“Standing Up”

“STANDING UP” sermon by Stan Smith
Text: Mark 1:4-11
January 11, 2015


Imagine yourself in a theater. The houselights dim, the curtain rises. On stage you see a great throng of people milling about. On one side of the stage a spotlight reveals a rough, heroic figure. His voice is loud and strident. He has everyone’s attention, and many are allowing him to baptize them.

But now that light begins to fade and the voice subsides as another light begins to focus on a different figure at center stage. He is a young man, deep in prayer. The water from his recent baptism still drips from his hands, his beard. The crowd begins to turn its attention from the baptizer to the baptized. As we gaze more intently upon him, he seems to be hearing something, and we strain to hear it also. “YOU ARE MY SON, THE BELOVED,” a voice is saying. “WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED.”

According to Luke, this is where the story of Jesus really begins. We may be surprised at that. We thought it all began a few weeks ago with Mary and an Angel, with a trip to Bethlehem, a holy birth, shepherds and magi. But no, not really. If you were staging this story as a dramatic presentation, you would have all the Advent and Christmas parts played in front of the curtain, because it is all prologue. It gives us the background information we need to know who this is at center stage and why he is an important person for us. Having prepared the ground, Luke can now begin the story with the young man at prayer, a watchful crowd, and a voice speaking words of affirmation.

Water has been in the news a lot over the last decade, with Hurricanes , Tsunamis, and the ongoing cycles of drought and floods. The Western United States witnessed some massive flooding over the holidays. Europe has seen historic flooding this past year. Even the less dramatic storms and snowstorms that disrupt our daily lives make the daily news. Water is part of the drama of our life. It brings life, but not enough or too much can bring destruction.

With all this water talk maybe it is important to know what we are doing here. What is baptism about? What”s the church perspective on baptism? Why do this thing?

The basics are easy. Baptism is a sacrament. It is a sacred moment. “It is an outward sign of an inward truth.” It is a symbol –– a sign that points toward and participates in the deeper reality that is represented by the symbol. The word itself means “to dip” “to wash” or “to bathe.”

But the story of Jesus begins with an affirmation. Even before Jesus had begun to do what God had in mind for him to do there is this affirmation. Jesus hasn’t told a single parable, nor called a single disciple, nor healed anyone. He doesn’t even have a clear sense of what his ministry is to be. Still, God speaks words of affirmation, “WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED!”

Of course baptism can be seen in many different ways…
For some people, baptism is “just joining the Jesus club.” Everyone knows what it means to join a club such as Brownies or Boy Scouts, the Chamber or Kiwanis, the Elks or Woman’s Club. We have all joined clubs and every club has its rules and regulations. Baptism would be joining the ‘Jesus club” and we now have to follow the “Jesus rules” as suggested by a particular congregation.

For others, baptism, especially infant baptism, is like “hell insurance.” One family insisted that their grand daughter was baptized because the family was going on a trip. Grandma didn’t want to have that baby be in a car accident, get killed and go to hell. But the minister made a mistake and at the time of the baptism didn’t have the baptismal certificate completed. The family insisted that he do so on Monday morning, so they would have a “hell insurance card” before a car trip to Montana.

For others, they wait until a child is older to be baptized. They want to let the child grow up until they are old enough to “make a decision for themselves.” We as Disciples fall in this long line of “immersion” denominations. We call it “adult” baptism.

You may not know this, but in the early Christian centuries, converts were baptized naked. Now that would perk up a Sunday morning worship service! And they put on white robes when they came up out of the water. It was a sign that they had literally put on Christ like a garment. They wore those robes for a period as a reminder of who they were and what they had done. We, like they, are the Christ-bearers of our world, carrying Christ with us wherever we go.

This is a significant moment in the life of Jesus, hearing such an affirmation. Baptism seems to be not so much concerned with what we do as with what God does for us. Coming to our baptism is opening ourselves to God’s waiting grace. And as Frederick Buechner suggests: “…there is NOTHING we have to do, nothing WE have to do, nothing we have to DO.” We only accept with thankful lives how much God loves and receives us in Christ, how God forgives and forges us to become all we are created to be.

Think of your own experience in giving and receiving affirmation. Normally, affirmation comes in response to something well done — a difficult assignment completed ahead of schedule, a good report card, a sensitive and gracious act. “I’m really pleased with what you’ve done, I appreciate you.” Such words are important, to say and to hear. But normally they come afterwards and not before. But God speaks them before, and I think this is the cornerstone and foundation of grace, that God speaks words of affirmation to us before we have done anything to merit them.

Abraham Mazlow pointed out that a key factor in emotional health is the capacity to value ourselves in a healthy kind of way. We need to have within us a deeply rooted sense of our own worth that cannot be destroyed by the ups and downs of daily living. Most of us are not as secure in that respect as we wold like to be.

After worship on Sunday ninety nine people might tell me they liked the sermon while the one hundredth scowls and calls it a “do-over”. Do I go home and relish the approval of the 99, or do I sit and brood over the one negative comment. I don’t think I need to give you three guesses.

Each and every one of us, from early on, needs to hear the affirmation that we inherently know to be true, and that is that we are loveable, loved by God, and worth everything before we even exit the womb.

I remember a friend of mine describing an infant baptismal service. Evidently one Sunday a rather nondescript woman sitting in the back pew came and asked the Pastor if he would baptize her new grandson. The pastor told her to have the child’s parents call him. The woman said that the child’s mother, her 18-year-old daughter, had no husband. Well, this was a small town, and people had some strong attitudes about such situations. However, the pastor agreed to baptize the child. On the Sunday when the child was presented, the young mother brought the child forward, by herself. In that church it was the custom at one point in the baptismal service for the pastor to ask, “WHO STANDS WITH THIS CHILD?” When the question was asked that day, only the child’s grandmother stood — and she had to be coaxed a bit. The pastor was about ready to continue, when he became aware of some movement in the pews. He looked up to see that the most influential elder and community leader in that town had stood up, along with his wife. Then others began to stand also. The sixth grade Sunday School teacher stood, then a new couple in church stood. And pretty soon the whole congregation was standing up with this little baby.

You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Stand up!