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!


Pants, Fig Trees, & Beneficial Distinctions

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 Jan 15

John1:43-51 Psalm139:1-6,13-18 1Samuel3:1-11 1Corinthians6:12-20
Since a bunch of you asked about them, here’s my much ballyhooed pair of pants, the ones made famous by Tim’s sermon last week.

2015-01-18 12.31.50

The story is I crashed my bike riding to one of our Monona outreach events. They’d been a gift, were still pretty new and hadn’t gotten used up, so I patched ‘em. Mostly I dress nicer for work, but I did wear these for the “God’s Work. Our Hands” project on Homecoming Sunday since we were going to get dirty serving at Winnequah School. Nate McConnell saw the red patch during worship and was worried I was bleeding.

Today I wore them not just to showcase but to make a point, or to raise distinctions of what counts as a distraction versus being central to faith, a question of what’s appropriate and right and beneficial.

It comes up in part because of our Gospel reading, with one of my favorite Bible verses, because it seems so random and quirky (which, you probably know, appeals to me). The line is when Jesus tells Nathanael “I saw you under the fig tree.” Yet Nathanael reacts with a ridiculously astounded confession of faith: You saw me under the fig tree? Wow! You’re God almighty! It’s goofy. Almost no commentators in the history of Christianity give it any special value or meaning.

Sure, figs pop up on occasion in the Bible. In a different strange story, Jesus cursed a fig tree because, out of season, it had no snack for him. Adam and Eve made the first clothes by sewing together fig leaves. Through the Old Testament the sweet fruit of fig trees, along with grape vines, signaled an established home. Maybe that’s what this fig tree is doing located here in the Gospel of John, signaling that Nathanael was at home. Instead of being a fisherman out in his boat as we’ll hear with calling disciples from Mark next week, maybe Nathanael is a landlubber hanging around the farm. Or maybe he was lazy and taking a snooze in the shade. It could even be that it was someone else’s tree and he was stealing figs.

Probably the fig tree doesn’t really symbolize anything about Nathanael or his relationship with Jesus, remaining an obscure, trivial detail.

But that would be just fine, because the overall point is that Jesus is concerned about you, in all the obscure, silly, trivial, asinine moments and details of your life. Nathanael could’ve been in a boat. He could’ve been in school or in a jail or at a store. It just so happens that he was under a fig tree for whatever reason, and that’s where Jesus found him.

Which brings me back to my pants. I usually dress up more, and believe there’s still value in “Sunday best” clothes fitting God’s extreme goodness to us. I try to look nice during the week to respect and acknowledge that the Lord is with you (just as we declare in our greetings), making all the moments of your life important. Still the reverse side of it is needing to remember that God is with you even when we don’t look our best. Even in hospital gowns or shabby sweat pants, still the presence of God abides with you. Are you getting the feel for these distinctions?

To go beneath your clothing, our Psalm proclaims that your body is created by God with care and delight. There’s no regrettable part of you that so ultimately disappoints God, no blemish or infirmity that would make God stop loving you. God declares that you look marvelous. We could probably extend that to your clothes. You don’t need to be embarrassed of your clothes, or put extra weight onto them as if something fancier will make God like you better.

Again, we could look at the official garments for worship. Our white albs that we wear to lead worship are actually not supposed to be fancier garb (or pajamas as Jim Wiskowski suggested this morning). They’re supposed to be equalizers. They symbolize all of us being washed clean in baptism, that we’re all pure in Christ. On the other hand, in 11:00 worship, Tim and I don’t wear these white garments. Since these seem more formal, or specialized, we dress instead to look more familiar. Between these two sides, it’s tough to say that one is right and one is wrong. Neither is a petty choice. Both are trying to make a connection between faith and our lives.

One more similar example: Today I put on my red Chuck Taylors. That’s not to match the patch on my pants. To coordinate I would’ve actually preferred wearing green to go with the liturgical color for the day. I chose these because at one point a dozen years ago, I’d written on the bottom “Ephesians 6:15.” That verse says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever enables to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Clearly these shoes aren’t the only thing fitting for proclaiming peace in Jesus. But they can fit the bill, even here and now.

To take a bit different approach, let’s return to our 1st reading, of God speaking to a young child. We learn God may call us even when we don’t understand it. God may have something to say not only when we’re sitting in church alert and listening for it, but also in our sleep.

Yet that raises further distinctions. The reading doesn’t mean that the only place you can hear God’s voice is when you go to bed. It doesn’t mean that every dream you have is God trying to call you to a new way of life. It doesn’t mean you can only perceive God’s voice when you’re young before your hearing goes. Again, as the Psalm nicely says, God knows your sleeping and your rising up, watches you as you roam and as you rest, from before your birth until long after your death, God surrounds and holds you.

Martin Luther King covered similar ground in writing, “the worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of intellect, her racial origin, or his social position. In the ultimate and final Christian analysis, human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he or she has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ pass away as determinants in a relationship and ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ are substituted.”*

It’s into the midst of this kind of difficult and vital question of society and ethics under God’s unconditional love that Paul tries to navigate in our 2nd reading. If God’s love will never let you go, if your clothes or your body type or your age or your personality don’t determine or prevent God’s blessing for you, then what? “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes. Nothing can cut you off from God, won’t make God punish you. From the smallest harmful choice like junk food to even something so extreme as fornicating with a prostitute can’t take you away from Christ. As he says in another place, clean or messy is nothing, law-breaking or law-abiding is nothing, but that we are a new creation in Christ is everything! (Gal6:15)

So does that mean anything goes? Are holey cords—that is, corduroys with holes in them—really the holiest choice? Is it alright just to hang out under fig trees? Could Samuel just as well have gone back to sleep, preferring a bit more shut eye instead of having to pay attention to the word of the Lord? If Christ has freed you from the bonds of sin, should you really feel free to sin against other people, or your loved ones? Should you abuse yourself and creation?

Well technically you could.

Your identity is held in Christ. You are claimed as a beloved child of God and member of this family. You are fundamentally a citizen of his kingdom, a creature of his new creation. You are a Jesus person. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That will be true no matter how you look or how you act. There’s no lightning bolt coming to expel you from this place.

But it’s also true that you’ll serve your neighbor and glorify God by not graffitying up or littering the temple with junk. The question for the day is not if you’re a better disciple than somebody else, if your behavior is more important or holier. It’s more a question of distinctions on what’s beneficial. What will most enable you and others to live into this new reality of God’s abundant grace. What inhibits and what encourages following that beautiful invitation from Jesus of coming to see?

Hymn: Baptized and Set Free (ELW #453)

* “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in Testament of Hope, p122. Edited for inclusivity.

postscript:  It was with full irony that I talked about my trivial clothes after starting worship with this word of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail:
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon blacks, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading us to higher levels of justice.”