Christmas Continuing

a newsletter article — slightly belated

Keep celebrating, because it’s still Christmas!
As I write this on December 30, it’s still Christmas. As you read this in early January, it will still be Christmas. Even if you get around to it in late January, there’s still a sense it could be Christmas.


I’m whatever it would be called for a Scrooge who is grumpy when people don’t celebrate Christmas enough. After months of holiday lights in stores and of songs on the radio, it all vanished on December 26. Symbols of joy were cleared away as detritus, bagged up and kicked to the curb with the tree, disposed of as if life could and should return to “normal.”


But we miss out by shortchanging the official 12 days of this season, from December 25 to January 5. We need more carols and candlelight, and probably would do well to keep giving gifts (though I’m not asking for lords a-leaping). In the darkness, in the cold, amid the bleak midwinter, huddled under our worries, we’d benefit from more celebration, more practice at joy, more brightness of outlook and demeanor.


Back to the 4th Century the Church celebrated Christmas all the way until Candlemas on February 2, following the timeline of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple from Luke 2:22. That made it a full 40-day season. (After all, why should the repentance of Lent take all the fun of 40 days?!)


What’s more, our sense of Christmas as the biggest festival of the year (followed now by Halloween, as our Confirmation class reminded me, based on commercial capabilities) is also a newer trend. Originally the big three were Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany. Christmas was a minor prelude!

I’d be in favor of not bypassing Epiphany. For our current calendars, the liturgical schedule of Christmas concludes with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. We celebrate that as the visit of the wise men (see Matthew 2 for your at-home festivities). We also celebrate the arrival of the light and ponder what this means for us at the shared Epiphany choral service on Sunday, January 8.


This is a bit different in Easter Orthodoxy, where the focus of Epiphany is the Baptism of Jesus, a festival that the west typically celebrates on the Sunday after Epiphany. An internet search for “orthodox epiphany” will show some of the fun they have with the occasion.


Amid too much date-keeping and liturgical minutiae, the main thing worth knowing (and which I mentioned in this space a couple months ago) is how they reflect on Jesus’ baptism. We typically think of the waters of baptism as blessing us and connecting us to God. Since we’d say Jesus was already blessed and connected to God, the Orthodox view is that Jesus blessed and connected the waters to God. It’s a great transposition. Jesus entered the Jordan River and hallowed those molecules, and through the logic of the hydrologic cycle—as waters flow downstream and evaporate and fall elsewhere as rain—now all waters have been blessed by Jesus.


That also serves for continuing our celebrations of Christmas. As Jesus is born into our world, into our flesh, breathing our air, then there is nothing outside of the touch of the sacred, outside of God’s presence. Our lives and this world are imbued with holiness. That means Christmas cannot be boxed up or put to the curb, because even the landfills and basement shelves—and yes, I have to admit, even the non-Christmas songs on the radio and the unadorned stores—are born with God’s presence.


So keep celebrating—that’s our new normal!
+ nick


sermon on The Baptism of Our Lord

(Matthew3:13-17, Acts10:34-43)


The first thing for today is an explanation and apology. Epiphany is January 6, and this festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is usually the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was last Sunday, but we were celebrating our choral service. So when you have to explain to friends and classmates and coworkers tomorrow that your church is a little slow, I apologize for that. We’ll see if we can fix it by the end.

In spite of our slowness, this was worth not bypassing. Actually, Jesus says that right in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist wanted to skip past it, to avoid the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus says, “Nope. We need this.”

We may wonder what about the baptism of Jesus we need, or why this is worth paying attention to. We may ask, does it tell us something important about Jesus, or is it because it tells us something important about us?

To start reflecting on this occasion, it sure seems that the baptism of Jesus is not like ours. I mean, we had nine baptisms here this past year, most of them when we were gathered together for Sunday worship services. You were here and part of those experiences. So how would you describe them? Nice? Community-building? Good to see young families and cute babies?

Nobody said that at a single one of those baptisms the roof was torn off the building, a bright light shone in on the child or a dove came to rest on them. And the voices we heard didn’t come echoing with the thunder but were plain old regular human voices. So we might draw distinctions that the baptism of Jesus was extraordinary, was special, very different from our baptism.

