Isaiah 42:1-9 • Acts 10:34-43 • Matthew 3:13-17
I know it may be hard to believe, but I have not always been the suave, macho, cultured, thick-haired, man’s man that you see before you today.
As a matter of fact, I was a pretty awkward teenager—especially in my middle school years. I was reminded of this last week when these texts and the subject of baptism came up, because I was baptized as a fifth or sixth grader. I grew up in a tradition that did not practice baptism for infants as well as adults, as we do, so infant baptism wasn’t an option for my parents, even though the church was always a part of my life.
So baptism came for me during my middle school years which, let’s just say, wasn’t optimal in my adolescent mind. I was shy, I lacked confidence. I didn’t have the rock-hard abs and chiseled features that I sport today—oh, and the realistic self-image!
What was going on that day, in truth, made little sense to me, although it mattered. Scavenging whatever dignity I felt I had was probably foremost on my mind. The last thing I wanted was to be noticed. And to be baptized was to be the center of attention, at least for a brief moment.
As you can perhaps tell, I may not have had the most clear and advanced theological sense of the meaning of baptism at that point in my life.
The rest of that day is something of a blur, although I do remember my wet hair, and that someone thought ahead to bring a towel for me, and the comfort of that towel wrapped around me after it was all over, and the surprise of many smiles and happiness and kindness on the part of these very same terrifying adults as we ate some cake in the basement after the service. I remember the unexpected warmth of people who were mostly a mystery to me at the time, and how surprisingly good it felt.
Now, I can say with some certainty, these were not auspicious beginnings for me. I certainly felt no sense in the room of my own limitless potential, I remember no glamorous expectations. The heavens did not split open. There were no voices from heaven. If there was any magic in the air, any cosmic reality at play, I missed it.
And yet, as I look back over my life, there is something to this moment and to its ability to capture the promise of God over the arc of my life, my well-being, my belonging in that community and in the world for something beyond me. You might say it was sacramental, at least in the sense of one writer who describes sacramental as a “moment when human and divine wills and actions collide.”*
I love that description. It seems to fit well with what we see in this remarkable poetry of Isaiah’s—imagining a creator who sees the ongoing life of the creation being a holy partnership of well-being that is mutual—shared by many, and joy that is such a stunning surprise: the collision of divine and human wills and actions. Listen to Isaiah the poet:
5 Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
But in the same breath, Isaiah picks up on that partnership, that collision of divine and human wills that is a mystery, a wonder, as much as it makes perfect sense when we consider it:
6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Now, nothing that I can see changed profoundly in that moment of my baptism. Your experience may be different. I did not suddenly and dramatically give myself over to God. But there was a sacramental promise made that day—a collision of human and divine wills and actions—that has played out in ten thousand moments just like that over the course of my life when people have given themselves to me, chosen, by God, to make choices for my sake and for the sake of the world in which you and I live.
You see, this is the promise of God that this Word and these sacraments speak in their own unique and convergent ways. They speak of a God who is well pleased, as Matthew puts it of Jesus. Or as Acts tells us, a God to whom we are acceptable—not in a sense that we’ve squeaked by, but in the sense of a mother who loves her children beyond imagination, a prodigal God who couldn’t be prouder or more hopeful for the well-being of the whole of creation. A God who simply wants you to give your life up in a way that you get in back in spades. A God who is love.
I know that for those of us who were raised in that good Scottish Presbyterian tradition, there is a healthy distrust of show. We who were raised to emphasize the work of the mind, and to value the honest work of our hands, we are naturally doubtful of the ritual actions that seem to want to manufacture some feeling in us out of nothing, some experience that may or may not be trustworthy.
I suspect that may be true for some of us, when it comes to remembering our baptism, and especially with the invitation to feel the waters over us once again. I know, because I’ve felt that way before too.
But here’s what I’m going to do today. When I feel the coolness of that water sprinkled on my head, I’m going to remember my wet hair on that day when I was blessed by a people I didn’t understand and was even afraid of, a people who took care of me in darker times that came later and in lighter times too, and I’m going to remember what it means to be part of something bigger than myself, of the gift that comes from you—all of which shapes me into what I am today—for better or worse. And I’m going to remember the water that rains down on the just and the unjust, as if it comes from a mothering God who could care less about the shortcomings of her children, whose dream is nothing less than the well-being of all her creation. I’m going to remember this fount of every blessing.
I wonder what you will remember.
Thanks be to God.
* Stanley P Saunders. Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Lousiville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 20.