Sermon preached for Baptism of the Lord Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.”
Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—altogether there were about twelve of them.
In the early 1800s, a young woman named Isabella went into the woods of New York to talk to God.
She built a temple there. She bargained with God, in a way that she could not bargain with anyone else in her life, because she didn’t have the power to.
Isabella was a slave.
But she talked to God like an equal. Believed God would treat her like her life mattered. Like her suffering shouldn’t be a given. Like she was a person created in God’s own image.
She was 31 years old when she heard God call her to get out. To leave the abuse of people who thought they could own another person behind, even if that kind of life was all she’d ever known. She took her baby daughter, Sophia—whose name meant wisdom—took Sophia and walked off the farm.
Sophia was her fifth child, but the only one she was able to save that day.
Isabella rose up from that temple in the woods and she walked to freedom, and if that was all there was to her story, it would be miracle enough.
But that’s not the end.
Isabella found friends in a white Methodist couple who lived nearby, who took her and Sophia in and protected them until the New York State Emancipation took place the next year. The year after that, they helped Isabella take her former owner to court. He had illegally sold her five-her-old son, Peter, into slavery in the south.
It gave her a taste for advocacy, and for the rights that should have always been her due. But it was not until she got caught up again in the work of the Holy Spirit that her life’s purpose began to take root.
God had once called Isabella away from her own slavery. Now God called her to fight injustice for the sake of others.
Isabella told her friends: “the Spirit calls me, and I must go.”
As a child, Isabella was sold into slavery four times. Each time her last name was changed to that of her owner. In 1843, Isabella chose her new name, to reflect the only one who truly had any claim on her: Truth. She called herself Sojourner Truth, and went west to preach the truth God had entrusted her with, truth she knew in her bones: that every person, regardless of race or gender, deserved to be treated with dignity and compassion. That neither skin color nor body parts made anyone less worthy in God’s eyes. And that a nation that purported to be Christian should be a little more concerned with how God sees.
No longer alone in the woods, Sojourner was now center stage. Her very presence as a black woman challenged notions about whose voice should be heard in the public sphere. She met presidents and suffragists and preachers. In some places she was cheered and in others she was spat on. And she did it all to live out the faith she clung to with all her might.
When people asked if she had been baptized, Sojourner would reply, “Yes. By the Holy Spirit.”
It was that baptism in the Holy Spirit that gave her the strength to persevere. The strength to speak out in a world that still had little problem killing people who said the kind of things she did.
I wonder how many of us take our baptisms so seriously. How many of us remember that in our baptisms God has given us everything we need to be Jesus-followers in this world.
Baptism is more than just a welcome party for new Christians (although it is that, too). It is certainly more than a churchy version of a baby shower. Baptism is our springboard into the Christian life. Whether or not we are old enough to know it at the time, at our baptism we are claimed into a life that is larger than ourselves. Claimed by a God who is larger than we can ever imagine.
Perhaps we should think of our baptisms as less of a gentle sprinkling or a dip in a calm pool, but as walking into a rushing river.
God’s call is going to sweep us off our feet, sooner or later. It may even feel like that current, that powerful current of the Spirit, is trying to drag us under. But if we don’t fight it, we may find ourselves taken some amazing places.
Jesus rose up from the water of the River Jordan to find the heavens torn apart overhead. It was not sweet. It was not quaint. It was a sign of God’s power, power that stops at nothing to let us hear that word “Beloved.”
This is what God says, the first time God speaks in Mark’s gospel—this is my son, the Beloved—listen to him!
We know what Jesus said. To the outcast, the enslaved, the wounded, the unwanted, he said: you are loved. You are healed. You are forgiven. You are mine. You are called.
Called to something other than this suffering. Called to something extraordinary.
And to those who would abuse their authority, who would choose power over mercy and wealth over the well-being of their neighbor, he would say words like this: you will be held accountable. You will be judged. Because you are loved. And because you are mine. And because you are called, too, even if you refuse to hear it.
Called to something other than causing suffering. Called to something extraordinary.
Over and over and over again, listen to God’s son, the Beloved, as he turns that love outward, shares it with those who would follow him and betray him and worship him and ignore him. Takes that love he was immersed in at his baptism and scatters it far and wide.
In our baptism we are claimed by love. Completely and entirely. Claimed as beloved, just as much as Jesus was. And claimed to be loving, just as much as Jesus was.
Sometimes that love will be sweet, like a cup of cold water on a hot day, and sometimes it will be fierce, like the roar of waters that carve riverbeds from stone. But each time we make the choice to love, to love as recklessly and sacrificially as Jesus loved, we live out our baptisms.
And so the reverse is true as well. When we make the choice not to love; to hide from God’s call; to see ourselves as less than beloved; to treat our neighbor as less than beloved because of their skin color or body parts or education or paperwork or homeland or zip code or anything; when we let love fall by the wayside because it seems inconvenient or inefficient or costly; when we fail to rise up and meet the Spirit coming to rest on our shoulders—that is when we betray the baptism God has bestowed on us.
Racism is a betrayal of our baptism. Sexism is a betrayal of our baptism. Bigotry is a betrayal of our baptism. Every word and act that dehumanizes, devalues, damages one of God’s beloved children is an affront to the waters of grace from which we rise.
We might as well spit in the baptismal font.
Friends, we were called to more than this. More than fear and hatred and distrust. More than hedging our bets about whom God truly calls us to love and whom God is okay with us merely “tolerating.”
We are called to a different kind of Truth. The truth that God is love; and that whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.
This kind of love is radical. Two thousand years ago, it tore apart the skies. When Jesus rose up out of that water, he knew what his life’s purpose would be: to embody God’s love, no matter the cost.
And I give thanks that throughout history, there have been women and men brave enough to follow his example. To rise up tall, even in a world that would rather see them shackled, and say that they are God’s beloved, and that they will not tolerate being seen as less.
Over 150 years ago Sojourner Truth drew herself up to her full height—six feet of it—and told this country that people were not objects to be bought and sold, or grabbed and assaulted, or profiled and stereotyped. That each person on this planet is a child of God, and should be treated that way.
So this week, if someone tries to tell you that you are anything less than Beloved, with a capital B, I want you to draw yourself up to your full height—whatever that might be—and remember your baptism.
You are claimed. You belong, body and soul, to the One whose name is Love.
And this week, if you are tempted to treat someone you meet, or see, or hear about, as anything less than Beloved, then I want you remember your baptism too.
Love is what we are called to. Love is what we are made for. Love is the water from which we rise.
May the spirit give us the courage. Amen.