A great and terrifying promise

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Holy Baptism & The Human Spiritual Journey

The message for the first week of Lent, 2018

I remember going to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. when I was about 10. We had gone several times over the years when my dad lived in Virginia, but this time they had just opened a new building. When I walked in the door, I was overwhelmed by all there was to see. I spent what seemed like hours wandering around looking at stuff. And when I had seen everything, I headed back towards the front doors amazed at all I had experienced. It was only as I came to that central atrium that I realized I had only seen one small wing of the museum.

Each year in Lent we take up one portion of the catechism for our study and reflection. We have done in recent years the Ten Commandments, the Creed and, last year, the Lord’s Prayer. The two parts that remain are Baptism and Holy Communion.

It might seem like a lot to spend the next five weeks talking about baptism. But baptism is like the Smithsonian Institution. We can wander for hours and have seen only one small part of all there is to see in baptism. Indeed all the parts of the Catechism are as rich and full as the Smithsonian.

I mentioned on Wednesday night that I thought I was doing well to preach on a portion of the catechism these five Sundays every year, and then I learned that Luther preached on the whole catechism four times every year. What makes the catechism so brilliant is that, instead of being a listing and explanation of Christian doctrines, it does what the scripture does: it preaches to us. Through the text we are met by God’s voice that shatters our pretensions to righteousness and then hands over to us the righteousness of Christ. Luther is brilliant in his explanation of what the commandments require of us. And brilliant also in proclaiming what God has done for us. The language seems a little archaic now. And – especially when you read the large catechism – you see that Luther was not one to mince words. But his ability to let the commandments and creed preach to us is brilliant.

What the Small Catechism says about baptism, too, is something that preaches. It announces who we are and who God is and what God has done and continues to do for us in baptism.

Baptism is a work of God. God uses human hands and human voice, but this is not a human act. It is God who is doing the work.

In the waters of baptism God is speaking a promise. But the promise doesn’t stand out there as some kind of intellectual proposition. It is a promise spoken. As we have said before, it is like a wedding vow. It creates something. Before the vow is spoken, the couple may be committed to each other. They may be in love. But something is changed when the vow is spoken. Something deep and profound happens. Two lives are woven together in ways that cannot be undone. The vows can be broken. The marriage can end in divorce. But the tie lingers.

God speaks a promise in baptism. It is a promise about what God will do. It’s a covenant not a contract. God doesn’t say “I will do this if…”; God says “I will do this.”

And it is a wonderful and terrifying promise. God says “I will bind you to myself” – and this is a great and precious promise – but God is also saying, “I will bind you to Christ Jesus in his death and resurrection. I will put to death all that is false and hurtful in you, and I will raise you up into the image of Christ.
….I will put to death hate and raise up love.
….I will put to death envy and raise up joy.
….I will put to death hardness of heart and raise up compassion.
….I will put to death lust and raise up intimacy.
….I will put to death greed and raise up generosity.
….I will put to death vanity and raise up humility.
….I will put to death revenge and raise up forgiveness.”

The central image of baptism is not a little bit of water sprinkled on the head, it is much more dramatic. Many years ago, Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, built a new chapel in which they spent, as I recall, $15,000 (in 1980 dollars) on this large baptismal font about four feet square. There’s a lot about this construction project that irritates me still, not least of which is that seminaries aren’t organized congregations and don’t have the right to baptize. Students are supposed to have their children baptized in the congregations where they are supposed to be worshipping. But, of course, once they had spent all that money on a beautiful font they wanted to use it.

So the day comes when a child is born to a student. They have a big liturgy and, when the moment of the actual baptism comes, the parents hold up the baby wrapped in a blanket. The presiding minister opens the folds of the blanket and the child is naked. He takes it in his hands and, as he says “I baptize you in the name of the father,” dips the child’s bottom in the water. As he says “and of the Son,” he dips it again. When he says “and of the Holy Spirit” he plunges the child beneath the water and the whole crowd sucks in their breath with fear and surprise. He raises the child up and it’s kicking and waving its arms and water is flying everywhere – and everybody’s heart is beating a little faster.

I know this is perfectly safe. I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it, but I know it’s perfectly safe. An infant instinctively holds its breath – after all it’s been in the water of the womb for nine months. But it is still scary to see.

Baptism isn’t something sweet and delicate we do to children. It is a dramatic, wonderful, and terrifying act of bringing a child – or an adult – before God asking God to recreate us, to put us to death and raise us to new life.

In coming for baptism we are asking God to work his work in us to change us from our broken and fallen humanness into our true humanity – into the image of Christ. This is the fundamental human spiritual journey: to be born from above, to become a new creation, to be set free from the reign of sin and death and be governed by God’s Holy and Life-giving Spirit.

In the waters of baptism God makes the promise to complete this task and bring us to our full and complete redemption. It is a great and precious promise. Terrifying and holy. Fearful and comforting. Awesome and awful. But it is the promise God makes. It is the promise we dare to receive.


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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEglise_Sainte-Blaise_Lacommande_oculus.jpg Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons