January 8, 2017
Baptism of Jesus Sunday
Anthem: Hidden as a BabySenior Choir
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
A few weeks ago, and again on Christmas morning, we heard the story of the wise men, the magi, coming to Israel, asking about Jesus from Herod, going to offer their gifts, and being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they go home by another way.
This morning’s story begins where that one leaves off.
God’s messenger tells Joseph in a dream to get out. Herod is coming for them. Herod will brook no challenge to his power, his privilege, his place. He sends those at his command to kill all the children who are the right age to be this child born King of the Jews.
Here we have a conundrum. There is no historical evidence that Herod actually sent people out to kill the children of that age around Bethlehem. And despite the way it has become popular today to believe that opinion is the same as truth, evidence does matter.
That said, there is plenty of evidence that this is something Herod would have been willing to do. He killed family members and others who threatened his place, privilege and power. He was prone to acts of anger and vengeance. He was perfectly willing, as was the empire of Rome which he represented, to use violence as a means to his own ends.
This is the world of the Gospel. This is the backdrop against which Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, healings, transfiguration, mission, prayers, betrayal, death, and resurrection take place. It is a world where violence is used to protect power, privilege and place.
It is like the third stanza of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the one that most of the hymnals, including our own, dropped from the song. Maybe it was dissonant with the softness of the music. Maybe it rang too true.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Different times. Same backdrop.
When Jesus comes to John, the Gospel says John recognizes him. He just got finished praising him, and here he comes.
No, sir! (John protests)
You should baptize me!
You are the one I have been waiting for!
But Jesus gives John an answer that he can accept:
Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us
in this way
to fulfill all righteousness.
This baptism scene does not make much sense, other than John being in holy awe of Jesus. Except in light of the backdrop of violence for the sake of privilege, place and power, it starts to become clearer.
People will follow Jesus. Let them follow him into the water, and out the other side. Let this world of toil and sin be washed off of them. Because they are going to have to change everything about who they are and how they do things to follow Jesus.
Baptism is our entrance to the church. More liturgical church often mark this more fully by placing the baptismal font between the narthex and the sanctuary.
Baptism means coming out of the world where violence, physical or emotional, verbal or spiritual, threatened or realized, is used to protect privilege, power, and place. Baptism means entering into covenant, entering into new relationship with ourselves, with one another, with creation, with God.
That’s all well and good and churchy language. What does it mean?
Coventry Cathedral is in the West Midlands of England. Coventry itself was heavily bombed during the Coventry Blitz by the German Luftwaffe in World War 2, and the Cathedral was destroyed.
The provost at the time, Richard Howard, had words carved into the wall behind the altar in the ruined church. He could have had anything carved there.
- “Never again.”
- “Fight to the last.”
- “No quarter.”
- “Death to Germans.”
Instead, he had engraved: “Father Forgive.”
The ruins were real. The struggle of the city was real. The pain and death were real. The enemy was real. The danger was real. The violence was real. And the desire for revenge was surely real.
But rather than call for violence in answer to violence, Rev. Howard called for reconciliation. That church has become a center for the work of reconciliation. They pray a litany of reconciliation every day at noon. On Fridays, they pray it in the old ruins. And the prayer “Father, forgive” is the response:
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation,
race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations
to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands
and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare
and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight
of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies
of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted,
forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
We follow Jesus. Otherwise we are a social gathering, a service club, a place for good food, anything but a church.
We follow Jesus. Through the waters of baptism, out of the world of violence for the sake of privilege, place, and power.
We follow Jesus, into a covenant of loving one another as Jesus has loved us, of loving one another as we love ourselves, of loving our enemy. Anything less is to be of the world and not the Good News. Anything less is to follow Herod and not Jesus.
Now, if you are like me, this is daunting. Thoughts of revenge are too easy. Pain is too easily answered with causing pain back. We let the sacrifice of children happen in places we don’t go: like Aleppo, or Thailand, or Flint, or where folks are too poor for us to hear their cries.
Lord, how is this possible? With us, it might well be impossible. But with God… with God, all things are possible.
Thanks be to God. Amen.