If the World is On Fire, Why Are We Talking About Baptism?
“If the World is On Fire, Why Are We Talking About Baptism?”
A sermon on Matthew 3:13-17
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
By Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
January 19, 2020 – Baptism of the Lord (A)
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
I don’t know about you, but it’s only January and I feel like 2020 has already been a really long year. On the news, we have impeachment proceedings, tension with Iran, wildfires in Australia, and debilitating ice and snow in Independence. In our church, we’ve had four funerals in six weeks, and those who have worked with our presbytery know that Stated Clerk Sally Hinchman passed away very suddenly on Friday. It’s been cold, stressful, and more than a little depressing.
With all that in mind, it feels a little odd to show up to church and celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. This is a liturgical holiday where we commemorate Jesus’ baptism, which began his official ministry, and remember our own baptisms. It’s a holy day, but one that very much centers around shared experience and tradition. There are ways in which, sometimes, our focus on things like baptism allows us to ignore the world. In discussing how to celebrate this day in one of my online pastor communities, one colleague said “Really? The world is poised on the brink of disaster and this is what you are thinking about?” She furthered that many pastors would hide behind traditions to avoid addressing the real concerns of the world. I disagree with her, but not because she’s wrong.
It’s a fair question: if the world is on fire, why are we talking about baptism?
My answer is this: In Baptism, we are given the opportunity to renounce evil’s power in the world and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. And y’all, nothing is gonna turn around this world except Jesus.
Our Lord and Savior was baptized in a hot mess of a world, in a muddy river by his cousin who lived out in the hills, and proceeded on a three year ministry where he was mostly homeless and ended up on a cross. As sweet and pleasant as baptism can be today, let’s make no mistake – Baptism is our introduction to the journey with Christ, and his journey is anything but easy. Sometimes I wonder if we should stop giving out baby Bibles and certificates and start handing out crash helmets. Baptism doesn’t protect us from the world, it leads us into the world with Jesus in the front and the Holy Spirit pushing us from the back.
If the world is on fire, why are we talking about baptism? Because when we proclaim that each child is called and claimed by God, we proclaim that we believe in a world where every human being is important, where justice is not a nice idea but a divine mandate, and where each one of us is a leader in God’s Kingdom. Baptism makes us siblings in Christ bound together by water that is thicker than blood. Baptism proclaims that the brokenness of this world will drown and be raised as new life. The promises of Baptism can be heard in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed that one day his children would be judged by their character rather than their skin color, who dreamed that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” who dreamed that “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low”[i] Baptism roots us in God’s ancient promises that we are redeemed for a new creation in which justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[ii]
If the world is on fire, why are we talking about baptism? Because in our baptisms, we proclaim that the world can go another way. We proclaim that we follow not the whims of governments and storms and death, but we follow in the footsteps of Life. Baptism puts us on the shores of Galilee, dripping with grace, and answering God’s call to follow. Baptism is sufficient to make us leaders in our church, elders and ministers together, called to serve God’s purpose. Baptism reminds us that we can always turn from sin and be turned toward holiness. It drives us, starving, to the Table of Grace so that we can be renewed to participate in God’s Kingdom. Baptism washes our eyes clear so that we see not just the horror around us, but God’s goodness flowing into every empty space in our universe. Martin Luther – the old, German Lutheran Martin Luther – when he was really down was said to yell loudly “I have been baptized!” to remind himself that no matter his sins, no matter his obstacles – God had claimed him and made another way. Baptism lets us see the world not for what we think it is, but for what God is making it to be.
If the world is on fire, why are we talking about baptism? Because there is no more profound way to change the world than to remember that God claims us, calls us, and compels us into life. Baptism proclaims that we believe forgiveness and redemption are possible for everyone, no matter if we’re innocent babies or well-seasoned sinners. And on this day, when we remember both Christ’s baptism and our own, we are reminded that baptism isn’t just a sweet family ritual that happens inside the church, but an earth-changing promise that God is working to redeem the world even now. This day, the Baptism of the Lord, isn’t just an incidental holiday. It’s a yearly reminder that we are the people of God, cleansed and nourished to proclaim the good news to a hurting world.
And so, my friends, especially if the world feels rough to you now: Remember your baptism, and be thankful. Amen.
[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream,” speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. Text quoted from < https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm>
[ii] Amos 5:24