Pastor Rick Danielson
Do you remember your first day of school? Maybe the start of kindergarten. Your heart pounding as you walked with other neighborhood children toward an uncertain future. Or that huge step up into the big yellow bus filled with unfamiliar faces. That first day was a life-changing moment, and many of us can remember it clearly. There was a little girl who came home after her first day at school and was asked by her Dad how things went. “Not very well, I guess,” she answered, “They want me to come back tomorrow!”
The first day of school.
In the beginning when God created, there was darkness and wind and water. God spoke, saying “Let there be light”, and there was light. The light was called ‘Day”, the darkness was called “Night” – evening and morning – the First Day.
The first day of creation.
John the Baptizer stood by the river, looking like a scary ancient prophet as he pushed Jesus’ head under the water. Up Jesus came, shaking the water from his hair as God’s own voice was heard, saying “This is my son!”
The first day of Jesus’ public life.
Those of us old enough to remember the 1960s, and I’m guessing that’s many of us in this room, recall the street wisdom that found its way onto countless posters that proclaimed “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That statement is variously credited to the director of a drug rehab center in Los Angeles and a theater troupe in San Francisco. Even John Denver got in on the act with a song containing the refrain, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life, I wake as a child to see the world begin.”
The world begins – God creates – and God speaks – “You are my child – the one I love.”
First days are important. For Jesus, the first day of his public life set the stage in a most dramatic way.
Every year, immediately after Epiphany, on “Baptism of Jesus Sunday,” we read the Scripture about Jesus’ immersion in the Jordan River. The words of Mark may sound familiar, since most of them were also read in Advent when we saw John the Baptist announcing the coming of Jesus. We’re just going a little farther in the story today.
In December, I shared the experience of driving down a narrow, dirt road on the West Bank to reach the site of John’s introduction of Jesus. When we got there, Leroy and I found that we were alone by the narrow stretch of muddy water where Jesus was baptized. We had purchased bananas from a roadside vendor in Jericho, and we ate them along with some take-out falafels. It was a quiet place to reflect until three tourist buses arrived. Everyone wishing to be baptized was required to wear a long, white gown rented from the gift shop. A picture of Jesus in the river with a descending dove was stamped on the front of each one.
We watched as the pilgrims assembled on the broad steps leading down into the river. Two groups from African countries gravitated to either end of the steps. Those in one group playfully dipped their feet in the water, while the other group conducted a formal service with preaching and full immersion baptisms. In the middle, a dozen Italian women stood knee-deep in the river as they clutched rosaries and crossed themselves and prayed in unison. Across the river, in the country of Jordan, but almost close enough to reach over and touch, was a group of Korean tourists wearing matching khaki sun hats. They held hymnals and sang Gospel songs in English. Leroy and I knew those songs and sang along. Playing, dipping, preaching, baptizing, crossing, praying, singing. It was an unexpected and amazing multi-cultural experience. And it happened where Jesus heard the words that tumbled out of the sky: “You are my beloved child.”
We don’t use the word “beloved” very often. It’s sort of old-fashioned. Maybe we hear it at a wedding: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today….” Who wouldn’t want, though, to hear another speak of them as “beloved”? It’s like a step beyond just being loved. It has a tone that suggests intimacy. Of being extra-cherished by someone who is very important to you. The voice is not recorded as having said “This is my divine offspring, the eternal Son issuing from the Creator of the universe.” Instead, the voice spoke these simple, intimate word, “This is my son, who I love.”
Do you understand yourself as beloved, and do you perceive others as beloved as well? Jesus clearly did, and I imagine that in those post-baptism, still-dripping-wet moments in the river, time slowed as Jesus absorbed the message of his belovedness and was filled with the certainty of God’s river-drenching love for every other person. The crowds who walked through canyons and desert sand from Jerusalem and Judea looked on with wonder as Jesus stepped from the water and began his mission of self-giving love.
