Readings – Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 1-17, 21-22
We are still decorated for the Nativity, for the birth of Jesus. Last week we celebrated the revealing of the Christ-child to the world as the Wise Men from afar arrived for a brief visit. And today we jump, scholars tell us, about thirty years to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. This day is one of the recommended days for baptism, and we will look at our liturgy for baptism in a few moments.
Let’s first review our readings. Isaiah’s reading is a powerful one. Do not fear, this is a constant theme through these weeks of celebration, words spoken to Mary, words spoken to Joseph, words spoken to the shepherds. Our God, as Isaiah reminds us – created us from the dust, forms us from birth to death, redeems us when we go astray (and we all go astray from time to time), and most importantly, calls us (as the hymn states) “just as we are” into faith-filled service. This faith-filled service may include “through the waters”, “through the rivers”, “through fire”, and our God will always be with us. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that we are precious in God’s sight; we are “honored”, and even more, we are loved by God. Precious, honored, loved – Can it get any better than that? Yes, it can. God declares, “I am with you”.
Psalm 29 makes it clear that one of the ways we know God’s love, that we know of God’s abiding presence, is that we hear God’s voice. It is a powerful voice. God’s voice is “upon the waters”; God’s voice “breaks the cedars of Lebanon”; God’s voice “splits the flames of fire”. God’s voice “shakes the wilderness”. God’s voice strengthens God’s people. God’s voice blesses us with wholeness, with fulfillment, as we serve. Let me say that again, we are blessed as we serve.
The reading from Isaiah and Psalm 29 is a prelude, they set the stage, for the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John. There is no explanation given of how Jesus came to be at the Jordan River that day, perhaps he went with a group of friends. You have to wonder if this baptism served as the confirmation of what his mother Mary had been telling him from the day of his birth. Perhaps he said to her, “Yeh, Mom, I know the story”, but at his baptism, he himself hears God’s voice. The Gospel texts are unclear about the voice, was it heard only by Jesus or was it heard by the others gathered at the river that day? And did the others gather there to see the descending Dove? What was declared by God that day was life-changing for Jesus– that voice sent him into public ministry. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”
So let us note – 1- he is baptized, 2- he is declared the beloved son of God, 3- he enters into public ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism and being driven into the wilderness to be tempted, to determine what shape that ministry was to take. The Gospel according to John has him the very next day recruiting friends to join in this new public ministry. Again, note – the water baptism, the declaration of love, the embarking upon reflection, and public ministry.
Now we are ready to turn to our liturgy of baptism, Book of Common Prayer, p. 301. Here we have the presentation of the candidate by parents and godparents. Do you see the word “love”? It is not there. P. 302 has the responsibilities of the parents and godparents and includes three renunciations and three affirmations. Do you see the word “love”? The third affirmation is “Do you put your whole trust in [God’s] grace and love?” P. 303 asks of all those present, “Do you promise to love the one being baptized as God loves her?” No, it is not there, is it? On P. 304-305 we come to the Baptismal Covenant. The fourth question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Love here is something we promise to do. P. 305 in the Prayers for the Candidate we hear, “Teach them to love others”. This is what the baptized are to do. On p. 306, again for the baptized to do, “Send them into the world to witness to God’s love”. On pages 306 – 307 in the Thanksgiving over the Water, there is no thanksgiving for the love God has for this person to be baptized. In the prayer on the top of page 308 at the very end, we petition that the newly baptized love God. The priest then declares, “…you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The liturgy before moving to the Peace and the Holy Eucharist, has the entire congregation declare – “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”
WOW! I think we have some work to do with our liturgy to conform more fully to the Gospel according to St. Luke. We need to make abundantly clear the LOVE OF GOD FOR THE NEWLY BAPTISED. We need to make abundantly clear that the newly baptized are beloved of God. Perhaps we would begin with:
“You are a beloved daughter of God” or “You are a beloved son of God”. “And we rejoice and give thanks for you.”
“And we will strive to form you so that you will have no fear in being the person God created you to be.”
“With no fear, you will walk through the waters, you will walk through the rivers, you will walk through the fires of life and you will not be overwhelmed.”
“God loves you this day and all the earthly days to come, you are a beloved God.”
For the gathered at the baptism, perhaps we would declare:
“As you are loved by God, so we will love you”, and
“As God walks with you, so we will walk by your side.”
Finally, for those gathered at the baptism perhaps we would also declare:
“We are the People of God, engaged in God’s work as hands and feet of the Gospel, and we invite you to walk with us and share with us God’s love in thought, in word, and indeed today, tomorrow, and all the days to come.”