With that, another line is often drawn that our baptism washes away sins, but Jesus didn’t have any sins to wash away. Matthew doesn’t seem concerned about making that theological point in this story. I mention it partly because we have a bad conception of sin, mostly viewing it as the nasty little secrets and bad habits and quirky peccadilloes and guilty pleasures, but that is really a weak definition of sin.

More than that, though, this account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t trying to tell us about what Jesus isn’t, but who Jesus is. That gets obscured by how our lectionary chooses pericopes, or little snippets, lifted out of the larger context. Here are the verses right before today’s reading: John the Baptist proclaimed “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but a more powerful one than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and…burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (3:10-12)

Against all that fierceness, you could feel the tone shift as if our reading today began with a big but: but “then Jesus came.” John seems to have expected a tough guy, busting in, taking charge, tossing out the bums. But Jesus comes, not with the ax or burning chaff or in all his glory, but comes and asks to be baptized.

That’s the first important thing we learn here about Jesus. Asking what it tells us, while you could take it that Jesus needed to repent or was just a wimp, it’s better and more likely that his means and ends weren’t John’s. So he could be modeling what it’s like to turn from our own ways and toward God’s way. Or showing us that God’s grace is never earned but always received as a gift. Maybe he goes through with it so we can hear about the Spirit resting on him and the voice calling him the Beloved Son. Maybe it’s about the importance of baptism.

That raises the next question, of whether the baptism of Jesus is like our baptisms or is completely different. By the simple fact that there aren’t these miraculous phenomena at our baptisms, does that mean we’re left with something second rate?

I’d argue wholeheartedly against that. I firmly believe some of the point in this story about Jesus is so we can understand the same thing in our baptisms. Even though you couldn’t see the Spirit descending on you, and even though it sounded like my voice, or like some pastor’s voice, or whoever did it, still by means of your baptism, with that splash of water, God was declaring: I choose you. You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I’m pleased with you. That message of claiming you always and delighting in you no matter what is exactly the purpose and reason for baptism.

Your baptism expressly connects you to Jesus. Within our baptismal liturgy, that’s proclaimed in words of prayer saying, “At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.” That’s why the paschal candle is rekindled today, as a reminder that your baptismal candles share that flame, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrected presence. As we remember our baptisms in a minute, we renew the covenant connection with newness of life in Jesus.

That points to another aspect of reflection for this day. There have been times when we associated baptism with going to heaven, through the promise of eternal life. That was vital yesterday at the memorial service for John Goltermann, for example. It can be the central promise for baptism in newborn intensive care units.

But mostly, when we gather in church and when we need to think about our baptisms, it isn’t because we’re worried about going to heaven. It isn’t only about death and resurrection like rising from the grave, but is dying to an old way of living and newness of life we’re living into already.

We have some of that perspective from Martin Luther. Today you have in bulletins the first bit of his Small Catechism, and it will be most of the way through this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation before we get to the section on baptism, but for a preview, Luther reminds us that baptism means a daily dying and rising. It’s not only amid tragedy or after we’ve drawn our last breath, but is about how we’re rising to live each and every day. It’s not just an eventuality, but is actually changing you here and now.

This is similar to a discussion with Confirmation students and their families and mentors this week, that it’s foolish to think of Confirmation as happening once and for all, that in the spring of 8th grade you’re able to say, Yep, I agree with this faith and am interested in participating in it. Rather, every single day we could be Confirmed, could gather here at church and say to each other, here’s what I believe today and where I’m left wondering, here’s what I find important, here’s how I expect God is working in me and in this world. That every-day-Confirmation would be essentially the remembrance of baptism, the daily dying and rising, the repentance of trying to orient our lives on what God is calling us toward and working in us.

The ongoing reality of living as beloved by God and embodying that for daily existence was also the case for Jesus; if it would’ve only been about his death, about his ending on the cross and the promise of new life from the tomb, then Jesus could’ve been baptized near the very end of the Gospel. Instead he does it right away, so we know this promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit with him in all of his life, in all that he does, with the power to go “about doing good and [struggling against] the devil,” as we heard Acts describe his ministry. Again paralleling our lives, most of us were baptized as infants, not as an insurance against something bad, but as assurance that God’s blessing is with us in all that happens to us, throughout our lives and beyond, giving us power to keep doing what’s right.

