The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Ask for 2 children to help. Give one a paper sign to hold but not to show the congregation.
I was starting to work on my sermon when David Brown stopped by my office. When I told him that I was preaching this week, he reminisced about the best children’s sermon that he’d ever heard—one that Fr. John Hines preached here over 25 years ago. Now, I was definitely interested in any sermon that someone can remember for 25 years. Usually, it’s hard to remember what I said myself last month! But then, when I realized that this great sermon was a reflection on this week’s readings, of all things, I knew that the Holy Spirit must be at work! So, tipping my hat to Fr. John, I will start today with my own version of what David shared with me.
(Unroll paper sign with letters IABAP written large across the top.) Take a good look at these letters. These are divine, holy letters. When you are born, God engraves them on your soul. Everyone--each son and daughter of Adam and Eve, from the beginning of Creation until now--carries these letters deep within their very being. There are no exceptions. These letters stand for who we are in God’s eyes, who God created us to be: “I am beloved and precious.” IABAP. Say them with me: IABAP.
Can you feel the letters stir around somewhere inside? If you feel silly doing this, it’s because these words are strangely hard to believe. My preaching mentor used to always say that it’s easy to get people to believe that they are terrible sinners. What’s hard is to get them to believe that God loves them. Usually, young children have less trouble calling themselves beloved than we adults do. But it’s only in babies’ eyes that you can see straight through to the letters. Baby’s eyes have a kind of soft glow, a thinly-veiled twinkle. I think that’s God’s hand-etched love letters shining through.
What happens to us as we get older, then?
Adults and children, I bet you can all remember that time when the girl on the playground told you that she wouldn’t be your friend anymore? Or the first … or the tenth …. time that you got picked last for the team? Rip, went part of God’s beautiful name for you. (Children tear paper and let it fall).
Remember the time when the teacher sent you out in the hall for talking, when you were just trying to help your neighbor? Remember your first B, or C, or D on a test? Rip, went part of God’s beautiful name. (Children tear paper and let it fall.)
How about the time when you didn’t get a Valentine, and everyone else in the class did? Or the time that your mom or dad yelled at you really, really loud. Rip, went another of those letters (Children tear paper and let it fall.)
And then there was the time that you prayed really hard for something, for something important, and it seemed like God didn’t hear you. There was the time that you or your grandma or your pet was really sick, and it sure didn’t look like God was doing anything to help. Rip, went another of those letters.
Pretty soon, that beautiful name that God gave you is covered over by hurt and lost behind ugly names that life pastes on top. The letters are torn in little pieces by the destructive powers that swirl around us in this world. Oh, we’re all still anxious to touch these letters again, of course. Even grown-ups. We will do anything for words of approval, words of unconditional love. We will work too hard for them. We will buy whatever advertisers promise us will deliver them. We will hunt for them in food, and alcohol, and drugs.
We might forget where to look for these words, but God never gives up on us. God is like the nanny in the film, The Help, crooning over and over to her neglected and abused young charge, “You is good; you is beautiful; you is important.” God leans over to the exiled and beaten people of Israel and proclaims through the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
In Luke’s Gospel, too, we see a crowd of God’s beloved people thirsty for answers, starving for hope. They think that they might see that hope in the person of John the Baptizer. They pray that they will find the wholeness of these words under the waters of the Jordan. Even Jesus. Even Jesus needs to hear these precious words from his Father.
Right before today’s lesson, Luke reminds us that Jesus belongs to the whole human condition. All the way from Joseph back to Adam, Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy. Like each of us, each child of Adam, Jesus needs to gather the strength of these words before he can fulfill the Father’s plans for him. God breathes them down on him from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
When we are baptized, too, God sends the Holy Spirit to breathe us back to wholeness, to the loving, living wholeness of Jesus. My favorite part of every baptism in our church is when I get to take the blessed oil, the chrism, and make a tiny cross on the forehead of the person being baptized. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” I say.
What I didn’t know until this week is why we make this sign of the cross on the middle of the forehead. According to an ancient mystic tradition, the eye of the soul is located here, in the middle of our foreheads. While our regular eyes look out to see the world, the eye of the soul both looks out on God’s spirit in the world AND looks deep within us, where God resides in us, where God’s name for us is still intact. Our baptism washes the dirt from this third eye. It washes this eye open, this hidden eye, here in the middle of our foreheads. Our baptism wakes our souls to what God intends for us. With the third eye open and sealed with the Cross, we can once again see ourselves as God sees us. We are made ready to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves. We are made ready to do the work that Jesus gives us to do.
Artist Janet Richardson tells the story of a homeless schizophrenic woman named Fayette. Fayette found her way to church and asked to be baptized. The priest explained that baptism was “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the chaos of her troubled life. Fayette would come to church every Sunday, and ask, “When I’m baptized, I am …?” Everyone would tell her “a beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” The day of her baptism, she lifted her head from the font and shouted, “And now I am ….?” And the congregation responded, “beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh yes,” she shouted, and began to dance around.
Sometime later, the priest of this church heard that Fayette had been attacked and beaten out on the streets and was in the hospital. She stopped by for a visit, and from the door to Fayette’s hospital room, she saw the woman pacing back and forth. “I am a beloved, precious child of God, and …” she said, over and over. She was hurt and disheveled from the attack, and the words were stuck and torn, like these pieces of paper on the floor. Looking at her bruised face in the mirror, though, she persevered. “I am the beloved, precious child of God …. and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away,” she finally said triumphantly.
You, me, Fayette, every child of Adam and Eve, every child of God: We are all beloved and precious, bound to God in Christ, bound to one another in God’s love. Forever.
In a few minutes, when Father Bill and I come by to sprinkle you with water in remembrance of your baptism, touch a few drops of that water to your forehead, and wash the sleep from the tiny soul-eye there. Whisper, with God: “IABAP. I am beloved and precious,” and rejoice. Amen.