Sermon, 1/9/2021: Tempus fugit!

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Psalm 29 Isaiah 43:1 – 7 Acts 8:14 – 17 Luke 3:15 – 17, 21 – 22

Where does one fit in?

A voice from heaven said, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Luke 3.22

‘Tempus fugit,’ said the ancient Virgil (Georgics. Bk. 3, line 284) The Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1342/43 – 1400) offered us an early English version of the Latin, when he wrote: “Time and tide waits for no man.” For me, though, the most beautiful and perfect expression of time is housed in the description of the Divine which Moses was to take back to the Hebrews. “Tell them that “I am that I am” has sent you.” God is there, always there, and over the Divine we of human born have no power. Today, if I could, I would place in front of the altar or in the transcept a screen, a huge screen, because I would project onto that screen some elements of time that have whirled around in my head, recently almost at such a speed, as to cause dizziness or vertigo. That intangible commodity which we call time moves forward, not backward, is irretrievable, and is independent of human endeavor or attempts to control it, even if occasionally time seems to stand still, to move slowly, or to rush forward as a mighty wind. We cannot recapture it, and nor can we advance it or mold it to our present or future needs or aspirations.

Although time continues its forward march, we benefit occasionally, when we slow down or declare a time-out, in order better to understand where, whither, and whose we are in life’s journey. In so doing, we follow the example set by none other than Jesus of Nazareth himself. After decades of hearing the Christmas story and participating in the hectic of celebrating the birth of God’s Messiah, even constrained by the pandemic, I am left with liturgical vertigo and ask, if we could slow down.

As I cannot project these whirlwind events onto a screen, I list these events of very recent memory in our liturgical lives that cause my dizziness:

  • Advent: four weeks, in which we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
  • 25 December: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the big celebration, scenes of a manger.
  • 28 December: Holy Innocents, the slaughter of Jewish boys, 2 years and younger, under order from Herod the Roman Ruler, in an attempt to eliminate an upstart king for the conquered land of Israel, but also, with the side effect of decreasing the size of future Israelites.
  • 1 January: Holy Name, acknowledging the name by angels, messengers of God, as proclaimed in the words of prophets of old.
  • 6 January: Epiphany. The arrival of the three kings or wise men who come to visit a new king of Israel.
  • Do not forget that, on their journey to Bethlehem, they had stopped off at Herod’s place, Herod who then tried to pre-empt their action. Do not forget also that their arrival was a clear sign that whoever that king might be, he was not solely for the Jews, but for the then entire known world.
  • The presentation of Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, where as a young lad, he astonishes the learned scribes and priest and religious elders with his knowledge.
  • The Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John, his cousin, son ofElizabeth and cousin once removed to Mary.

It is this last bullet point, the baptism of Jesus, that is most problematic. If one is not careful, when one comes to the account of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, coming so closely on the heels of the other events just cited, one is tempted to imagine the image of a small, defenseless baby or at least a child under the anxious supervision of overly protective parents, being baptized. But as that is not so, we ask ourselves where has time gone? [And then the baptism of Jesus raises a further problem, to which I come later, concerning the need of the Son of God to be baptized at all.]

By the time of his baptism, Jesus had long before stepped away from the shadows of his protective parents, Joseph and Mary, and out into the world as an adult, an adult on a mission. What we hear in Luke’s gospel today, is actually the story of transition and credentialing. Something was being established with this baptism, to which we are the beneficiaries. Today, without any fanfare, a timeline has been truncated. With the baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus begins the trek to Jerusalem and the crucifixion.

Baptism is a seminal event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as all the gospels(Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasize. And one may well conclude that this event had great significance in the life of the early church. The baptism of Jesus by John proved to be cause for debate among early Christians, for they did not understand why Jesus, God’s Messiah, God’s Holy One without sin, underwent a cleansing ritual calling for repentance for forgiveness of sin.

By tradition, it is the king who taps the shoulder with a ceremonial sword, to promote one to knighthood, not the reverse. By subjecting himself to baptism by John, it would appear that Jesus was putting himself into a position inferior to John. Moreover, in the account which Matthew gives us, from a socio-historical perspective, there were at least two movements underway at the time, that of John and that of Jesus. However, they were complementary to each other. Both had as goal the restoration of the Divine Will as voiced at the time of creation. Although Jesus expressed solidarity with others whom John had baptized, there was something unique that happened to Jesus. Jesus was “adopted” as Messiah and commissioned to be God’s servant. His baptism was his credentialing, his finding his place.

Despite what previous preachers may have suggested to you, this event in the Jordan River was not to make Jesus a Christian. Jesus was and is many things. However, Jesus was not our first Christian. This simple act of baptism holds a far greater and different meaning. Jesus did not need baptism as a symbol of removing his sin, not if we believe that Jesus was the sinless one. Indeed, the gospel states that even John the Baptist was dumbfounded, because Jesus came to him for baptism. Not only did John feel inadequate to untie the laces of Jesus’ sandals, but John sensed something deeper. He blurted out: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The answer to this question, I would suggest to you, lies in the closing sentence of today’s gospel: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God identifies Jesus as his own. He is claimed publicly as a member of the Holy Trinity. As John has recorded: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I recall today, all too clearly, accounts of children in orphanages in former East Bloc nations who had physical and emotional difficulties later in life because they had not received that special humanizing ingredient that cannot be quantified, but which is so essential to our growth, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. The institutionalized orphans lacked that sense of belonging, of being loved, of being special. And one does not have to look to the former East Bloc nations!

Not too many years ago in these United States, the news media were filled with the tale of a 12-year Florida boy who sued for and won a divorce from his birth mother, because she had failed to provide for him a home, a place where he sensed that he belonged. Now a young man, he is no longer newsworthy. Whether he has developed into his fullest potential, I cannot say. Nor can I say that the boy, now a young man, was baptized. I can, however, believe that he found what our baptism offers us: HOME!

In our baptismal rite, we ‘welcome the newly baptized’ with the following formulaic sentence: “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.” (BCP 308) Ritualistically we say: You belong. You have a home. In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we become a member of God family! We may quarrel with each other. We may leave home, go even to another continent. We may claim that the one or other of us is no longer part of our family. We may even renounce our baptism, in our disagreements with each other or in a fit of anger with God. But the truth of the matter is, we remain part of the family. And I, for one, will leave the final decision up to God to determine who is in and who is out.

The contemporary theologian, chaplain and preacher, William H. Willimon says about baptism the following: “To the question, Who am I? Baptism responds that I am the one who is called, washed, named, promised, and commissioned.” (Worship as Pastoral Care, Nashville: Abington Press,1979, pp. 154-156) He continues: “We who have been taught to look for our identity within the dark recesses of our own ego or through our own vaunted and self-serving deeds or by catching glimpses of ourselves while drifting from one transitory emotional experience to the next will find baptism’s response to our identity question somewhat disarming. It is disarming to be told that my identity, my status, my purpose are given rather than earned.”

In his submission to John, in humbling himself, Jesus gives us a means by which we reconnect with the ground of our being, a way home. Through the touch of the Divine hand in baptism, we, too, have been adopted into a family—God’s family, and a world of opportunities has been opened to us. In baptism we have a home. We belong! Amen