“Come On In! The Water’s Fine!” Sermon Jan. 15, 2017

 Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus is getting baptized in the river by John. And that’s our subject: baptism, a deeper subject than you might imagine. Of all Christians, Baptists should make the most of baptism. They first called us Baptists because we refused to baptize our babies and insisted that the biblical pattern for baptism was immersion. But we have never really bothered to develop much of a theology of baptism. We tend to treat it as a one-time and done experience. We think of it as individual and we call it an ordinance. Well, there’s more to baptism. Some church members never think of their baptism until they need a baptismal certificate from the church forty-five years down the road for some legal situation. Baptism has a sacramental nature that we mistakenly threw away when we rejected 17th century Catholicism. IT IS AN ACT OF GOD.

In the short story, “This Is the Only Time I’ll Tell It,” a baby named Silver is baptized. The baby is rescued from her violent father and 37 Presbyterians in the Appalachian Mountains voted to give the baby to one of their own, a woman named Zelene. We “told the State what we called a righteous lie about next-of-kin. There’s nobody can lie like a Presbyterian if he thinks good sense requires it. My wife’s people, Baptists, are a lot more soft-headed; one of them would have read his Commandments wrong and weakened someday. So they baptized Silver. And here’s where we often miss the deeper nature of baptism. The narrator says, “All of us natives took on our voted jobs. Some, during church hour, forked more hay into Zelene’s barn; others would lift Zelene’s hens and add eggs. My job was to keep track of Silver’s father and try to keep him from being paroled from prison.” Baptism is corporate, an act of the church. Baptism is a sacrament; an act of God. Baptism lasts forever. We have baptismal work to do every day for the rest of our lives. The water goes in us and never leaves us. We have entered the river of life and we are going with the currents of God’s purposes. Once you’ve been in the water, there’s no taking it back.

Will Willimon tells the story of a Duke senior who dropped by the office to inform Rev. Willimon that he wasn’t going to go to church any more. “Well, good luck if you can pull it off.” “What do you mean? I’m 19 and I can do what I want.” Just like a 19 year old. “You are baptized.” “What does that have to do with anything,” the student queried his chaplain. “Well, you try forsaking it, rejecting it, forgetting about it, and maybe you’ll find out. There are people here who care about you. They made promises to God when you were baptized. if you stop showing up people will start asking where you are and checking on you and praying for you. And there’s also God. There’s no telling what God will try with you. From what I’ve seen of God, once he has claimed you, you don’t get off the hook so easily. God is relentless in claiming what is God’s. And in baptism God says, ‘You belong to him.’” In a week or two he was back in his usual pew. The baptizers had done their work.

Baptism is not a one-time and done experience but a life time of working out salvation in fear and trembling. We need an Epiphany about baptism – a light to shine that shows us the road that leads from the river to the rest of our lives. And I know just the one to bring the light to bear on us – Jesus and his baptism at the River Jordan.

The most important words ever said over us are: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In baptism we are immersed in Jesus’ life, overwhelmed with it. “The waters close over our heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in Genesis, out comes a new world.” After all, the world was born out of the water. “Darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” And God separated the waters from the dry land. Call it the primordial baptism. God baptized the chaos and made it a world. In baptism we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in every form. In baptism we confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put our whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as our Lord. In baptism we unite with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The River” there’s an evangelist named Bevel Summers.[i] The preacher baptizes a boy named Harry and says, “You count now. You didn’t even count before.” In baptism you count.[ii] The world teaches us early and often to strive for status, and that’s not a bad thing. But the Bible’s word for status is “BAPTISM.” If all our insecurities were piled up in a heap, it would be higher than the highest mountain. If our insecurities were spread out across the land, it would be wider than the widest ocean. If our insecurities were distributed along I-80, they would cover the length of the country. If our insecurities were buried beneath the ground, it would be deeper than the deeper than the pits of hell. No wonder Paul prayed with such intensity that we would know the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us. Baptism is status. Claim your status. Take seriously the words of St. Peter: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” You are royalty. Do you know that? Do you feel it in your bones? Status! People may be smarter than us but they are not better. May be richer but not better; better-looking but not better; more talented but not better; famous but not better. If you have to tell people how smart you are, you are not that smart. If you have to tell people how humble you are, you are not humble.

As a baptized one, you are a child of God, a member of the royal family. You don’t have to be in the rat race. Remember if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.

In this world, we will sell our souls to the devil to attain status; in God’s kingdom, status is a gift. The devil used his most insidious temptations, the ones that work the best on humans, against Jesus. He offered him power, wealth, and being famous. These are the status-granting symbols, but Jesus was comfortable in his own skin: He was the exact image of his father according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Some rich people think they are the cat’s meow because they are rich, but it’s all illusion. And yet we work day and night to be somebody in the world’s eyes as if we don’t know we are already somebody in God’s eyes. The world’s word is STATUS. About 6% of the world is wealthy, powerful, and famous. The biblical word is BAPTISM, and whosoever asks may receive the status of baptism. When the world treats you if as you are nobody, all you have to say is, “I’ve been baptized.” I never understand the gnawing sense of “nobodiness” that afflicts some church members. There’s no reason for it. You have been redeemed. You have been called by God. You are a child of God and you bear the family resemblance. In Jesus Christ “nobody” is no longer a category.

