26 February 2012

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent: "Baptized for the World that Is

We celebrate a baptism today!  [Name] receives the gift of baptism tonight.  Baptism is water joined with God’s promise, connected to the story of the flood by our reading from 1st Peter.  God is making a promise to [Name] tonight, a promise we are privileged to witness and which we will be pledged to support and cherish.  But this is not a safe, lovely promise of fuzzy rainbows, clouds and happy little cartoon Bible people.  God’s promise in baptism is perhaps best seen in what happens in our reading from Mark:  Jesus is baptized, and then is driven out into the wilderness.  When God claims us in baptism, God isn’t just inoculating us for the life to come: God is claiming us for the world that IS, now, a life in this time, in this world.  Baptism claims all of us into a covenant of steadfast love, God’s promise to God to have mercy, to forgive, to heal and to send us back out into the wilderness where the wild beasts live. 
            There isn’t much safety to be found in our readings today.  In Genesis we have a God who has destroyed all of humanity; this God needs to be reminded, “You promised.”  The Son of God, beloved though he may be, is baptized and immediately driven out into the wilderness.  The heavens are rent asunder and the kingdom of God draws near.  Danger appears to lurk on every side.  But maybe this is the faith we need for a new world in which the greatest dangers appear to be complacency and comfort.

            Do you know who these people are?  Marie Colvin & Remi Ochlik were killed by military gunfire this week reporting on the bombing of the Syrian city of Homs by its own government under the dictatorial rule of President Bashar al-Assad.  Here are some selections from Colvin’s final story:
[Homs] is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.[1]
             At the same time, there are people in our world who do things like this:

            This is the world into which Jesus was baptized.  We are simultaneously awful and beautiful.  This is the world into which we are all baptized.  This is the wilderness into which baptism sends us, where we are with the wild beasts, tempted by evil powers without and within, and tended by angels.  Once, God eradicated the sin of this world in an all-consuming flood; now, God makes a vow to Godself that it shall not happen again. We may be in danger from the world, but we are not in danger of harm from God.  God's covenant from the story of the Flood is proof that God has vowed love and mercy instead of anger and vengeance.

            Which of these appears in the reading from Genesis?  Literally, it isn't the "rainbow," but the "bow" that appears in the sky as God's covenant promise to never destroy life on earth again.  We have linked it to the rainbow, but this is worth remembering: the rainbow we’ve painted on so many children’s nursery walls is connected, for all time, with a flood in which God eradicated the entirety of creation because of  sinfulness.  Men, women, children. Wild beasts and everything that walked on the earth.  Gone.  After that destruction, after God looked on the world and mourned not only the sin but also the loss of life God had caused, God vowed never to do it again.  The bow in the sky is God’s covenant that claims us in steadfast love:  never again will God be the cause of destruction out of anger.  That rainbow, that colorful curve we’ve stitched into the stomachs of so many Care Bears and My Little Ponies, is a weapon pointed skyward to remind God:  “Back off: you promised.” 
            And so God does promise.  God vows to be the one who changes after the flood.  As biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman put it, “The flood has effected no change in humankind. But it has effected an irreversible change in God, who now will approach his creation with an unlimited patience and forbearance.”[2]  God changes to find a new way to address human brokenness.  Where once God drowned all of creation in water, now God drowns us in baptism and raises us up to be sent into the world anointed by God’s promise. 
            God’s promise to forgive doesn’t change the fact of human sinfulness in this life.  We are constantly battling our brokenness even after baptism.  This is quite often not a safe world.  There is violence and bloodshed, and sometimes those who are sent into that particular wilderness don’t return.  Some are sent into the wilderness of religious and nationalist strife, like our friend Chris, to speak for those without a voice and witness their sorrow and pain.  Some are called into places like ours, where beneath the cover of complacency and comfort we bicker and fight and slander and wound each other.  Even our best-intentioned work for the sake of God’s church can go horribly, terribly wrong, and people can get hurt in all sorts of different ways.  The world simply isn’t safe – and so it is precisely for this world that IS that God baptizes us and makes us a promise: no matter how bad things may get, no matter what dangers may surround you, God will not forsake you or abandon you.  Baptism is not simply the promise of admittance into a blessed realm after death: baptism is God’s covenant of steadfast love in this world that is, the promise that hears the psalmist’s cry, "Remember me!" and answers with love, "Yes, my beloved child, I will remember you, and not your sin."
            Yes, we celebrate a baptism today.  We celebrate because God makes a covenant with [Name] today, but also because we are reminded of the covenant God has made with us.  In this wilderness of the world that is, in these places where we try to faithfully embody the reign of God in ourselves, God promises to always go with us.  And we will find joy along the way. 
My friend Mark posted a tweet yesterday that reminded me all is not doom and gloom.  It’s a quote by Frederick Buechner:  “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid.  You have been claimed by God’s covenant of steadfast love, baptized for the world that is, and this wilderness cannot take you out of God’s hands.  Don't be afraid.  You are God’s child, God’s beloved.  Don't be afraid.  Believe in this good news.  Believe that God has come near in Jesus Christ, and in all things believe in God’s steadfast love for you. Believe, and don’t be afraid: you have been baptized for the world that is.  Amen.

[2] Brueggeman, Walter. Interpretation: Genesis. © John Knox Press, Atlanta, GA 1982. P. 81

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