An Outward Sign of Inward Grace

Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 12, 2014
Isaiah 43; Luke 3:15-22

 

You can watch and listen to this sermon on our youtube channel here.

I think human beings are naturally expectant creatures.  I don’t know how we got this way, but we have a tendency to get really, really excited or extremely anxious about things in our future.

Now sometimes that excitement or that anxiety is completely warranted. If you are a fan of anything with a lowercase i in front of it – you know like i-phones, i-pads, i-pods, i-puppies - you’re probably in good shape.

Apple has a pretty good track record when it comes to delivering products that live up to their buzz. If you love Peter Jackson, Beyonce, or the Pope, I’m thinking you have plenty more excitement to look forward to in the years ahead.

However, if your tastes run more toward the work of say, Gore Verbinski, Justin Beiber, or anyone who makes a living in Washington, you’re probably in for some disappointment. There will be hype, for all of these folks and what they do, I just don’t know if any of them will be worthy of it.

And if you’re a Red Sox fan, I’ll just say it’s dicey. But for you folks I think the anxiety is actually part of the excitement. Am I right? I don’t get it, but you all seem to enjoy it, so more power to you.

Over the last few years I’ve seen people get really worked up about a whole slew of random things, everything from Dancing with the Stars to the dancing of Lana Del Ray, Miley Cyrus to the Mayan apocalypse – which are not the same thing, just to be clear.

I think we’ll always be looking over the horizon for the next big thing, be it good or bad.  It is just how we’re wired; and this is nothing new.

Take a look back at the people in Jesus’ day. They loved listening to John the Baptist. And who wouldn’t?  I mean the guy was a total freak show.  Seriously. People, the man ate crickets; ok?

But he was good.  He knew how to touch people, change people, reach right inside them and trip that little wire of anticipation that gets us all riled up.  And the more dire he sounded, the more seriously his audience responded.

Like the tent revival preachers of old, John the Baptist moved people out of their comfort zones into places they never expected. He confronted them with truths no one else was brave enough to proclaim. So much so, that people began to wonder whether he was the messiah.[1]

To which he replied, you wish.  No, no, no, no, no, no, listen, he said, if you think I’m something special,` wait till you see the next guy.

‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Now John was pretty intense. So intense that if the messiah he had come to prepare them for was going to be even more intense, I for one would have been totally freaked out. Not so freaked out that I would have left, mind you.  Oh no, I would have been just freaked out enough to stay and see what was coming next.

I would have been all excited to see this guy with his winnowing fork and his fancy sandals. Having already been baptized by John with water, I would have longed to know what it would feel like to be baptized with Spirit and fire.

Like those crazy people who camp out for days on the side walk to get concert tickets or the latest gadget, I would have bedded down by the river Jordan and waited to see this messiah in action.

And just like those people who actually did, I probably would have been mystified, maybe even a little disappointed, when the big guy finally arrived.

Because you’ll notice that when Jesus comes, he comes pretty quietly. There’s no entourage or fanfare.  Unlike John, Jesus doesn’t have any disciples yet, so he just comes along by himself.

There was no winnowing fork, as far as I can tell.  Heck, coming from a town as poor as Nazareth, chances are Jesus probably didn’t have any sandals on either.The way John made him out, one would have thought that he’d appear in a tricked out chariot, robed in glory, sporting bedazzeled Birkenstocks and a flaming triton.

But when Jesus finally reaches the river Jordan, no one even notices, at least not at first. Because you know what Jesus does when he gets there?

He gets in line, just like everybody else.  Like an ordinary man, Jesus takes his place in the queue and waits his turn with all the other humble souls so that he can be baptized too.

And friends, this is really rather awkward when you think about it. It was a baptism of repentance after all, a baptism meant to prepare people, cleanse them, get them ready for the coming of the messiah. So why, if Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one, the great judge and refiner of souls, would he want to be baptized too?

For Jesus to submit himself to the same cleansing ritual as all the common people around him is really odd when you think about it.  So odd that maybe the oddness is the whole point.

I think Jesus’ actions in this story are a profound statement, a testament to just how fully he embraced his identity, not just as the son of God, but as the son of man. He didn’t ask for special treatment.  He didn’t require that people bow down and worship him wherever he went.

Instead he walked among us as one of us, bowing down himself, more often than not, the better to hold people and heal them, cleanse and forgive them, because he loved them as his own. Jesus identified with us.

In choosing to be baptized like everyone else, Jesus shows us just how fully he embraced his own humanity -even and in spite of all it’s indignity, and in doing so shows us just how fully he embraces us in ours.

When Jesus, the man, came up out of the water, Matthew tells us that, “the heavens were opened, 16and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove…. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.’

Jesus is so very human in this moment, so limited, so finite, so seemingly insignificant, and yet God the Father and God the Spirit love him and celebrate him in this moment, love him and celebrate him in all his humanness.

He is called, he is recognized, he is blessed for being human; as are we all, for as Isaiah reminds us, God has called us all by name.

“Do not fear for I have redeemed you, you are mine....Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.
Bring everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and whom I made.”
Bring everyone.

I think Isaiah and Jesus go to great lengths to remind us that we are all God’s children, each and everyone beloved, be we strong and bright or bruised and broken. The mere fact of our existence is pleasing to him.
So when we are baptized here in the church, yes there is the symbolism of dying and rising, the symbolism of washing away sin and standing refreshed and clean in the light of God, but there is also a sense in which baptism is not so much an act that accomplishes something, as it is an opportunity for us to acknowledge something that is already true.

In church circles we say that baptism, like all sacraments, is an outward sign of inward grace.  It’s a nice turn of phrase that simply means that from the moment you were born you were a child of God, beloved and pleasing in God’s sight.

Baptism doesn’t make that happen.  Baptism doesn’t even make that official.  Baptism doesn’t change that by somehow kicking it up a notch, because the truth is, nothing on earth can change that, not even you.

Baptism simply affirms for us what God already knows… and longs for you to know as well: that you are his child, that you are his beloved, and that with you he is well pleased.

A few years ago I came upon a story that captures this truth with heart breaking clarity. It’s a story I’ve shared with you before but I’d like to share it again because it speaks so clearly to the power baptism has to name us, shape us, and claim us. It is the story of a woman named Fayette, as told by her pastor, the Rev. Janet Wolf.[2]

The Rev. Janet Wolf used to serve as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, a church she described as wildly diverse; full of “…people with … PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’

Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—“this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination.

Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”

The day of Fayette’s baptism came, and Janet describes it thus:

Fayette went under the water, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.

Then two months later, Janet received a phone call.

Fayette, (like so many women who live on the streets), had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So I went (says Janet). I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved….’

She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’

***

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“You are my Son, my Daughter, my Child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

My friends, know right now deep in your heart, that nothing can change that.  Know that nothing in heaven or on earth can ever take that away. For baptized or not, you were made in the image of a God who loves you, a God who will hold you as loosely as you require, but a God who will ultimately never let you go.

Thanks to her baptism and inclusion in Janet’s church, Fayette was able to lay hold of that truth and trust that God, having laid hold of her would hold on to her forever.

My hope for you today is that you will lay hold of that truth as well, that you will step beyond the bounds of fear and expectation into that sacred place where “we are all named by God’s grace with such power it can’t come undone.” Amen.

[1] Luke 3:15

[2] Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room.) I found this on Jan Richardson’s blog at  http://paintedprayerbook.com/. The story has been lightly edited and paraphrased in parts for speaking purposes.