Jason Crosby, preaching
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The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile foot race run through Death Valley in July. Temperatures during the race routinely reach 130 degrees. To finish the race, a person must be in extraordinary physical condition, a person must carefully manage food and water intake and constantly monitor body temperature. Scott Jurek is arguably the world’s best ultramarathon runner. He routinely competes in races of 100 miles or more and wins most of the time. Jurek’s first ran the Badwater in 2005. He entered the race as the favorite to win. Around the 60th mile, Jurek’s body overheated. He was nauseous. He could barely walk. The race leaders were more than 10 miles ahead. For 10 minutes, Jurek submerged himself in an ice bath and remained as still as a corpse. Jurek shared the conversation he had with himself during those 10 minutes after the race. “Your done.” He told himself. “You’d have to do something completely incredible to win this race. Like what? Like starting all over again. Like pretending you just woke up from a great night’s sleep and the race hasn’t even started yet. You’d have to run the next 80 miles as fast as you’ve ever run eighty miles in your life. No chance. Right?” Jurek got up, came back, won the race, and did so in a record time of 24:36.[i]
Jurek’s come back story is an incredible one. It could even be described as miraculous. As incredible as Jurek’s come back was, it can be just as difficult, if not more so, to come back to sobriety from the brink of addiction, to come back to integrity after betraying someone you care about, to come back to a place of joy after the death of a loved one. Jurek is an extraordinary athlete with an extraordinary gift. Only a handful of people on earth can come back from where he found himself to do what he did. But, Christ’s baptism teaches us that anyone, even the most average of Joes and Jills, can come back from the depths of sinfulness and despair to live lives of fullness, goodness, and joy, if one pins one’s faith in Christ Jesus.
The gospels quickly move from Jesus’ birth to the Jesus’ baptism. I do not think this is a coincidence. Jesus’ birth and baptism go hand-in-hand. Through Jesus’ birth, God burst forth into this realm fully and so began a new chapter in the story of God’s relationship with humanity. Through Jesus’ baptism, God shows us how we may be reborn to live life anew. Soon after Christ’s birth, the gospels show us how we may be reborn, and come back to the life God yearns for us to lead.
Make no mistake, Jesus’ baptism is instructional, not essential. Jesus had no reason to repent. Jesus had no need for God’s Spirit to descend upon him. Jesus was divinity incarnate. The baptism, then, like so much of Jesus’ life, right up to its very end, is for us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Even if Jesus were innocent, even if his intentions were nothing but good, it was ruinous to his reputation. Who was going to believe that he was there just because he cared about those people and refused to separate himself from them?...You see the problem. We spend a lot of time in the Christian church talking about God's love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them. Guilt by association and all that.”[ii] Jesus walked into the river Jordan so that all of us could more clearly see God’s love.
Jesus’ baptism shows us how, with God, we may experience rebirth. Baptism predated Christ. Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, was named John the Baptist for a reason. John had been baptizing those who came to the Jordan confessing and repenting their sins for quite some time before Jesus came to the river bank to be baptized. Those baptized by John were relieved of their past sins and transgressions. However, we learn that baptisms performed in the name of Jesus would be different. John baptized with water. Those baptized in the name of Jesus would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptismal medium is a more potent one. Not only are our past shortcomings washed away by the waters of baptism, but baptisms performed in the name of Christ Jesus possess the capacity to fill one with the Holy Spirit. Not only are those past mistakes that hold us back washed away, but in the waters of baptism the depths of our souls are replenished with the goodness and mercy of God’s Spirit. Baptisms done in the name of Christ Jesus completely set us free from whatever past wrongs we have committed. Although our past actions may haunt us, although our histories will always have practical consequences, no matter where we’ve gone or what we’ve done in baptism we are forgiven in the eyes of our Lord.
