“Loved Free Of Charge”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 12, 2019: Baptism of Jesus
On this Sunday each year, churches all over the world celebrate the baptism of Jesus. It is the moment in Jesus’ life when his identity as God’s chosen one is revealed to the world and it is a moment that tells us so much about the God we worship and service. But frankly, the baptism of Jesus hasn’t really been given the time and attention it deserves in the yearly rhythm of the Church’s life. It could be that we’re still coming down from the high of Christmas and we simply can’t celebrate another thing. It could be that the ancient ritual of baptism doesn’t really mean as much to the modern world as it did to the world of Jesus. It may even be, sadly, that baptism doesn’t really matter much at all in our world. Whatever the case may be, I want to spend this time with you today reclaiming the glory of Christ’s baptism and the grace and love that rains down on us when we are baptized like him.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John present us with four narrative accounts of the life of Jesus. Each of these accounts was written by a different author at a different time for a different community of believers. Each of these accounts has an agenda, if you will, a way of telling Jesus’ story as a way to tell a bigger story about God’s activity in the world. Two tell the story of Jesus’ birth, while only one tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Three give us a glimpse into Jesus’ family while one says that Jesus had no family because he was the creative force working with God from the beginning of time. The Jesus of Luke is a healer, a teacher, a companion to the lost. The Jesus of Mark is fierce like a lion, ripping apart corrupt structures and hypocritical religion. The Jesus of John is cosmic, larger than life.
Now, for as different as the gospels are one to the other, all four narrate Jesus’ baptism before they say anything else about our Lord. For the gospel writers, everything starts at the river where Jesus is taken down and brought up and proclaimed by God to be beloved. Despite the beauty and sentiments of the nativity story, and despite the long family line of Jesus that includes some of the greatest figures in all of history, the river is where it all starts. It is only after his baptism that Jesus goes into the wilderness for his first battle with the devil. It is only after his baptism that Jesus looks with compassion on the blind, the disabled, the outcast and tells them walk in newness of life. It is only after his baptism that Jesus ascends a mountain outside of Jerusalem and tells his disciples and followers who is blessed in God’s kingdom.
At the moment of baptism Jesus was claimed and called. Sure, the angels sang at Bethlehem, but God’s voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by Someone special and called to do something special. This is the moment in God’s history with humanity that the entire narrative changes. God had claimed people from the beginning, but this was different. This is the first time that God speaks directly to the human race about one of their own being a beloved child in whom God is well-pleased. God was pleased with Moses and Aaron and Ruth and Esther and Ezekiel, but God had never spoken from the heavens to confirm that it was true. At Jesus’ baptism, God was so filled to the brim with pleasure and love that God could not help but shout the good news for all to hear. At the river, Christ was named someone, someone special, someone loved, someone called to live in a special way.
It is because of this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life that you can be assured that you too are someone, someone special, someone loved, someone called to live in a special way. The Christmas hymn Once, In Royal David’s City says, “Jesus is our childhood’s pattern: day by day like us he grew, he was little, weak and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feels for all our sadness and he shares in all our gladness.” The very basis of our faith is that what we experience in life, Jesus also experienced and what Jesus experienced in life, we also experience. His life is our life and the favor and love and grace that was showered down on him at baptism is the same favor and love and grace that is showered down on us at our baptisms. At some point in time, a voice spoke your name and said, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus made it so.
In the church where I was an intern during seminary I knew a man who was an example of all good things, decent and helpful to everyone. He had a wise and compassionate faith and he used that faith to give guidance to those in the church and in the community. But, by his own admission, he had not always been that way. In a stunning testimony one morning to a congregation of folks with their mouths wide open, this man admitted to us that from the time he was 18 until he was 24 he had seen the inside of a jail cell nearly 20 times. “My record,’ he said, ‘was literally as long as my arm.” He wasn’t a violent criminal, just always looking for trouble. And if he didn’t find the trouble, the trouble found him. “But then,’ he said, ‘I met Sarah—a kind, sweet, smiling girl who loved me no matter how bad I had been. She loved me so much that I wanted to live up to her love. Finally, we were married and I’ve spent my whole life trying to make her happy.” Finishing out his testimony, he said something I’ve never been able to forget. He said, “The truth is, Sarah loved me into loving.”
That is the first and greatest lesson of what it means to be baptized. God claims us in baptism. God send unearned and unconditional love our way through baptism. In baptism, God loves us no matter how bad we have been. We call this grace, and there is no place in our lives as Jesus’ followers that grace is so clear. This is my beloved, God says to each one of us. I have chosen this one, God says to each one of us, not by their merit by my mercy. I have chosen you to be a part of my family, God says to us, I chose you to possess a divine legacy from me. I have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. That’s the message of baptism, one which should grip and inspire us. We are claimed. We are called. We are loved.
I once read about a man who works on a minimum of two Habitat for Humanity houses each year. He’s quite a gifted carpenter and can get twice the work done that someone like me can. Some years he works on five or six houses, but he has made both God and himself a promise to always be working on a least two. And he’s been able to keep that promise for nearly 30 years. When asked about the inspiration of this ministry, he told a fascinating story. After returning from Vietnam, he struggled to readjust. He had no close family or friends, so he drifted from town to town and job to job. The one thing he did have was a talent for carpentry, so he could usually find a building site that needed an extra hand. Finally, in a small midwestern town, he signed on to help build a development of six moderately sized and affordable houses. He told the foreman that he would be happy not only to do carpentry but also to provide security for the building site. The foreman agreed, so the carpenter brought a sleeping bag with him to spend the nights on the site.
And he did this until the project was done. The owner of the construction company was impressed by the man’s abilities and commitment, and also aware that apparently the man had no other place to sleep. At the close of the project, almost two years in the making, the business owner took the man aside and said, “I want to thank you for what you’ve done. And I want you to stay on with the company.” Then he handed the man a set of keys and said, “The sixth house we built is yours. Take it.” “But I can’t pay for it,” the carpenter said, to which his employer said, “You’ll find a way.” “My volunteer work,’ the carpenter said, ‘is how I have repaid the generosity I experienced all those years ago. At least twice a year I work to put a roof over the head of someone who needs it, just as someone put a roof over mine.”
That’s baptism, my friends. It is a warm roof over your head. It is a warm roof over your head and a solid foundation beneath your feet. It is a warm embrace around your shoulders when the world starts to feel crushing. It is a strength in your heart when you face loss and uncertainty and anxiety. It is a joy in your soul when all the signs point to something else. It is love free of charge. God has claimed us, asked us to stay on with the company, and be a part of the family. And that act of grace loves us into loving. As we remember our baptism today and every day, and as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and life that he gives to us, we are so overwhelmed by being claimed that we suddenly feel called. As the spirit of God descends on us like a dove and settles into our hearts, we want to pay all the favors of grace forward, sharing with others the gift that has been shared with us. Love, free of charge.
Remember your baptism today, my friends. Remember your baptism and be grateful. Remember that you are someone, someone special, someone claimed by God, and called by God to pay it forward. Remember that your identity is in the waters and that there is nothing—nothing in heaven or on earth or below the earth, no powers or principalities or princes or rulers, nothing that has been or is to come, nothing high or low of even from the depths of hell that will ever be able to separate you from God’s love. You are beloved, and in you God is well pleased. Praise the Lord! Amen.