A sermon on the occasion of the baptism of Abraham Richard, Willow Samantha Jeanne, Aeden Sean Dennis & Rowan Pandora Louise - Reign of Christ Sunday
- Luke 1:68-79
Abraham, Willow, Aeden and Rowan. These are the names of the four disciples whose baptism we are privileged to witness this morning. Abraham, Willow, Aeden and Rowan. Four saints. Four who today are called out and set apart as signs of God’s kingdom come, God’s will done on earth as in heaven. Abraham, Willow, Aeden and Rowan. How appropriate that you are baptised on the final Sunday of the Christian Year, in a congregation learning to live in the peculiar gospelled rhythms of the Christian seasons. On Reign of Christ Sunday we leap forward into the future, to the end of time, to see that Jesus - the suffering servant who humbly rides on a donkey and kneels to wash the feet of his disciples - is the Lord, the King, the Messiah. Today we leap forward into the future in order to see life in the present tense with clear eyes. At the font we see that serving Jesus here and now is the end, the purpose, the goal of life. And here, in the four of you, we see that all of us are baptised into a community of disciples. We do not follow Jesus alone. At the font we are adopted into a surprising new family, a family in which water is thicker than blood.
Like all families, this one has a story that tells us who and whose we are. Like families we tell our story to one another when we are together. Abraham, Willow, Aeden and Rowan, your baptism takes place on a day when we read and sing the “Song of Zechariah.” In days and years to come whenever you read it or sing it this song will be a reminder of your baptism into the Christian household. To be honest, Zechariah’s song is not one that many of us remember. But it is an important song that dare not be forgotten. So I am hoping that you will learn it, treasure it and remember it on our behalf. Though we are singing it on the last Sunday of the Christian year it is also sung in Advent, the first season of the Christian year. It is one of four songs - four carols - in Luke’s story of the births of John and Jesus. The other three songs are more well known. There is the “Magnificat” sung by Mary, the “Gloria, in Excelsis Deo” sung by a choir of angels and the “Nunc Dimittis” sung by Simeon. Your song, the fourth song is Zechariah’s song, called the “Benedictus.”
Zechariah is a priest, a holy man. He and his wife, Elizabeth, are old and can have no children. Then angel Gabriel appears to tell Zechariah that they are to have a child who will have “the power and spirit of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17). Zechariah wonders how it is possible. Because he wonders the angel tells Zechariah that he will not be able to speak until it happens. Can you imagine? For nine months Zechariah the priest cannot talk, he cannot preach. He can only make hand signals and shake his head and scribble notes. This is where your song - the Song of Zechariah - comes into the story. These are the first words that Zechariah speaks in nine months time. They are special words, words filled with the Holy Spirit, with prophecy (Lk. 1:67) ... which is to say, they are words filled with truth, words filled with power. This is the reason we say: “The Word of God” after reading scripture. We are saying these are not just any words. We are saying these are words filled with power to transform life, to transform the world, to transform us. This is what we hope and pray will happen with the Song of Zechariah in your life. We hope that it will be a song of power, a song of transformation, a song of life.
This is really all I need to say. You do not need me to explain the song to you. The more you sing it and live in it, the more you see the world through this song and this faith, the more you will know the power of the Holy Spirit to transform heart and soul, family and church and nation, even all of creation. But I cannot resist. I am like the giver of a gift who is watching you open a present. I am eager to point out the things that I love about the gift. In years to come I would like very much to have you show me things that I do not yet see in this gift, this song. Today I want to show you three things that I love about this song.
The first thing that I want to show you is that Zechariah sings first not about his own newborn baby but about another baby who is not yet born. This is the part of the story that most Christmas books and pageants leave out. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary is pregnant. Her baby, Jesus, will be laid in a manger. We know that story well. Your song is first a song about the baby Jesus. It is sung even before Jesus is born. Yet notice something odd and wonderful about your song. In it Zechariah sings as if Jesus is already the Servant King, the Crucified Saviour, the Risen Messiah. Your song does not say that one day “God will raise up a mighty saviour.” It says this has already happened, that “God has raised up a mighty saviour.” Your song sings that things we assume have not yet occurred have already taken place. It sings as if the mercy so many people long to receive and to know has already been given. Your song sings that the future is not dark, not hopeless. Your song sings that the future is God’s. This is a precious gift. In my experience, the older we get and the more we experience life, the harder it can be to really trust that God can be trusted to bring mercy and healing and transformation in years to come. It is the reason that I hope you sing Zechariah’s song into your bones, into your heart, into your soul. For once you have this extraordinary hope deep in your being you will find it to be a well-spring of courage and energy in the face of whatever trouble comes.
The second thing that I want you to see is that Zechariah also sings to his son, John. He says that John’s part in the story is to point to Jesus. The gospel story is not about John, but it needs John. John is the one who prepares the way, who leads people to forgiveness, to newness. John is sent to all who are lost, hopeless, discouraged. John is sent to those whose lives have taken a wrong turn. His life is a life of waking people up to the possibility of a new life, a life saved from despair and rescued from apathy. John calls it “repentance.” It means a turned-around life, a transformed life, true life, life eternal. Now I am not sure what to say to you about this part of the song. I expect that, like me and all of the rest of us, there will be a time - perhaps many times - when you, too, will be one of those who John seeks out. You, too, will need - even long for - the news that the transformation of repentance is possible, that your life can change and be changed. In this you will join the cast of characters in the gospel stories who are named tax-collectors and sinners, pharisees and most of all disciples - apprentices - of Jesus. But it may just be that your generation has a crucial calling to enact the part of John, John the Baptist. You see, in some ways, my generation has played the part of Zechariah. We have lived through a barren season when we doubted God’s capacity to save, to make new, to birth a new generation of the church never mind to grace the earth with mercy. And, as a result, my generation has often been mute, unable to speak about God’s future with conviction, to trust that in Jesus Christ we are given courage to live as salt and light and yeast. So I wonder if it is no accident, even God’s providence, that your baptismal song is the Song of Zechariah. I wonder if you and your generation in the church are called to prepare the way, to point to Jesus, to be a lighthouse of hope in a sea of despair.
There is one more thing I want you to see. It is the title of your song: “Benedictus.” This is the Latin word that means “blessing.” It is the title because it is the first word in the song. A blessing is something - a word, a gesture, an action - that gives another person energy for life. A blessing carries power. We do not understand how a blessing works. But we know that a true blessing is real. The odd thing about your song is that it is not the kind of blessing we expect. We expect Zechariah to sing a song of blessing to his son. Instead, listen to how your song begins: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” Yes, your song is a blessing of God. It means your song is intended to increase God’s power. Usually it is God who blesses people. In this case, those who sing the Benedictus are blessing God. Does God need blessing? Does God need energy? Do we have the capacity to increase God’s power? According to this song - and other psalms like it in the Bible - the surprising answer is yes. I do not know how it works. Maybe it is something like the energy grid that you will come to know when your homes have solar power panels on the roof so that the sun’s energy can saved and then passed back up the grid to be shared with others. But I am sure that God must require a massive amount of energy in order to transform and to save and to redeem the world. This is what the conclusion of your song announces. It says that this is what is happening to us and through us. This is the participatory blessing we receive from God and give to God. And here is the blessing in which your life, from this day forward, will be lived: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in to the way of peace.”
p.s. By the way, in one of the other scriptures assigned to be read today there is a more traditional blessing. It is not a blessing of God. It is a blessing intended for those who hear and read the words. It is a blessing from the first chapter of Colossians. Abraham, Willow, Aeden and Rowan - this prayer, this promise, this blessing is also our gift to you throughout all of your days: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:11).