The reception of the Holy Spirit through baptism also shows us that we are guided by God always. God’s Spirit descended upon Jesus when Jesus arose from the waters of baptism like a dove. Likewise, God’s Spirit descends upon us and infuses itself into the depths of our souls like the air we breathe at baptism. When one rises up from the waters of baptism, then, we move ahead with a strong sense of belief that God goes with us. Through whatever trials we may face, through whatever difficulties we may endure, God’s comforting, wise, peaceful spirit accompanies us so that we may live differently than we ever have before.
The waters of baptism impress upon us that we are forgiven fully, we are guided constantly, and that we are loved eternally. Jesus heard God’s voice after his baptism telling him, “You are my beloved Son, whom I love.” In baptism, we too accept our position in God’s family, as God’s sons and daughters, who God loves with all God’s heart. We experience God’s forgiveness, guidance, and love, which are the very ingredients required for us to experience rebirth, to live life anew, to make the incredible come backs that we may need to make in our own lives in baptism.
God is God, and God certainly possesses the ability to communicate and does communicate God’s forgiveness, guidance, and love in methods beyond baptism. In do not believe baptism is by any means the only means by which a person can know God’s forgiveness, guidance, and love. These gifts of baptism, like the gifts of Advent, are gifts God makes accessible for all people, in all sorts of ways. Baptism, however, is one avenue that we can use to proclaim to God, to ourselves, and if conducted in public, to others, that we accept God’s gifts into our heart of hearts. And, baptism is one means by which we boldly state before God, ourselves, and others our intention of living differently, of living a baptized life.
Those who rise up out of the waters of baptism not only receive gifts from God, but rise up boldly proclaiming to walk in the way of Jesus. The gift of baptism, like any gift, comes with responsibility. It comes with strings attached. As people fully forgiven, guided, and beloved, we are to strive to forgive all others, love all others, and serve all others. This kind of life is the kind of life God wants us, invites us all, to come back to. We are not forgiven, guided, and loved so that we may go back to life as it was. We are forgiven, guided, and loved so that we may live lives shaped by the example we find in the life of Christ. We experience baptism so that we may learn how to truly love and serve, forgive and heal all others.
Preacher Fred Craddock tells this story about a baptism he
experienced while serving a small mission church in a small town in
Tennessee. He said, “It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a
baptismal service, and it was held at the lake on Easter evening at sundown.
After all the candidates had been baptized in the lake, everyone changed into
dry clothes and gathered around a fire. Once we were all around the fire,
one parishioner always introduced the new people. He gave their names,
where they lived and their work. The newly baptized people stayed close to
the warmth of the fire. Then the rest of the church members gathered around
them in a circle. The next part of the ritual was that each person around the
circle gave her or his name and said,
“My name is …and if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing,
call on me.”
“My name is …If you ever need anybody to chop wood, call on me.”
“My name is …If you ever need anybody to babysit, call on me.”
“My name is …If you ever need anybody to repair your house, call on me.” They cooked dinner and at together. They sang. Then they had a square dance.
“Finally . . . a parishioner named Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed
overalls, would stand up and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ And everybody left. He
lingered behind, and with his big shoe kicked sand over the dying fire. . . He
looked at Craddock and said, “[You know], folks don’t ever get any closer than this.” [iii] This is a picture of the kind of life we are all invited by God to live.
It’s by living a baptized life, where one accepts God’s forgiveness, guidance, and love, that we can all make a Scott Jurek-like come back and be reborn to live as God hopes we will, to live lives that look like the life of Christ.
It’s most appropriate that people who commit to live baptized lives gather around the table where we remember the life of Christ. All are welcome here who yearn to taste God’s love and mercy – the baptized, the not baptized, and everyone in between. For this table is God’s table where all are welcome to come and partake.
[i] Christopher McDougall. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. New York: Knopf, 2009.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor. Home by Another Way. “The River of Life.” Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1999.
[iii] Retelling of portion of Fred Craddock’s sermon, “When the Roll is Called Down Here,” by Rev. Amy Ritcher, Rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Parrish in Annapolis, MD.