Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Matthew 3:13-17

Yesterday afternoon, I met some friends across town for the 4:30 showing of the movie Just Mercy. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s one of those movies that leave you a little happy and a little sad at the same time; a little angry and a little more determined, more inspired, more willing to go further and do all you can—at least that was my reaction.

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir by the same title, the movie is about his work as an activist lawyer and highlights the specific story of Walter McMillian, a convicted felon on death row in Monroeville, Alabama, the setting of Harper Lee’s infamous To Kill a Mockingbird.

The movie personalizes the struggle of racism, poverty, mass incarceration, and injustice within the criminal justice system as well as the lack of dignity and basic human rights of some of the most vulnerable in our society. Together with his staff at the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has helped more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.

A Harvard law graduate whose career could have taken any number of turns, he has aligned himself with the condemned, the hopeless, the forgotten, and the least and has advanced a cause and struggle far beyond himself, and yet perhaps not so far beyond himself at all.

He is not alone in this, I know. There are many others and many ways, and it is the way that keeps calling to us.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, and we are called to remember the waters of baptism as gift. That water, precious water given to us, reminds us of new birth. Whether you were sprinkled or immersed or never felt a drop, whether you took the initiative on your own or someone stood up for you, baptism is a symbolic realization, a tangible act that signifies our initiation into the family of God; a call and invitation to align ourselves wholeheartedly to the vision and purposes of God.

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remembering helps us recall who we really are, how far we have come, and where we are going. On an ordinary day in the midst of life’s challenges, ups and downs, and when we are tossed to and fro, we might forget, but on days like today we remember these most important truths.

We remember that we are sons and daughters of the Almighty, siblings of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, even amid all our flaws and shortcomings.

We remember that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is surging through our veins, whether we are conscious of it or not. The Holy Spirit is alive in the world, present with us and inside of us, holding us and keeping us. Not because we are perfect or have checked boxes but because God’s love for us is perfect and we are moving on toward it. We want what is good and right. We are pursuing it; claim it, bringing it to pass. It is ours to behold and experience and makes us fully alive and free.

We remember that we have been caught up into one holy family with people everywhere, those we find easy and those we find difficult, and we realize that at the end of the day we are no better and no worse than the greatest or the least; no better and no worse than the greatest or the least, regardless of what our culture tells us.

In our gospel lesson, we witness Jesus’ baptism. He comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

As a full blooded Jewish man, there would have no need for Jesus to do this. In those days, baptism was practiced as a ritual cleansing only for Gentile converts. For Jesus to be baptized by John was a sign that declared the tearing down of walls of religious nationalism and elitism. Jesus was one of us, a Jew and also a Gentile.

In other words, when Jesus went to the Jordan and was baptized by John, he became just an ordinary person in the crowd; one among many —and yet, still so extraordinary that he could hardly ever be truly just that.

Author Kayla McClurg has written:

To stand in line with the poor and ill and ashamed and then to lower himself into the dirty waters, to say with his actions, “I am one of you; you are my people, and I am your brother,” Jesus begins to show us himself and his God.  Not a God of war and division, a conquering and spiteful God who demands sacrifice, but a God we can trust—even more surprising, a God who trusts us. Just as Jesus trusts himself into John’s moral hands, leans back and back and back until he is falling into ever more trust. Jesus shows us how to join the Commonwealth of Creation, how to unite the portion of heaven and earth that is given to each of us to tend and nurture into fuller life….In the Spirit we hear how tenderly God speaks to each of us: “I want to be one with you. Come to the waters. Fall back into my love. Trust me. When you are at last weak enough, human enough, we will be able to do some new things. Just for the fun of it. We’ll start over. I’ll help you be who you really are. We’ll do it for the sake of others. We’ll do it for love.”[1]

Alignment is a critical and important aspect of the Christian journey. It is not static. It begins with seeing and hearing, feeling and thinking, and then acting in such a way that our vision and actions are aligned with what we believe. We look around at the world and wherever we are and say: “Somebody ought to do something! Why isn’t somebody doing more? I can’t believe no one said anything!”

And then taking a look at the person starring back at us in the mirror, we respond: “I’ll do something. I’ll help! I’ll try! I’ll do what is within my capacity, even if no one joins me.”

That’s what we remember today. That Jesus got in line with us, and we are called to get in line—the very same line along with him and with the poor, the financially poor and the poor of heart and spirit. The same line with those who are broken and defeated, who live in fear and anxiety every day.

We remember that God shows no partiality but has opened the doors to and for all.

We remember that we are not alone and that love is the way. In every time and every generation, we are called to make alive the message of the gospel for the here and now.

In just a few moments, we are going to participate in a ritual of baptism as we have done the past few years. It is quite lovely if this is your first time. Isaiah and I will read the liturgy, and then we’ll walk down the aisle, across the back, in the balcony, up the other side, and among the choir. We’ll take a branch and sprinkle you with water ever so lightly.

We’ll invite you to “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” And when you feel the drops of water, imagine the Holy Spirit lighting on you, touching you, calling you to attention. And then, listen for the voice of God calling your name and re-affirming you just as he did with Jesus. This is my son, my daughter, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.

Just as Jesus would then go out into the world with a greater sense of purpose about who he was and what he was supposed to do, may we also ask ourselves what God may be calling us to do, calling us away from, or equipping us for in this New Year.

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

[1] Inward outward seeking the depts. January 7, 2017 – Seasons and Scripture: Christmas Year A, Matthew