Sermon for Baptism of Jesus

JANUARY 10, 2010

Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What are we going to do about Julia Ann?
We are about to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism
for Julia Ann Gray,
beloved daughter of Ruth and Jason.
They are good and loving parents to bring her to this church,
this community of faith and love.
But we're going to claim her as a part of us,
as a part of something bigger than herself or her parents
and even bigger than us.
We're going to claim that God is claiming her
as beloved daughter, child, part of the family,
loved and accepted just for who she is.
What are we going to do about Julia Ann?

I'm asking this not only because of Julia Ann in particular
but because we continue to baptize people young and old,
If we listen to the baptism of Jesus,
we're going to have to face up to some hard words
about what is going on in baptism, in Jesus, in us.

Jesus' baptism was the beginning point of his mission.
His baptism was initiation into God's mission,
where he received the assurance of God's love for him
and he was given the power of the Spirit
to go and do God's work.
So to put it another way,
Jesus' baptism was his entry into the struggle,
the struggle to see it through
that this world becomes fully God's world,
a world where mercy and compassion are the norm.

Shortly after his baptism Jesus gave his programmatic speech,
telling everyone what he is about,
what the struggle is for:
He is about bringing God's healing, mercy,
reconciliation, and new life to the world,
and he won't rest or give up
until all the world is filled with this love of God.

Since this is my first sermon of the new year and the new decade,
I'd like to give a somewhat programmatic sermon
to think about the mission and purpose of our congregation,
and the whole church in our early 21st century world.
Someone said a few years ago
in thinking about church and mission:
It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world,
but that God has a church for his mission in the world.
We church folks exist as church not for our own sake,
or to perpetuate an institution that must survive at all cost.
We exist for God's purposes, for God's mission.

Today we baptize Julia Ann.
What are we going to do about Julia Ann?
How are we going to take to heart
that she is being baptized into God's mission?
What are we going to do to live up to our part
in making her life useful for God's purposes?

We live in a time and place
where the easy formulas about the meaning of baptism
and Christian faith
don't make as much sense as they used to.
We have an obligation to pass on what we have received,
but we also have an obligation to make sure we pass it on
in a way that keeps it alive,
makes it a source of new life for people today.
I'm afraid to say the obvious,
but we don't have a great track record
of passing on the faith in ways that create vibrant, energized,
life-giving people who know they have life to give to others
in Jesus' name,
and who find that a life of doing just that,
is far more exciting and meangingful
than any other options.
We have not done a great job
of bringing others and ourselves
strongly and deeply into the struggle,
the struggle to which we are committed at baptism,
the struggle against all the defies God,
the struggle for a world of mercy and love and compassion.

Just like Jesus,
each of our baptisms was the beginning of the struggle:
The grace that calls us to something hard.
The love that leads us to something meaningful.
The mercy that guides us to purposefulness in life.
The wisdom that calls us to give our lives for what God is up to.

The whole story in Luke up to this point
is about how the Holy Spirit is at work.
But now, it comes closer to home.
Now in the story, the Spirit is at work IN Jesus.
The Spirit is not just at work in the world,
but at work in you, through you,
and of course, occasionally,
in spite of you and your best intentions and carefully made plans.
In our time and place as church in the history of the world,
how do we nurture this kind of deeply committed and risky faith?
What do we have to give up, and what do we have to cling to?
Or to put it another way:
What will we do about Julia Ann?

In his dark, futuristic book The Road,
Cormac Mcarthy tells the story of a father and a son.
It is a post-apocalyptic world
that has literally and figuratively cannibalized itself.
The father and son trek on trying to find somewhere to go
somewhere to rebuild community and life,
somewhere that this hope they cling to makes some sense.

The father's determination to survive is astounding
and at one point in the story, we hear why:
He tells his son that the two of them
are the keepers of the flame of goodness and grace.
And at one point he tells his son,
that now he must carry on with that flame inside him.
The father's life was lived
passing on the flame of goodness and grace to his son,
so that the flame would not die out.

In my own imagination,
the church of the future is not unlike the story of the The Road,
though not nearly as dark and gruesome, thankfully.
The year is 2054,
a thousand years after the great church divide
between Western and Eastern forms of Christianity.
But now, there is little division left in the church
because there is little church left.
There have been some wars, big and small.
Environmental changes have caused massive migrations of peoples.
The gas engine automobile
has been banned everywhere for 20 years now, even in Texas.
People don't go out much anymore.
They communicate mostly through the internet
and those cool 3D TV's everyone has.
But they live in deep fear of each other,
and of a world that feels like it is sinking.

