Sunday, January 10, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Baptism of Our Lord
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 13:43; sermon starts around 20:00)
Even though there was a lot of disappointment for many of us this past holiday season, for me there was at least one really exciting thing that happened. And that’s that I became a godparent for the first time! No one had ever asked me to be a godparent before and I’m really excited about it!
I’m sure many of you remember our friends Pastor Allison and Deacon Timothy Siburg and their little daughter Caroline. Well, Caroline became a big sister back in October when little baby Cora came into the world – she was actually born on Reformation Sunday (a very Lutheran baby!). And on Christmas Day, baby Cora was baptized into the body of Christ at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle.
I wasn’t able to be there in person, unfortunately, but I participated in worship over Facebook Live. I got to witness the baptism and I made the promises that sponsors are called to make: to nurture the newly baptized in their faith and to help them live into the covenant of baptism and in communion with the church. With all the assembly gathered there in person and online, I renounced the powers of sin and evil that draw us away from God; I confessed my belief through the words of the Creed. And after the presider (my friend Heidi) poured water over little Cora’s head, baptizing her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we got to my favorite part of the baptismal rite. Pastor Heidi made the sign of the cross on Cora’s forehead and said to her: “Cora, precious child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
I love this line, though I’ll admit it’s kind of an odd and archaic thing to say to a child if you think about it too much: sealed by the Holy Spirit, like a seal 🦭? Or sealed by the Holy Spirit like vacuum sealed for freshness and marked with an expiration date (hopefully not that!)?
But of course that’s not what we mean at all. If anything, this seal is more like the Great Seal of Nebraska on our state flag, or like the old practice of using wax seals to sign or authenticate documents. In this respect, a seal is about identity and authority. A seal usually has signs or symbols that tell you something about the person whose seal it is, even if it’s just the first letter of their name. For instance, Nebraska’s state seal has images that evoke agriculture and industry and early settlers on the plains; and it features our state motto: “Equality Before the Law.” In many ways, a seal is fundamentally about identity – and this is something that holds true for us in baptism.
We see this in our gospel reading for today. Even Jesus’ true identity is revealed by the Holy Spirit in his baptism. The Spirit descends upon him like a dove and God’s voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In fact, this is how we are first introduced to Jesus, in chapter one of Mark’s gospel – through his baptism. And in a way, what happens in Jesus’ baptism is kind of a more dramatic version of what actually happens to each one of us in our own baptisms: God comes to us (not the other way around) and claims us as God’s own beloved children. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit, which marks us with the cross of Christ forever.
Baptism is about much more than just water and some words said by someone wearing a robe and a stole. Baptism is about our identity in Christ and about the power and movement of the Holy Spirit.
This is why Paul is so taken aback by what the believers in Ephesus say to him in our second reading, from the book of Acts. He comes across this group of disciples and he asks them about when they became believers, if they received the Holy Spirit. And not only do they tell him no, they say, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Say what?!? And so Paul asks them, “What were you even baptized into then??” And they’re just like, “I don’t know, John baptized us.” These folks are clearly missing some crucial information here. For them, baptism was just about some water and a guy saying some words – just a random ritual that they did. In a way, you could say these believers act as though they were “sealed” by John rather than by the Holy Spirit (and you’ve gotta wonder, what would that seal even look like? like would you trace locusts or camels or something on their foreheads instead of crosses??).
At any rate, Paul sets them straight by explaining that baptism is about so much more than that. And he points out that even John was telling people “to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” So Paul baptizes them again, but this time in the name of Jesus. And just like we do, he laid his hands upon them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They received a new identity, a new understanding of themselves – not just as followers of a guy named John, but as beloved children of God, as members of the body of the risen Christ. The Spirit leads them to speak in tongues and prophesy and opens up to them a whole new world of what they are capable of and what they are called to do as disciples of Jesus, marked forever with the cross of Christ.
In a weird way, I think the experience of being church during a pandemic has done something similar for the church in our day. It is so easy for us to get comfortable defining what it means to be the church by the traditions that we practice and by the places that we gather. And that makes sense because these are the things that are most visible about us – our building, our worship life, the ministry we do together inside these walls – and certainly none of these are bad things. But these are some of the things that we have had to set aside for the time being, in order to protect the health and safety of our community – which is actually one of the most churchy things we could do. And in the absence of these more visible things, I feel like God has been calling us to remember on a deeper level who we truly are. God is calling us to remember that being disciples of Jesus is about much more than a building or a set of traditions; it’s about who we are and how we live. It’s about being claimed by God – sealed by the Holy Spirit! – and about trying our best every day to live as imitators of Christ.
When I see things like the terrible violence that happened in Washington, DC, this week, it makes me think that far too many people have forgotten who God has called us to be. Many of the people who participated in this attack on our nation’s Capitol identified themselves as Christians. Some even carried Christian signs as they tore through the Capitol’s defenses to try to interrupt the democratic process. And in photos of the riot, you can see those signs right alongside many symbols of hate – symbols of white supremacy and fascism and anti semitism.
There should be absolutely no place for this kind of hatred and violence in the heart of a Christian. No place at all. As Christians, we are called explicitly in baptism and in God’s word to love and serve all people, no matter who they are. We are called to remember that all people are made by God in God’s own image. And it’s perfectly fine if we disagree with them – but to dehumanize and demonize other people as these hate groups have done is sin and evil of which we must repent.
We are called to live in imitation of Christ – in our life together and in our individual lives, both private and public. And Christ’s heart is full of nothing but love for humanity. Christ’s heart is full of the kind of love that led him to tenderly wash the feet of Judas on the night he betrayed him and even to forgive the ones who were killing him as he died on the cross. This is the one whose seal we bear. This is the one whom we have been called to follow.
As we celebrate the baptism of our Lord today, I encourage you to remember who you are – and whose you are – in baptism. If you haven’t already, I invite you to grab a bowl of water, and with the water trace the sign of the cross on your forehead – or if you’re gathered together with other people, trace the cross on each other’s foreheads. And as you do so, say to each other, and to yourself: [name], precious child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Go ahead and do that right now.
Remember who you are. You are more than the things we all too often settle for. You are a precious child of God. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. And you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.