Sermon Text ? Matthew 3:13-17
Another Christmas season has come and gone. Many of us gathered in this space throughout the Season of Advent to await the coming of the Christ child. We journeyed together to Bethlehem. We gathered at the manger, bringing our Christmas hopes inscribed on small pieces of paper. We tucked them delicately into the straw where the baby Jesus rested. We celebrated the Season of Christmas for twelve days. We saw the star at its rising and we came with the Magi ? those wise sages bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh ? and we brought ourselves as gifts.
And now the season has passed. Most of us have probably taken down our trees. Advent calendars and wreaths are tucked away until next year. As I was pondering the end of the Christmas Season earlier this week, I was reminded of that beautiful poem by civil rights leader Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,?
When the star in the sky is gone,?
When the kings and princes are home,?
When the shepherds are back with their flock,?
The work of Christmas begins:?
To find the lost,?
To heal the broken,?
To feed the hungry,
?To release the prisoner,?
To rebuild the nations,?
To bring peace among people,?
To make music in the heart.
The work of Christmas begins after the trappings of Christmas are put away.
The church?s baby Jesus has been tucked back into his resting place for the year. Not to take away any sense of wonder that you might have about the doll that appears on Christmas Eve, but he resides in the baptismal font throughout the rest of the year. It?s a purely practical move ? we need a place to store that big manger and the baptistery makes a great storage space?just the right size and not used too often.
But on this Sunday, when we gather to hear the story of the Baptism of Jesus, it strikes me that it also has symbolic resonance. The infant Christ is packed away into the font each year ? our Christmas hopes still cushioning his bed of hay. And we, the people who seek to follow the Christ, turn now to the season of Epiphany, which begins with the story of Jesus?s baptism in the Jordan River.
If the work of Christmas is truly what Thurman supposes it to be?to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, and more?.well, I don?t know about you, but I am going to need a lot of help if I am to find the strength to do the work. What can sustain us, Christ?s followers, in this vital work?
I think we find the answer in today?s text from Matthew. Each year, we get a different Evangelist?s take on the baptism of Jesus. All three of the Synoptic gospels tell the story of John?s baptism of Jesus and the details are remarkably consistent. In each of the Gospels, the baptism takes place at the beginning of Jesus?s public ministry. Jesus is gearing up for the work he has been called to do ? ?to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry??and all of those things Thurman calls the work of Christmas. And as he prepares to do that work, he comes to John seeking baptism.
Of course, we don?t know why Jesus wanted to be baptized. Some are troubled because they think of baptism as being a purely ?forgiveness of sins? thing and they don?t like the idea of a sinful Jesus. But I can?t help but think that part of it is that he knew he had many days and nights of grueling work ahead and he just needed to find a way to prepare himself. And so he came to John, seeking what so many others had sought: A moment in the water. A moment to pause and recommit himself to his identity as a beloved child of God. A thin place where he could touch the Holy and remember God had been with him all along.
Baptism is an ancient practice and has been many things to many people. One of the things that baptism can do is sustain us for the difficult work we are called to do as followers of Christ. When I read this text from Matthew, I am reminded that the thing that can and will sustain us to do the work of Christ is the same that that sustained Jesus ? the gift of the Holy Spirit as it alights on each of us. The simple and powerful truth that Jesus heard as he came out of the water ? ?This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,? ? that same powerful truth is offered to us, as well. And those words can sustain us in our most challenging moments.
Now, this may seem like a total departure from the subject at hand, but stick with me. Martin Luther ? you know, the one that lived in the 16th century and stirred up a lot of trouble with the Roman Catholic Church ? Martin Luther likely did not know what he was getting into when he first started voicing his complaints about the institutional Church.
Before long, he found himself imprisoned. He was taken to a castle for his own protection ? after being kicked out of the Catholic Church there were lots of people who wanted to harm him. He hid there in solitude for almost a year.
Day after day he worked away on his translation of the Second Testament, but he also spent a fair amount of time just wallowing in his misery. His health was poor and he was lonely. He argued with God and felt abandoned. His spiritual journey was at an all time low.
Throughout this year-long struggle, Luther found his hope in three small words. Every day, he would write the words ?I am baptized? on his desktop.
?I am baptized.? That reminder that he was God?s beloved child and that God was well pleased with him were enough to sustain him during the darkest night of his soul.
I believe that baptism is an outward sign of what is already internally true for every person ? it is the way that the church gathers together publicly to witness to the astounding truth that we are all children of God and that God is well pleased with us.
