January 8, 2017
Child of God
While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was in the Judean desert preaching. “Change your hearts and lives! The kingdom of heaven is near!” He was the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one calling out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord;
make paths straight for him.’”
Now John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem and all Judea and all around the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. Those who came to confess their sins, he baptized in the river Jordan.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce fruit that shows you’ve changed your hearts and lives. Don’t think you can just say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; I tell you, God can create children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I am; I am not even worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is ready to separate the wheat from the chaff with his threshing fork, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee the Jordan, to be baptized by John. John objected, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”
But Jesus answered,
“Let me be baptized now; this is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” So John agreed to baptize Jesus.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son whom I dearly love, delight of my life.”
* * * * *
I led devotions at staff this week – we take turns, and this week it was mine. And since we didn’t have Bible study this week, I made the staff help me with my sermon. I brought my Scrabble board, spread out all the letters face up, and spelled out the word “Baptism.” Then I asked them to add on anything they could think of that had to do with baptism. Words like Child, New, Water, Belong…
Then I handed out slips of paper and said, “Write a sentence or two about what baptism means to you; not in theory, but your baptism, the fact that you are baptized…”
‘My parents loved me enough to want to share their faith with me.’
‘I will always have a family.’
‘I am loved by God and nothing I can do will change that.’
What does baptism mean to you? Your own, I mean; not in theory, or what you think the right ‘theological’ answer is. What does your baptism mean?
When I lived in Des Moines I met a man who was a poet. Jim Autry was a businessman – the CEO of Meredith Corporation - but poetry was his way of sorting things out. He wrote this poem about the meaning of baptism:
There’s something about this,
about putting the people under the water
and raising them up
in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
something that makes the people cry,
that makes them want to want
everything to be all right,
and makes them want to leave this place
and be better,
to immerse themselves in their lives
and somehow be washed clean
of all the things they think
they should not have done
and should not still want to do.
Not the other stuff,
the star in the east,
the treasures in heaven,
or any of the old stories.
Not even life after death.
It is only to be new again.
(James A. Autry, “Baptism,” in Life After Mississippi)
New, like a child. New, like second chances. New, like there’s hope for the future.
I remember when I was a child, going to church on Sunday mornings. I remember every Sunday, coming out feeling clean. I felt new. It was the prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness. I never felt shamed, I never felt like I was being scolded. What it felt like was that everything bad had been washed away, and I had a clean start. Later I had words of scripture to put on that feeling,
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning, new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
It was the waters of baptism that made me clean.
But there’s another meaning to baptism that’s even closer to my heart. It’s that I am a child of God. Which is why I was especially grateful that the choirs wanted to sing their anthem for worship this morning. It couldn’t be more perfect. “To be a Child of God…” It’s perfect not only because of its words, but because it was an anthem written for Sue Murdock, and it sings of her whole life’s work.
Yesterday’s memorial service – a celebration of life, really – for Sue was astounding and moving and humbling and powerful. Sue died just before Christmas, but we scheduled the service so as many people as possible could be here. And to make time for all the choirs and musicians to get ready. All three of our choirs sang, along with alumni/ae from Sue’s choirs over the years. There were about 100 musicians involved in the service, and Swasey Chapel at Denison was full. Sue was a music teacher in the Newark schools as well as being our director. After she retired she taught piano as well, to scores of kids, including many of ours. Her influence was incalculable.
One of the most powerful things about Sue’s life and ministry was her deep conviction that every child mattered, that every person should feel the taste of success and gain a sense of self-worth, that her job was to teach character as well as content - not so much to impart knowledge as to engage each child in learning, drawing out of them the very best that they could be.
Which is why the anthem “Child of God” fit her life so perfectly.
What a wonder it is to be a child of God, who hears the prayers of his children, who is as far away as the universe, yet lives within my heart.
When I think of the colors of the creation, the birds of the air, the leaves of the trees, the fish of the sea, the mountains, the oceans, the moon and the stars, I marvel at this world.
But the miracle that fascinates me most, a thought more precious than words, is the God who created and still is creating loves me for who I am.
What a wonder it is, what a wonderful thing it is, to be a child of God.
Remember, you are baptized.
Remember, you are loved.
Remember, you are a child of God,
The One who makes all things new.