I began with an apology that you’d have to say your congregation is a little slow, but also wanted to redeem that slowness. For your existence this week, you may need the promise of God’s presence and some hope for life. This week, as we face new beginnings which may be accompanied by worries and challenging tasks and so many possibilities of striving to embody God’s goodness in our world, here to conclude are words of encouragement and blessing from Martin Luther King Jr.:quote-our-only-hope-today-lies-in-our-ability-to-recapture-the-revolutionary-spirit-and-go-martin-luther-king-55-75-20

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole … This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [hu]mankind.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response.*

That’s what your baptism is for. Amen



* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244


Baptism of Our Lord (and last sermon for St. Stephen’s)

­sermon on Luke3:15-17,21-22; Isaiah43:1-7; Acts8:14-17


You called me here to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, so let’s start this sermon by seeing how well I’ve done (though that’s a scary thought!): what do you need for baptism?

With this, I want to teach you one final word: adiaphora. Adiaphora is a Greek word that means “matters of indifference.” You can almost hear in “adiaphora” the word “different;” it’s a word for when differences don’t matter.

Even if you didn’t know it, Lutherans are pretty good at living with adiaphora, with things that don’t make a lick of difference in the big sense. There are many, in lots of categories, but this morning we’re going to focus on baptism. For example, often babies wear white gowns to be baptized, which goes back to earliest ancient traditions of putting on new clothes, symbolizing new life, freshness and purity put on in Christ. But babies don’t need white gowns to be baptized. For that matter, we mostly baptize babies, because we consider it a good thing to have this assurance of God’s love always with you, but any age is fine and good.

For more adiaphora, we say it’s best in a Sunday worship service, the day of resurrection, when we’re together as the Body of Christ, but it could be another time in a private service. We mostly use special flowing fonts of water, but that’s not special holy water. In our understanding, it’s just plain water, so any water would do. It could be in big splashes or a dunking or just a few drops. It could be lake water, or from the Jordan River or a hospital sink, or (you’re no longer surprised that I would say this) water from a toilet bowl. Even if you’d prefer something more pious feeling than a tyke getting a swirly in the jon, in the overall theological sense it still “counts” as a baptism. Our preferences are largely adiaphora that don’t really matter.

There are more parts of the baptism: we process around the sanctuary, we light candles, kids give blankets, Rebecca calligraphs certificates, we read words from hymnals, we stand up and sit down. Our oil for anointing is from Palestinians in the Holy Land with frankincense ointment in it. We may consider any of those nice touches, or extra bits of symbolism and meaning.

But when we boil it down, none of that is necessary. It’s adiaphora. It doesn’t make a difference. In the end, what do we need for a baptism? Water and words (generally “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” though in our Acts reading it seems to have just been in the “name of the Lord Jesus.”) Oh—and of course somebody to speak those words from God.

And that person has sometimes, over these past 11 years, been me. Some of those I’ve gotten to baptize, to offer God’s words to, will be coming in from Sunday School in a few minutes. To be qualified as a baptizer, I don’t have any superpowers. Clearly I’m not any holier. It’s not even really having special authority; nurses baptize in emergencies. Family members have done it. But you’ve had me here, called and hired me, to be one you could turn to and expect that I would speak God’s promise to you and for you.

But that also comes around to highlight a peculiarity in this Gospel reading. Let’s see how well you were paying attention: Who baptized Jesus? It’s kind of a trick question, because of the verses the lectionary skips. Here’s the whole thing. So in Luke’s peculiar version, John the (so-called) Baptist isn’t told of baptizing Jesus. Luke doesn’t even give John the title of “the Baptist.” Although on the 4th Sunday of Advent we heard the story of their mothers meeting, of Mary and Elizabeth, and a child leaping in the womb, nevertheless in Luke there’s no story about John and Jesus meeting each other face-to-face. By the time Jesus appears on the scene, John is already gone, shut up in prison, on death row. Luke inserts that mention of incarceration, and only then goes on to tell about Jesus being baptized.

Yet we said that a baptism requires a baptizer. That’s not optional, not adiaphora. Jesus didn’t and couldn’t baptize himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, John argues and keeps protesting that Jesus should baptize him instead, but Jesus says, ‘Just do it.’ So why not here? Why, of four Gospels, does only Luke describe Jesus’ baptism in this way (or not describe it, we might say)? Well, I’m going to give you a couple possibilities, then try one more thought.