Baptism bestows status, but it also eliminates scapegoating. Put this down: Baptism eliminates the human propensity for scapegoating. In the Hebrew Scripture there’s an annual ritual where all the sins of the people are piled on the back of a goat. This goat is then sent forth into the wilderness bearing all the sins of the people. In the King James Version this goat is called the scapegoat. The New Revised Version changes scapegoat to goat.The scapegoat was sent into the wilderness as an offering to Azazel. The King James Version leaves out this part. This is a pagan superstition but we should not be surprised at how often God’s people mix faith and paganism. Azazel may be the name given to the chief of the goat-demons, who haunted the desert and to whom most tribes offered sacrifices. In other words, Azazel is one of the many names for the devil.[iii] Scapegoating is a way of sending those we don’t like to the devil.

In his baptism, Jesus became the scapegoat of the world, and we are no longer allowed to scapegoat others. In Jesus Christ there are no more scapegoats. No wonder carrying that cross made him go so slow his killers took the cross and made Simon carry it. Each step Jesus took more and more of the sins of the world were being piled on his back. Our sins. Not the alleged sins of Mexicans, Muslims, liberals, Communists, or socialists. Our sins. That’s Jesus in the line marked for sinners. It’s our line and every single human being is in the line, no exceptions. Billionaires, movie stars, politicians, athletes, business gurus, professors, doctors, lawyers – everyone is in the line. No exceptions. We are all sinners. And there stands Jesus waiting his turn, identifying with us, getting baptized with us.[iv]

Jesus is there for the people that the high and mighty put down as the low and worthless. He’s there for the people not on the Forbes list of the wealthiest, or People’s Magazine’s sexiest, or Time’s most influential. Jesus sides with the outsiders, the devalued.

How hard this must be for those inclined to practice the magical art of demagoguery. In the arsenal of demagogues, the “scapegoat” is the nuclear warhead, the weapon above all other weapons. If you can scapegoat a group, put the target on their chests, then you can rail against them and blame them for your own failures.”[v] Scapegoating is the primary action of the insecure and anxious.

We are all prone to scapegoating. In The Passage of Power, the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson, volume 4 we learn that the Kennedy family and their staffs often belittled and made fun of Johnson and called him “Cornpone.” Well, Cornpone Johnson, who understood the politics of Congress, got the Civil Rights bill passed. The Kennedys were wealthy and famous so why the need to put down Lyndon Johnson? Insecurity. I also read The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The Kennedys, Irish Catholics, were looked down on by the Protestant establishment in Boston and denied entrance into their circle. Ironic isn’t it that even billionaires can be insecure and feel put down? You can never tell how people are going to react to being put down. Some rise above it to greatness; others fall beneath the emotional onslaught to arrogance, bullying, and treating others the way they were treated.

I believe that Jesus broke the status ladder into two pieces, shaped it into a cross, and died on it to eliminate our scapegoating of others. Jesus went through the waters as a stand-in for every person who has ever been devalued, underestimated, or made to feel ignorant, ugly, or inferior. Jesus would never make fun of anyone.

Children of God, remember that you have been baptized. If you are looking for status, we have a sacred place that we will fill with water and we will baptize you, and you will emerge dripping wet with status. And the voice from heaven, loud enough to be heard all the way to Chicago will cry, “You are my daughter. You are my son. I am so proud of you.”

So hear the good news this morning, whoever you are — feeling like you don’t count, believing nobody is on your side, facing surgery, grieving a loss, worried about your job, frightened because you can’t find a job, wondering if you are doing the right thing, wondering who you really are. Hear a word from God, a true word, a life-giving word: You are mine and with you I am well pleased. Come on in, the water’s fine.

[i] The Rev. Bevel Summers has a Roman Catholic understanding of baptism that rings with truth.

[ii] O’Connor shocks us beyond reason with what happens to Harry. He returns to the river and we hear his thoughts. “He intended not to fool with preachers any more but to Baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river. He didn’t mean to waste any more time. He put his head under the water and pushed forward.” O’Connor is one serious writer as she spins this tale of the baptismal death and life of the five-year-old Harry. Here’s what O’Connor says about her story: “I am very aware that for a majority of readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance . . . . Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief.” Her intention was to shock us into a recognition of what really occurs in baptism. We go under the water and we die with Christ; we rise from the water resurrected from the dead with Christ (Romans 6:4).

[iii] Leviticus 16:8 tells that the Lord ordered his high priest, Aaron, to ‘place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel’ on the Jewish Day of Atonement. The goat designated by lot for the Lord is to be used as a sin offering, while the goat designated for Azazel “shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.” (Lev 16:10) Aaron was to “lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated an. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (Lev 16:21-22) Leviticus also says that “He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may reenter the camp.” (16:26)

[iv] Isaiah felt this gospel in his bones all those centuries before: The servant of God, says Isaiah, “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces* he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53).

[v] Here’s the relevant passage from Leviticus 16: And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord‘s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.