A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 7, 2018 (Baptism of Our Lord)
Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I mean, it’s been a week so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put anyone on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick. Which is why I pre-empted the whole thing by not making any.
But as I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it reminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. This doesn’t make us bad or weak. Rather, it binds us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.
Because we all go though periods of reengagement with our spiritual lives or renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. That it’s easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship.
And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life: Avoid silence. Shun introspection. Over-schedule yourself. Stay online. Keep the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula.
The thing is, we follow a Lord who invites rather than compels. You don’t have to follow Jesus. No one can make you. Children may be forced to go to church but you aren’t. No one’s threatening to take away your phone if you don’t show up. Jesus so desires to lead you into joy and fullness of life. But he’s not going to yank you along like a petulant child. Jesus requests the pleasure of your company but he doesn’t insist upon it. That’s not his way.
Even John the Baptist in his loud, urgent, impossible-to-miss proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was simply issuing an invitation on the banks of the Jordan River. He wasn’t grabbing people and forcibly dunking them; baptism isn’t some sort of water torture.
So what’s the point of baptism? Well, it initiates an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, sealing us as Christ’s own forever with a mark that never fades away. And this permanence of divine relationship is the key. Again, we may fall away — we will fall away — in our relationship with God. But God never falls away from us. That’s the power and the promise of the baptismal waters through which we all emerge. That no matter what we do or fail to do, Jesus never forsakes us. God’s invitation is always extended.
And I think that’s the difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. And it all begins with the relationship initiated at baptism, this sense that God never gives up on us.
The other difference is that we don’t need to wait until January to recommit to God. We can do that right now. Or tonight or tomorrow or next month or next year. Or any day in between. One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again. To renew right relationship with God. And isn’t that an amazing and inspiring notion? That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. Waiting for us to return. Patiently and eagerly yearning for us to follow him.
You know, I love that we have baptisms in early January each year. Just when we think we’ve seen the last of John the Baptist, this seminal figure of Advent who prepares the way for the arrival of Jesus and figures so prominently in our Christmas preparations, he returns to baptize Jesus. And there is something about new beginnings and baptisms that go together.
I have to admit, however, that I’m a little intimidated at the prospect of baptizing Arthur Van Niel this morning. Not because he’s Father Noah’s son. That’s the cool part. I love that. But I’m a bit intimidated because on Christmas Eve, Arthur played Jesus in the pageant. And who am I to baptize Jesus?
Actually the Baptist wondered the same thing. In Matthew’s account of our Lord’s baptism, John basically says to Jesus when he asks him to baptize him, “What are you nuts? You’re the one who’s supposed to baptize me!” Nonetheless the Baptist consents. And so will I. But you can understand John feeling completely unqualified to baptize the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. And yet Jesus still extends the invitation. He lovingly invites John to baptize him, to be in relationship with him. In the same way he invites relationship with you.
Making new Christians through baptism on the very day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism does remind us of the power of every baptism we do here at St. John’s. It it not a cute little rite of passage but a bold rite of commitment. We should all be a bit intimidated in the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down upon us through the waters of baptism. Or if not intimidated at least in awe of the power of divine relationship that takes place here. The permanent bond of this relationship that takes hold in these children and that we all renew in ourselves when we join in saying the baptismal covenant. We are witnesses to this; and how incredible is that?
Yes, the newly baptized will fall down in their relationship with God, just as we all do. No matter how much they or we resolve to stay the course of faith. But the good news of this day is that “even when we fail, always we begin again.” We can do this but only with the support of one another and only with God’s help. The true gift of baptism is the power of God’s love for us. And that never, ever fades away.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck