This was the homily I preached yesterday at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord.
Two years ago, Jeff and I went on a trip with Gettysburg seminary and some local pastors to Turkey and Greece. It was a fabulous trip and we had the opportunity to see many sites written about in Revelation, as well as to explore some of the places Paul visited and wrote about. And two years ago, to the day, we visited Sardis in Turkey. There we saw the ruins of the massive temple of Artemis with its towering columns that were made up of 22 rounds of marble a piece!
But in the back right corner of these ruins, there was a tiny 4th century church, made of simple brick. There, we gathered together and heard the letter to the church in Sardis from Revelation, and one of the retired pastors offered anointing. My journal entry from the day reads as follows: “It was amazing to stand in a 4th century church on the Baptism of Our Lord and be anointed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What a special experience. The sweet smell of the oil, the gathered community and the simplicity of the ruins were so moving. Thank you, Lord. To stand gathered with all the saints in worship is a gift – remarkable and holy.”
In the ruins of a tiny church, nearly completely hidden by the enormity of the surrounding temple ruins, I was reminded that in baptism, I had been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. I was reminded that I was a part of a larger community of saints – saints who worshiped thousands of years ago in countries far away, and saints who worship together today from differing backgrounds. And I was reminded that in my baptism, I was called to follow Christ throughout my life.
In baptism, God claims and affirms us. God says to each of us “you are my beloved son” or “you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well-pleased.” Baptism is God showing us who we are through water and words. It’s God saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” It’s God showing us whose we are – people freed from our sins and dead to our old selves, raised to live new lives in Christ. Baptism shapes our identities – we are God’s beloved children, forgiven through God’s grace, and made a part of the beautiful community of believers that stretches across time and space.
In baptism we are also gifted and blessed with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit calls us to seek God, stirs up fire for justice and transformation in our hearts, and empowers us to serve in the world. It is with this Spirit that both John and Jesus were filled – and we receive it, too! Folks, that’s powerful. And as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
When I hear this Gospel reading for today, I think about John in all of his wildness – all of his unconventionality and how he served God as a prophet. Here was a man yelling “you brood of vipers!” at the curious people who came to see him and listen to him. He wasn’t one to hold punches or to withhold the truth from anyone. And oddly enough, they ate it up! They couldn’t get enough of it – they wanted him to baptize them with the baptism of repentance. John’s fiery words convicted them of their wrongdoing and they wanted to straighten up and fly right. But when they started to wonder if John was the long-awaited Messiah, this confident and feisty leader pointed away from himself. That’s the image I have in my mind – John standing on the banks of the Jordan River, fired-up about calling people to repent, all the while pointing to God, trying to put the attention where he knows it should be.
We may not serve like John the Baptist – I mean, seriously, how many people can pull off calling others a “brood of vipers” and get away with it? But all of us are called to serve and, in doing so, to point to Christ. And it’s crucial to recognize that each of us has different skills and passions – tools we can use to serve God and to build up the kingdom. Our ministries are not going to be identical, because we, as beloved children of God, are not identical.
This doesn’t make it easy to figure out how to serve because our service might look very different than that of our neighbors. But I think the key is appreciating that we were baptized into a community – into a group of people who may be very different but who are all united through Christ. We can respect and support the ministries of our fellow believers as they respect and support ours. Remember, God says “with you I am well-pleased” not “with you I would be well-pleased if you were only a bit more like so-and-so!”
Continuing to come back to baptism each day helps ground us. We are God’s beloved children and God is well-pleased with us simply because God loves us, not because of anything we’ve done to earn God’s favor. In baptism, we are forgiven and set free, gifted with the Holy Spirit to make a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom of God. Yes, we have been gifted with the Spirit to make a real difference, if only we could believe it!
And we’re not just called to serve within these four walls. Throughout the week, the words we say and even the smallest things we do can all bear witness to Christ and how God is at work in our lives. It may be as simple as letting someone merge in front of you on your commute home or by being a gracious host or hostess. It may mean taking a stand against something you know is wrong at work or in school. It may mean following that little nudge that you feel pushing you to do something that is out of your comfort zone. Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, our lives, just like John the Baptist’s, are to point to Jesus, the one who has redeemed us through love.
Today we are installing the council members, both experienced and new. Each of them has responded to the call and challenge to serve with a “yes.” Throughout the coming year, they will be tasked with prayerfully beginning new discussions, considering requests, and making decisions. And in all of these situations, they are being asked to serve in ways that mean they, and by extension our congregation, will point to Christ. As they begin or continue their terms, let us pray for them that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit and be faithful in following Christ as they serve on council. And as we all continue on our journeys, may we pray for one another and help each other figure out the ways in which God may be calling us to serve using our unique skills. As we go out to serve this week, may you remember, you are God’s beloved child and with you God is well-pleased. Thanks be to God for this incredible gift and the opportunity to make a difference! Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.