Baptism: What’s It All About When You Sort It Out?

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred)
January 15, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

“I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus.”  In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Alfie is a 1966 British romantic comedy-drama that tells the story of a young womanizer who leads a self-centered life, purely for his own enjoyment, until events force him to question his uncaring behavior, his loneliness and his priorities. Alfie frequently breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera narrating and justifying his actions. When a health check reveals Alfie has tubercular shadows on his lungs, the diagnosis, combined with his separation from his son, leads him to have a brief mental breakdown. Alfie is released from the home and meets Ruby, a voluptuous, affluent and promiscuous American.

The stress of multiple situations arising from his inability to commit to any relationship of substance leads Alfie to decide to change his non-committal ways and settle down with the rich Ruby. However, she has lost interest in him and taken up with a much younger guy. Alfie is left lonely and wondering about his life’s choices and asks the viewers “What’s it all about? You know what I mean.”

Burt Bacharach penned these lyrics for the film’s theme song:
What’s it all about, Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?

When we look at the scene presented in the Gospel today, when we think about the times we’ve presented someone to be baptized, when we imagine what our own baptism was like, we might ask the same question: “What’s it all about? What’s it all about when you sort it out?”

Today we are at the River Jordan. The baptism that John was offering had its precedence in the Jewish practice known in John’s day. To receive converts to the faith, Jewish religious leaders would sometimes guide converts into a river as a symbolic cleansing of their souls. The baptizer would stand beside the person in the water and recite appropriate words from Hebrew Scripture. This was a sign of their belief and reception into the faith.

But, the baptism of John was somewhat different. He was not baptizing converts to Judaism, but members of the Jewish community who were looking for a new way of life. He was immersing those who were persuaded by his powerful preaching. This was not a baptism of conversion, but of reversion; it was a sign of turning one’s life around, of redirecting one’s life toward God. Over John’s protest, and as a sign of his humanity Jesus came asking for the same baptism that was given to others and God used this opportunity to reveal to the world that this Jesus was God’s Son. That’s the back story of baptism in first century Jewish community and why Jesus likely chose to let John baptize him in the Jordan. What about baptism for us? What’s it all about—when you sort it out?

I suspect it’s a mixed bag. Some of us grew up in traditions that taught that baptism was a required cleansing from sin, yet many of us were baptized as tiny babies for whom it was impossible to sin. We were taught about something called original sin, the legacy of Adam and Eve. Even more perplexing is that we may have been part of a denomination that said that the unbaptized could not go to heaven. They went to some mysterious place called “Limbo.” There are traditions that don’t allow baptism until one almost reaches adulthood and many that deny the Eucharist to those not baptized. What’s it all about—when you sort it out?

In his book, A Season for the Spirit, Martin Smith writes of a new perspective on the Baptism of Jesus, describing the fleeting film images that struck him when he saw The Gospel According to Matthew. It shattered any idea Smith had of Jesus standing alone before God. Instead, Jesus is surrounded by masses of people who are in the water, being baptized with John along with Jesus.

When we come together to baptize or to renew our own baptismal covenant it is really about togetherness; about belonging and being a part of a community of faith.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “If we could but recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious world would come into being.”

And to revisit my referencing Alfie, a person who could not sustain any relationship of substance and mutual accountability, and in contrast to that way of life, I believe that we celebrate baptism and renew our baptismal covenant to make public our commitment that we want to be children of light; that we want to follow Jesus—even when we are confused or not entirely sure how to do that.

In this post-modern era many have given up on religion, especially religion that is oppressive, superficial or hypocritical. Yet I believe that people are more aware of our need of divine grace, want to believe that Jesus is unique and not just a “good guy” or another prophet, that God is somehow, mysteriously and beyond our understanding, active in the world, that, if anything, want a faith community that offers the world hope and “Good News,” that looks and sounds and behaves like an authentic community called together by Jesus.

The first people who chose to follow Jesus didn’t make that decision based on doctrines or theology or canon laws. They made that decision based on a personal relationship with Jesus, on their belief that here was someone who embodied all that was good and holy and whose message brought them hope for a better way of life, a new way to live that would make a difference in what was, and still, is a very troubled world.

I think people want to be part of a faith community that stresses acceptance and honesty, encourages questioning about faith and the scriptures, and that truly wants to follow Jesus in creating an economy not based on exclusion but on embrace.

Baptism: What’s it all about—when you sort it out? I think it is evidence of our common desire as God’s people to live in the world with meaning—an imagined possibility of what can be with God’s help, a ritual that generates a sense of vitality and purpose. Jesus, at his Baptism, acted on his dream—the dream of God—that he would be the Messianic power that would change the world. When he disrobed and waded into the chilly waters of the Jordan, he embraced that dream. When we raise up a child or adult in baptism, when we stand and face those waters and renew our promises to follow Jesus, that dream awaits us. That splash of water on our forehead, that aromatic oil tracing the cross on us, the resolve to say again and again to solemn promises, “I will with God’s help,” says that Christ’s light shines out to all of us—to illumine the darkness we may fear. It comes as friend to brighten our lives.

Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes, “The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed. The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, our theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold is to be transformed to another dominion, to be cut lose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and reborn. Baptism takes us there.”

Yes, that’s what it’s all about when you sort it out. At times it may be confusing and overwhelming but what I know for sure is that I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus, the star of my life.


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