God to humans. It’s kind of a big deal. God appears to us. Other examples of theophanies in our scriptures would include God appearing to Moses in the form of the burning bush.  In the book of Exodus, it talks about God leading the people out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. On Mount Sinai God appears like a shining sun. In the desert, on the mountain, by the river – God appears to us in the glory and beauty and power of the natural world. And it can transform us.

And that’s what happens in Jesus’ baptism, and in our baptisms. God shows up and transforms us, claiming us as beloved through something as basic as water. Now here’s the thing. You don’t have to be baptized. Baptism isn’t some magical thing that guarantees you access to God’s grace in this life and beyond. God’s grace is present to all of creation. Period. If you want to get technical, this perspective is what John Wesley called Prevenient Grace. It’s grace that goes before us, requires nothing of us, and just is. For everyone. So then why do it? Why be baptized? It’s a reasonable question.

The same could be said of marriage. Why do it? Let’s face it. You don’t HAVE to get married to be in a committed relationship with another person. You can promise to love someone and honor them and to be there for them no matter what, without ever getting married. Without making a covenant commitment or signing a state document. So why do it? Ask anyone who has had to fight long and hard to get the freedom to marry their partner and you will hear some of the many reasons that people have for wanting to be able to marry.

The same could be said of communion. Why do it? You don’t HAVE to take a piece of bread and drink juice to remember Jesus life, death, and resurrection.

Generally speaking, you don’t HAVE to be baptized to experience God’s grace. You don’t HAVE to be married to have a committed relationship with someone. You don’t need bread to know Jesus.

I think that when it comes right down to it, one of the main reasons we are baptized, the main reasons we choose to marry, one of the main reasons that communion is such an important part of our worship – is that God appears to us through these sacred moments – they become theophanies for us, and we need these “outward and visible signs” that have the power to utterly transform us.

Bruce Epperly is a process theologian who writes about marriage and the sacraments of baptism and communion and of marriage he says – we don’t need the rings. But we want them. When we slide those rings on the hand of our beloved, they become an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and visible grace in our lives. We need the outward and visible signs that show we belong to one another and to God and it changes us. I fiddle with my ring on an almost hourly basis. I didn’t realize how used to that regular reminder of my covenant with Brennon and God was, until my hands were so swollen in pregnancy that I had to take it off. I was lost without that ring on my finger, that tangible reminder of our covenant with God and our commitment to one another!

These outward, tangible signs of God’s grace and presence – we need them.  Bread and wine – they help us remember whose we are.  Jesus knew that. That’s why he said, Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.  We need the physical reminder of Jesus’ love for us, which the bread and juice sustain us with.  The water of baptism – it does the same thing.

Every time we take a drink of water, wash the dishes, or throw boiling water into the air, that water can be a reminder to us of God’s presence with us. Water in its many forms can be a theophany for us!

When Martin Luther was in the darkest days of doubt and experiencing the pressures of the schism that was happening within the church – while hiding out in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, he would speak out loud these words. “I am baptized!” As if to say, “Bring it on, world.  Whatever comes, I will be okay.  Why?  Because I am baptized!” To be baptized is to know that through the water and the Spirit, God claims us and names us and promises to be with us no matter what.  

For Jesus, his baptism was the beginning of his ministry. This ritual with water and blessing was the start of all that was to come. All of his teaching, all of his serving. And so it is with us. Our baptism ushers us into ministry. It is the very beginning of a lifetime of service.

Through water, we are reminded again and again, all day long, that through baptism we are part of the broad, grand circle of God’s grace. Whether we feel like outsiders or insiders, whether we doubt or believe, whether we have hope or live with despair – God comes to us in the water and reminds us that we belong to God, and it has the power to transform us.

Today, we had the joy of baptizing Isaac into the family of God. And each of us will have many opportunities as he grows up, to remind him that he is a child of God.  That he is loved by God, and that he is loved by us.  Like the water that we baptized him with this morning – may our own words and actions also be outward and visible signs of God’s grace in his life.  It is wonderful work that we all get to be part of, isn’t it?

Isaac’s middle name is Ephraim, and I just read a prayer this morning that is attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian. “Lord, your symbols are everywhere, yet you are hidden from everywhere.  Though your symbol is on high, Yet height does not perceive that You are; Though your symbol is in the depth, It does not comprehend who You are; Though Your symbol is in the sea, You are hidden from the sea; Though Your symbol is on dry land, It is not aware what You are. Blessed is the Hidden One shining out!”

The Hidden One shines out, all around us, in outward and visible signs. This work of ours, to be outward and visible signs of God’s love in the world.  It’s sacred.  And thanks be to God, we get to work at doing it every single day!