One year ago this Sunday, I asked someone to videotape my sermon because a search committee in Boulder, Colorado had asked for video proof of preaching ability. They didn’t say it quite like that, but that’s what they meant! The sermon that day was about Jesus’ baptism, of course, and I told a couple of the stories I’m sharing this morning. The committee reviewed the video on Craig Martin’s massive projection screen, where my head was probably four feet across. Afterward, they interviewed me by Skype, and I was asked the question: “How would you present this sermon in a church where not everyone identifies as Christian, and where not everyone listening has received the sacrament of baptism.” Wow. I don’t remember what I said or whether it was a good answer of not. At least I’m standing here a year later. I do ponder that question from time to time, though, especially today as we come back around to Baptism of Jesus Sunday.
There is something significant here for everyone, I think. Baptism is about inclusion, being incorporated into the body –or the family – of Jesus. That family is far greater and broader than any human distinctions, and this congregation in particular values religious as well as human differences. The water flows among us whether we fully identify as Christian, or whether we primarily identify with this diverse family, or if our main commitment is learning and following the ethical teachings of Jesus. For everyone, the occasion of Jesus’ baptism is a reminder that we are all the beloved of God and we choose to call one another the beloved.
We could also ask this: What about those who are not part of this family at all? Who do not even care about the person or the message of Jesus, or perhaps haven’t heard it? What about those who actions offend us deeply or who resort to violence to overpower and destroy others? When Jesus left the water, he walked toward Jericho into Judean wilderness where he was tempted.
If left there today, by the narrow road leading from the baptism site, he would see signs on either side warning of mine fields.
We’ve heard more than our share of bad news this week. Terrorist acts in France resulting in many deaths, and the bombing of an NAACP office right here in Colorado highlight the darker side of humanity. We can’t just pretend that all is goodness when we look around us. Hate and even terror are not that hard to find, and perhaps if we dare to look inside we can even acknowledge that we have participated in unloving acts ourselves. We have hurt others. John the Baptist urged repentance at the river. He said “do an about face.” “Change your mind.” “Get in the water.”
We come back to the river, reminded of who we are: the beloved. We remember that every person engaged in violence, whoever and wherever they are, is created by God and therefore is beloved as well. Acts of terror call us to redouble or triple our determination to walk in ways of love and justice.
In the first church that I served, deep in the hills where the Appalachian Range touches the south of New York State, five adults and youth asked if they could be baptized. None had received the sacrament as a child, and all were new to a structured faith community. We met to discuss baptism, and I described the three modes – or methods – of baptism historically used within the Christian Church. They sort of huddled and then told me they would like to be immersed in the creek that ran near the church. It sounded like an adventure to me, so I was in. One morning in June I led the congregation from its tiny white frame building down the dusty country road to the old swimming hole. There, with the help of a lay leader, I immersed each of them in the narrow, muddy river, and sent them scurrying up the slippery bank to towel off in the sunshine. One of the baptized, a young woman who sang in a country band, played her guitar and sang a twangy but beautiful song written for the occasion to express her joy. We formed a circle, young and old, Ninety-four year-old Aunt Nathalie grasping the hand of her four year old great-grandchild. Bread and juice were passed around the circle. It was a profound experience of being church together. Then the picnic baskets came out, and dinner on the grounds was held under a massive oak tree. Just when I thought it was all over, I heard a holler, and watched as Judith Archer, community leader and public school teacher, sprinted across the meadow in her flowered dress and leaped into the swimming hole. Before long, many were splashing in the creek and expressing the joy of that day: the joy of being the beloved of God.
This is the first day of the week. It’s the first month of the year. And we remember the first day of Jesus’ public life and ministry. A lot of firsts. For many people, baptism is their first visit to the church as an infant. Every time we hear about Jesus in the river and remember those words “You are my beloved child,” it is a moment to renew our determination to follow in the way of Jesus. As water is joyfully scattered from our baptism bowl this morning, and as you hear the words “Remember that you are God’s beloved,” you are invited to respond with the words “Thanks be to God!”