“Remember your baptism and be thankful.” These lines are part of many traditional Presbyterian worship services. In some communities, they are part of each celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They are spoken at the beginning of presbytery, as the font, the Christ candle, the Bible, the water are brought in. Water is poured into the font and the words spoken, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”
I did not grow up with this tradition, nor has it been part of the life of the congregations I have served. So the words sound new to me each time I hear them. Actually, the words always remind me of the classic lines from the Lion King, spoken by the disembodied voice of the Father Mufasa, “Simba, remember who you are!”
Today, reading the story of Jesus’ baptism, I realize that this association is not far off. Simba, feeling guilty for his sins, was covering his great guilt with partying and distance from all the creatures and places he had loved. Finally the wise fool, Rafiki, shows him a vision of himself in the reflecting pool. And there, in his own reflection, Simba sees his father. Rafiki says that his father is not dead, but alive in Simba. And then the voice: Simba, remember who you are! I wonder if the writers of the Lion King script had some experience with baptism, or the Presbyterian reminder to remember your baptism and be thankful.
“You are my child, the Beloved,” said the disembodied voice to Jesus.
“Remember your baptism and be thankful!” My voice is not disembodied, yet it is bold with the authority of the Holy Spirit who has made you Child of God.
Pause, listen. Remember your baptism, remember who you are! Let you soul hear it…. (lift the water)
If this is all of my sermon which you remember, it is enough. But there is more. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus being baptized. Mark and Luke’s versions are both very brief. But Matthew has a bit more to say. Because Matthew thought it important to tell more of the story, it would make sense for us to wonder why.
Monday was Epiphany. We are now in the season of Epiphany, which falls between January 6 and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Jesus baptism starts the season of Epiphany. I would like to explore Jesus’ baptism today in the context of Epiphany.
Epiphany means “appearing” or “revealing.” I often think of it as an “ah-ha moment.” The ancient Celts had another name for this phenomenon. They called it a “thin place.”
Where I became familiar with this concept of thin places was from a the “Song of Albion” series of novels by Stephen Lawhead. The whole story launches from the moment when an ancient bull-like animal, an aurochs, got into a thin place and escaped from his ice age home into modern Scotland. The adventurers perceived what had happened and went looking for the thin place. Both eventually found the portal, the thin place, and entered the story of an ancient world. I was fascinated by the concept of portals and thin places. That this world and the other in time or space, were intimately interwoven. The barrier between the two is so thin as to be almost imaginary.
In Celtic Christianity, Epiphany stories are stories of thin places. God parts the curtain, and we see, or experience, if only for a moment, the awe which is God’s love, majesty, and power. Epiphany calls us to look underneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and discover the extraordinary. To look deeply at Jesus, and see God. To hear the water poured and remember our baptism.
But here is the problem. We don’t live in the land of the ancient Celts, filled with thin places and those who believe in them. We live in a time and place which is dominated by science, fact – or, the surface of things. Few of us have heard a voice from the clouds, or seen water become wine, or spoken with the Tempter. These stories are a mystery to us.
We are more likely to complain that God is hidden, silent, or completely separate from our world. We may long for epiphany, but seldom experience it. It happens for Jesus at his baptism. Can we learn to recognize the thin places, as we are called to remember them, look for them?
One day, Jesus goes down to the Jordan River to visit his cousin, John. He didn’t just go for a family gathering. He went to be baptized. Here is where Matthew’s story gives us some additional information. Jesus goes down and asks John to baptize him. But John doesn’t want to do it. He protests that Jesus ought to be baptizing him.
Matthew has already explained clearly that John was baptizing people who are repenting. His baptism is for the purpose of purifying a person from what they had done wrong, or their pattern of wrong thinking. John says the Kingdom of God is at hand, and when God comes, we want to be clean, ready and waiting. So, quit your old selfish ways, wash away the dirt they have left in your souls and start fresh. When the kingdom’s leader comes, that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire! That one isn’t just going to use water to wash you on the outside, but will bring the presence of God to bring new life from the inside, and it is going to burn – in a good way.
It is likely that John had lived for a while with the Essenes, and the baptism they practice was daily. They knew that every day we find ourselves outside of God’s purity, so this outer ritual had to be done over and over and over again. But the one who is coming will end all that, because that one will bring Spirit and fire. After the burning, the presence of God will be the new life living in our skin, and this daily ritual won’t be needed any more.
I imagine this is why John protests about baptizing Jesus. If Jesus was really who Mary said he was, then he didn’t need this. Jesus’ answer sounds like a good Presbyterian: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, this is doing things decently and in order. It is following the path laid out for people who want to dedicate themselves to being ready for God’s arrival, ready when that curtain to the thin place opens and God is here.
Jesus sounds like he is just going through the motions. It is what he was supposed to do. So it was okay for John to baptize him. “Okay, if you say so. I’ll do it,” John agreed.
Then came the surprise! One always needs to pay attention when something unusual happens, and the next thing was HIGHLY unusual. It is not quite clear who all saw what happened next. The way Matthew tells the story, it was Jesus’ own epiphany. Doused in the muddy water of the Jordan, Jesus took a breath, opened his eyes and the heavens opened (oh, I wonder what that might have looked like!). The Spirit transformed into the form of a dove and came right out of the open heavens and sat on Jesus shoulder. Just so Jesus was sure who the voice was talking about. You! Yes, I mean you! Not John, with all his popularity and outspokenness. You, Jesus! You are the one I like. Shades of Mr. Rogers’ song, “Its You I Like.” Just the way you are. You are my beloved.
You are beloved! That was Jesus’ epiphany. You are beloved. The baptism wasn’t about some kind of washing, repenting, or commitment to do better. It was the pronouncement: You are loved, just the way you are. The meaning of baptism itself wash changed in that moment. It is where Presbyterians come up with the phrase, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”
When I read this, I thought about the story of Hosea. As the God-character in the story, Hosea is told to go out and marry a woman of many lovers, an unfaithful, untrustworthy type. He does. They have children. And she gets bored and goes out to find more lovers again. And Hosea, in the God role, goes back to find her, buys her from her slavery and brings her back to live as his wife, still unfaithful. God’s voice says, “I will be married to you forever. I will be faithful. No matter what, you are my beloved. Its you I like. Exactly you. And that will never end.”
This voice from heaven was saying the same thing to Jesus. No matter what you will do, what happens to you, whether people like you or not, you are my beloved. That will never change. An epiphany of infinite value! To know that, well, it seems like one could do anything! No fear. That thing we search for our whole human lives – love, belonging – that was Jesus’ epiphany. And on the strength of this epiphany, he was launched into his real work.
It wasn’t so much the water, the baptism. It was an ordinary act. Jesus was going through the motions. And it turned out to be a thin place. The place where God’s voice was heard saying the most important words any human needs to hear. You are loved.
As we learn to pay attention, we find we are surrounded by thin places. From the mouths of infants, God is praised. The trees of the fields clap their hands. The mountains tremble in praise. Flowers open their faces to God. Water speaks its babbling language of divine presence.
And so we have the water here among us today. A thin place again for us. Listen. In the words of Hosea: I will now allure you, and bring you into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to you. And bind myself to you forever. You are beloved.
Conclusion: at the font
Can you hear the voice in the water? You are beloved.
We are never abandoned. God lives in us, through Jesus, through the Spirit. Remember your baptism and be thankful.