First, it could be that Luke is trying to downplay John’s role. We talked about that last month, how John was so popular and such a big deal with a huge following that crowds were even wondering or presuming if he were the Messiah. Jesus, then, almost could take a back seat. Imagine a concert where the opening band is a bigger draw than the main act. It would take some extra publicity and showmanship and staging to hype the other. Some figure that’s the situation here, trying to accentuate Jesus and downplay John’s persona by giving him a smaller role.

Another possibility I was reading this week is that Luke wanted to highlight the difference between John and Jesus, marking the end of one era and start of something totally new. Rather than being an intern who shared office space with John, in this case it is a clear division of different roles: John prepared, Jesus fulfilled. John was the era of prophecy, and Jesus came to reign as king. Having John out of the way may help clarify that distinction.

John’s discussion about baptisms may also accentuate these differences. He says he baptizes with water for repentance, a washing of renewal. It’s an understanding that you’ve made a mess and want to clean it up. Having done wrong you desire a sign of being able to start fresh. John seems to figure his baptism is still a chance to say you’re sorry and that you’ll try harder, but soon it’ll be too late and there will be no way to stop the punishment. Expecting this radical difference, John says Jesus will come with power and the fire will be unquenchable.

For that, I think we’d say John was wrong. That’s another point of this break in Luke. Jesus is not John, nor even what John expected. Later in the Gospel is a passage where from prison John sends investigators to ask Jesus if he’s really the one, since he didn’t come with unquenchable burning, but with unquenchable love, not to destroy but to create anew and to reinvigorate and revitalize, not to kill but to give life.

(To be fair, we could hear that in John’s words. Maybe instead of blanket assaults of destruction it’s the view of surgical incisions, with Jesus replacing all that is evil in you with his goodness, burning away the ugly corrosion of your sin to leave you gleaming and pure and valuable, exchanging your selfishness with holy gifts to share, even taking away your death to fill you with life. That’s actually a strong view of what the Holy Spirit it up to in your baptism, so maybe we should give John the benefit of the doubt and get past our own violent preconceptions of a vengeful God.)

Along that track of what God is accomplishing through your baptism and in your life, I want to try that one more thought on John being gone by the time when Jesus starts his ministry and things really get rolling: Today I can relate to John the Baptist no longer being on the scene, even if he did do the baptism yet being out of the picture when so much more good stuff was going to come from Jesus. With God’s blessing among you, it’s the assurance that the best is not in the past. It can feel confining that I’ll be shut off and away from you in these moments to come. It’s not quite with the sense of John in prison, but there will be that separation and inaccessibility. Just as John heard about Jesus through others’ reports, as you continue forward I’ll be off receiving messages of the amazing things for life and renewal that God is accomplishing in and through you.

With all of that, once more I want to tell you there’s nothing wrong here at St. Stephen’s that I’m running away from, and nobody is making me leave. It just was a time, and a new opportunity, and a decision, and always with the expectation that God is working for the good in our lives wherever we are. Yet for the hurt and sorrows and worries and brokenness that remain as I go, for missing your lives, I apologize and trust that forgiveness and redemption are, as always, at work among us.

That’s the heart of this faith we proclaim and share. Trusting and believing that, as we have together for these past years, I also once more want to say how good it has been share with you as the body of Christ. As I’ve gotten to be in this role, two words I most frequently have found myself using are “honor and privilege.” It has been an honor and privilege to serve as your pastor, striving in this role to convey the love and blessing of the God who created you and redeems you, sharing that promise and that new reality.

This indicates one more distinction for us from the baptism of Jesus in Luke, where the heavens were opened and God’s voice thundered to speak the promise. We don’t look to the sky, but repeat that message, listening for God speaking through other voices. You need a preacher to tell you you are God’s beloved child. That is not among adiaphora. It’s not optional, and it does very much matter for your lives. We need to speak the promise to each other, otherwise we won’t hear it and know it and trust it. And this message itself is essential, necessary, the furthest thing from adiaphora.

Finally, then, I want to turn to our words from Isaiah. They are so astoundingly chock full of good news and promise that I almost ignored Luke entirely, wanting to stop our day’s Bible readings after even just one verse from Isaiah. Here it comes again, one last bit one last time. Even as I prepare to depart, I get to proclaim a message that abides and remains with you forever, speaking from God for you:

“Now, thus says the LORD, who created you and formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, says the LORD. [Troubles] shall not overwhelm you or consume you, because you are precious in my sight, and I love you.” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!