The fading of Christianity in the developed world
happened relatively quickly and with little fuss.
The institutions of the church slowly shrank and bled finances
until they were no longer viable.
This came long after they were no longer very meaningful
to any but a handful of worn out faithful people.
Many of the church buildings were converted into
restaurants, movie theaters, and shelters for the homeless,
Some of them were torn down
to build parks and condos and solar energy gardens.

But like always,
small groups of Christians continue to meet.
They meet in homes and in coffee shops
and in wilderness and on the internet.
They meet for faith and fellowship
and in love and acceptance of one another
and for reaching out to strangers,
and these days everyone feels like strangers to each other.
They meet to worship, they share bread and wine
and tell the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
They pray for a world they know God has not given up on.
They gather to serve the hungry and poor and sick,
to teach the good news of God in Christ,
and to guide others into the life-changing and life-risking ways of Jesus.

And, amazingly, they continue to baptize.
One of those small, faithful, buildingless church groups
has seven new baptismal candidates,
all adults, ranging in age from 17 to 58.
It is a sign of hope that God's Spirit
still has a use for God's church
that still lives for God's mission.
These seven initiates came into this loose-knit community of faith
barely having ever heard about Jesus or Israel
or about a God whose primary characteristic is mercy
and whose primary focus is care for those on the bottom
of life's high piled mountain of cruelty and self-interest.

But they met these odd church folks
because they kept having potluck suppers
and inviting strangers off the street to feast with them,
and celebrate life and give thanks for all of it.
These seven saw how they lived and cared for each other and strangers
without regard to wealth or religion
or success or sexuality
or politics or mental or physical health.
They just cared for people because they were real people themselves,
humbled just to be alive and part of God's creation.
They knew that people were just like themselves: fragile and needing care.
And after spending some time with them,
these outsiders had become insiders
and they found within the church
the kind of life they never found out in the world,
a world that had just about lost the ways of mercy and tenderness
and compassion, and patience with troubled human souls
and self-giving love.

They gather to baptize
like first and second century Christians did
on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.
They gather at a swimming hole on a ranch in the Texas hill country.
It is night, the air is crisp, and the stars and planets grace the sky.
They walk the seven candidates in the dark in silence.
Only silence could capture the gravity and the mystery
of what they were about to do.
As they approach the water
the glow of a large fire in the distance reaches their eyes.
The candidates strip down,
and one by one,
they are asked:
Are you ready to leave behind the lies and empty promises
of this messed up world that we all once lived by?
Are you ready to take on authentic human living like Jesus did
by God's grace and the Spirit's power?
One by one, they each say:
Yes. It's a yes they can barely grasp
and only say in fear and trembling. But they say it anyway.
And then they are each brought into the water,
and they go down into the water and get soaking wet
and they are named as beloved sons and daughters
and they are claimed as ones
who now have the power of the Spirit
to live with God's love in this world
following Jesus' example.

After each of them has been baptized,
they walk over to the large fire.
They are cold in the night air and their wet, exposed skin
feels the warmth of the fire,
and they are reminded that the Spirit is a warm fire within them.

And then a 44 year old woman walks over to them
wraps them in a blanket, and says:
We welcome you into the family of God.
God has a plan for you.
God has a mission, and you are part of it.
Your life is so much bigger than your own small dreams.
You can dream God's dream now.
And she hugs them and stares into the fire,
the fire in front of them,
and the fire of love that has been stirred up in them.
And her name is Julia Ann.

What are we are going to do for Julia Ann?
How are we going to get her from this baptism today
there to that fire, where ever and whatever it may be?
How are we going to help her carry the flame of goodness and mercy?
How are we going to help her find that place of welcoming others
as she has been so graciously welcomed?
How are we going to walk with her
to that hopeful day when the faith is shared
by love and acceptance
and service and community,
long after so many have moved on to easier lifestyles?
Our whole purpose and mission as First English Lutheran Church, my friends,
can be found in how we answer this question:
What are we going to do about Julia Ann?
I don't think this question is easy or comfortable for us
because in order to raise her to be the most faithful woman she can be
we have to continue to raise ourselves
to be the most faithful community of men and women we can be.
It is the life and struggle to which we were called in baptism,
the life we dare to share with Julia Ann,
the life that knows endless mercy and deep love,
the life worth committing ourselves to beyond all other commitments,
the life God has granted as sheer gift and powerful promise.
What are we going to do about Julia Ann?
What are we going to do about us?


  1. This sermon by Pastor Mike Coffey for Jan 10, 2010m was given at the service celebrating the baptism of our grand-daughter Julia Ann Gray. The sermon meant a lot to me, and gives the family a new mantra, "What are going to do about Julia Ann"?


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