January 8, 2023

Reflections for Baptism

Psalm 25:16-21; Matthew 3:13-17; John 13:1-17

Please get a glass of water near you, and if you have a baptismal font in the sanctuary, please fill it up!

Psalm 25:16-21     The Struggle is Real

There are moments when I encounter scripture, and I mumble, was the writer of this passage living a perfect life? Don't worry about anything. Just pray, and it will all be fine. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear. Sometimes, until you really wrestle with those passages, it is hard to see how they apply to our lives, especially in times of struggle.

Then there are the psalms, where we can see the struggle is real! Today's psalm, attributed to David, talks of enemies exulting, putting David to shame, and his feelings of heavy guilt over his sin.

By the time we get to verse 16, David feels abandoned by God and pleads for God to turn to him. He feels alone and afflicted. His heart is troubled and distressed. In this great time of struggle for David, he asks God to consider his plight. Once again, he mentions his sinfulness and asks God to forgive his sins a second time. His foes are numerous and hate him. He concludes this psalm by asking for protection and deliverance from God and for God's power to keep him preserved while he waits for God to help.

It is clear from this psalm that David was having a bad day, week or month. His struggle was real. The struggle in life is real. The Psalm is a profound prayer of desperation. When David says he "lifts up his soul" at the beginning of the psalm, to lift up the soul is to raise one's hands to God. It is as if David is saying, "I don't know what else to do, where to turn, who else to reach out to. So I lift my hands, my soul to You. Help, God!" Theologian James Mays says the following about this psalm. "This prayer is an act in which the individual holds their conscious identity, their life, in hands outstretched to God as a way of saying that their life depends completely and only on the help of God."

This prayer from David shows us his genuine and present struggle. He feels abandoned, burdened, and weighed down by sin in fear of those around him. His only connection to God was through continuous prayer, which felt tenuous. You could say we 21st century followers of God have a bit of an advantage over David. That advantage comes from baptism.

On days when life was tough, 1500's Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used to say to himself, "I am baptized," so that he could remember who he was (a Child of God) and that God's Spirit led him. I keep a picture of the day I was baptized in my office so that I, like Luther, can remember my identity and God's mighty Spirit in me on those difficult days. Like Jesus, we, too, have been baptized. God claimed us in those waters and adopted us as heirs, children of the promise. We can remember that connection through water and Spirit on those days of struggle. God says, I know you, and you are mine.

In the most recent copy of Presbyterians Today magazine, Author Marie Mainard O'Connell said the following about our baptisms. "Living out our baptismal promises is a constant evolution of discernment and belonging, remembering not only that we are named and claimed by God, but that our identities are themselves unfolding into the kindom of God." Living out my baptism means recognizing my sinfulness, being led to work for reconciliation, valuing people and relationships, and being led by the Spirit to reflect that coming kindom. That is not easy by any means.

Even during those struggles, we have been claimed by God in those cleansing waters. That God who claimed us- some of us before we could respond, others who proclaimed their faith through those waters- that same God can help us, can give us direction, hope, and even light in the midst of it all.

As you come to the cleansing station, each of you has a piece of dissolvable paper. If there is a sin that has you concerned, a struggle you are going through, a burden you are carrying, or something the Spirit is calling you to do which may be difficult, I encourage you to write it down, and when you are ready to place it in the water. In time it will dissolve. Trust that the water, which claimed you, representing God claims those words, frees you from sin and will ease the burden you carry. God knows the struggle is real and will help us. (Those at home or watching us form another church, try using David's prayer posture, seeing whatever the sin or burden is you are carrying, lifting up your soul to God)


Matthew 3:13-17   Claimed and Chosen

In our section for today in Matthew's gospel, we can learn a lot from Jesus' baptism. Let's take a closer look at this story so we can also appreciate our baptisms.

At the beginning of chapter 3, we find that "John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming, Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near! And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matthew 3:1-2)

Jesus then appears before John. John recognizes the Messiah standing before him and "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?" Then Jesus responds that John's act will fulfill all righteousness. In his baptism, Jesus was consecrated before God, anointed by God's Spirit, and officially approved of by God. To be entirely right before God, he needed to identify with us humans fully. John's act helps Jesus identify with humanity and prepares him for his ministry of righteousness.