Through our baptisms we do what Jesus did: we accept God?s love and feel it rushing over us in one of the most vital elements in all of creation ? water. Through that water and the spirit the mundane mingles with the holy and, before we know it, we are in over our heads, going places we never thought we?d be going, doing things we never thought we?d be doing.
And ? through it all ? we carry in our hearts those three words Martin Luther wrote on his desk while in prison: ?I am baptized.?
It?s a pretty amazing feeling. If you aren?t baptized, by the way, and you?d like to be, please just say the word. We would love to be a part of your baptism.
Baptized or not, God has called us by name. We are God?s own children. God loves us and is well-pleased with us.
I recently had a chance to see the film Saving Mr. Banks in the theatre. It is the story of how Walt Disney had to convince author P.L. Travers to entrust the Disney corporation with her beloved character, Mary Poppins. She did not want to have Mary Poppins made into a film, but really was left with no other choice because she desperately needed the income. Along the way, there are many flashback scenes to Travers?s childhood in Australia as the audience is taken on a journey to discover who the real Mr. Banks was and why he needed to be saved.
One of the themes that plays out in the film is the importance of names. P.L. Travers is very particular about her name and when she comes to California to work with the folks at Disney, she recoils as people call her Pamela or Pam and ask to be called by their first names. She prefers to be called Mrs. Travers and she is constantly correcting everyone she meets.
But Pamela Travers was not her given name. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff and called Lyndon as a child. In the film, her beloved father calls her by the nickname Ginty. Travers was her father?s first name and she takes it as her own, choosing the name Pamela Travers as a stage name when she began an acting career.
So many names for one person! As I watched the film, I thought, in particular, about those pet names we so often have as children. Travers was probably never called Ginty again after her father died. When I was a young girl, my father called me his ?little patchooka.? I had no idea what it meant ? still don?t ? but I do know that I have a visceral response when I think of it. It makes me feel loved and safe. It makes me feel like I have traveled back in time.
?What we are called matters deeply. I?m sure many of us can identify with what it feels like to have our names mispronounced or to be called by some version of our name that we don?t prefer.
And then there are all those names that aren?t really names, but name us, nonetheless. As we move through our days, we are sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, lover, friend, boss, coworker, partner, student, teacher?and on and on. We are called brilliant, funny, beautiful, kind, generous, dependable, honest. And we are called ugly, dumb, cruel, jealous, immature, fat.
?We are named again and again, day in and day out.
Of course, some of us were lucky enough to have parents and teachers who helped steady us against the storm of names out there in the world. I don?t know, maybe your grandma said ?sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can never hurt you.? And maybe that resonated with you, helped you face the onslaught of cruelties cast at you in the world. Or maybe you found a way to remember your true worth in other ways. Or maybe you didn?t. All I know is that we all have to deal with a world around us that is trying very hard to name us, day in and day out.
And that is, I believe, where the power of this passage becomes truly palpable. The good news is that, like Jesus, we are named by God. Like Jesus, the Spirit alights on us as a dove, and the Spirit reminds us that we are God?s beloved child and that God is pleased with us.
?We are God?s beloved child. And God is well pleased with us.
No matter how the world tries to name us ? God is the one who truly holds that power. The world may name us ?Magnificent Success! Brilliant One! To Be Envied!? Or we may be named ?Miserable Failure. Hopeless Mess. To Be Avoided.?
Regardless of the world?s naming, there is one name we each carry with us throughout our days. ?Beloved Child of God.??
Instead of a time of silent contemplation after today?s sermon, we will have a more guided time of reflection. In your bulletin, you should have a tiny slip of white paper. If you didn?t get one, please raise your hand and the ushers will bring one to you. This is special, water-soluble paper. I invite you to write a name that you?ve been given on this slip of paper?could be a name you like (?Most Likely to Succeed? in your high school year book) or a name that is so awful you don?t ever want anyone else to hear it. After you?ve written the name, bring it to the font here at the front and place it in. You may want to leave it there to dissolve on its own, or you may prefer to give it a swish, washing away the word completely. Afterwards, please choose a small card to take with you. A reminder of the name given to you by God.??
Come to the waters. Let the Spirit alight upon you.
 I found this story in a sermon by Mike Bennett of First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, MA. http://www.firstchurchlongmeadow.org/firstchurch/PDFFiles/Sermon%20of%20January%2013%202008%20MSB.pdf He cites the following: Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), pages 56-58; Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martian Luther (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), pages 149-152; F. Dean Lueking in The Lectionary ?Commentary?The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), pages 16-19.