As John baptizes him, the heavens split open. At this moment, God takes over the baptismal ceremony and baptizes Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Then God announces from heaven, "You are my Son, the beloved." What is the significance of God's proclamation? It tells us the identity of Jesus. Jesus is proclaimed as the Son of God. He fully knows who he is, as do those gathered on the banks of the River Jordan.

Who are you? What would you call yourself if someone wanted to know your identity? Are you a teacher, a college professor, a farmer, an office manager, a construction professional, a doctor, a nurse, a pastor, a caterer, a city worker, an administrator, a musician, a solar power worker, an engineer, a missionary, an insurance broker, a banker,  head of the chamber of commerce, a Christmas tree farmer? (By the way, all of those professions came from people in our congregation who led or are currently leading some of those careers, and this is not an exhaustive list.)

Or perhaps you are retired, and now you are "Grammy or Grampy," claiming your primary identity from your grandchildren. Maybe you describe yourself as a servant of the community, working on many nonprofit boards. Or perhaps in your active retirement, you aspire to become a professional pickleballer, hike every trail you can find in the Rogue Valley, or master hobbies like knitting or crocheting. All of those identities, however, pale in comparison to your most important identity.

Just as God proclaims Jesus' true identity in his baptism, so it is true for us: Our most important identity is that we are children of God through this gift of baptism. The reality that baptism symbolizes is undoubtedly powerful. We, like Jesus, are claimed as God's own in the waters of baptism. You'll witness that happening in just a bit(10:00 only) as we baptize baby Jack. He will become a child of God, claimed through the waters of baptism.

As we come to the baptismal basin, I invite you to claim your true identity as a child of God by dipping a finger into the water and marking your foreheads with a water cross. (Those of you at home, I encourage you to take the cup of water by you, dip your finger in and mark your forehead with the cross, claiming your identity as a child of God. If you are in a sanctuary, now is the time to go to the basin, following the example you see.


John 13:1-17   Practicing Our Serve

I was on the school tennis team for three seasons in high school. I wasn't too good at my groundstrokes or rallying up at the net. I practiced those things every day and got a little better over time. What I practiced the most was my serve. Every day, even on weekends, I would go out with a bucket of balls and practice serving. In time, I found that my serve got faster and more robust. In time I could aim for specific spots on the court or come up with slices or curves on the ball. The more I practiced my serve, the better it got. It also had a side benefit in that it kept me from having to run or rally as much or rely on my weaker ground strokes.

Did you know that Jesus also wants us to practice our serve? Not the serve on the tennis court, of course, but service to other people, one of the last lessons he taught his disciples before he went to the cross.

A rabbi had a place of honor and was never meant to be seen washing someone's feet- a role only fit for a house servant. Yet he took a towel, put it around his waist, got a basin full of water, and the rabbi began washing the feet of his students. It was shocking to the disciples. Peter wanted none of it until Jesus told him how important this example was.

 Jesus demonstrated the perfect serve and called his disciples to do just as he did. They struggled initially, locking themselves up in a room after his death. And even after they saw a Risen Messiah, they remained there. Then, they began to demonstrate their faith. As we read in the book of Acts, they went out in service, improving their service the more they worked at it. They changed the world forever through their witness and service in Christ's name.

The last message for you and me today also involves water. It reminds us that we are to be like Christ, humble servants looking toward the interests of others. We declare God's love through service, embracing servanthood, and placing others ahead of ourselves. The message repeated in life is that servanthood is out: self-servanthood is in. We are supposed to look out for number one, not for anyone else.

We must practice service to others because society gives us that message of self-servanthood over and over. We are told the higher we climb the social or success ladder, the more people that serve under us and the greater the power we attain. However, God's kindom does not work by the rules of this world. In God's kindom, the first are last, and the servant is the greatest of all.

Protestant Reformer John Wesley said, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." There are so many places we can practice our serve! The more we practice, the better we will become.

In just a minute, you will be invited to head to the servant's basin, where three of our deacons will offer to serve you by washing your hands and then drying them. They will do this in silence. As you experience this act of service, I invite you to remember Jesus' words- Go and do likewise. (Those of you at home, while you watch this worship scene unfold, consider Jesus' words- "Go and do likewise." Think of one place you can serve others this month.)

May we all feel inspired to go out into the world, and do all the good we can, by all the means we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we can. May we look daily for those opportunities to practice our serve, using the gifts God has given us, bringing light and hope to the world. Alleluia! Amen.

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