It was Will Willimon who taught me that all preaching is baptismal preaching. Either the preacher is talking about what life is like because you are among the baptized or the sermon is a description of what it would mean to decide to be baptized. Suddenly every sermon is about baptism. What, then, of the Sundays when the service includes baptism? On those occasions I decided to address the sermon directly to those who were baptized on that day. I would invite the congregation to overhear the sermon. In the cases where the baptized were young children I gave a copy of the manuscript to the parents and asked them to include it with the baptism certificate and photos of the day so that their child might read it in the years to come. I imagined the scripture readings of the day as a gift to them. In this way the congregation was encouraged to see the baptism as the most important event in its life on this day. Some examples of sermons preached on a baptismal Sunday are posted here at "Benedictus", We went through fire and water, yet ..." and "Tested". Here is another, titled "When You Pass Through the Waters" (from 2007), that hosts Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-22 ...
Today we are witnesses to the baptism of Jakob. It is particularly appropriate that Jakob is baptized on the Sunday when we mark the baptism of Jesus, since it was young Jakob who took the part of the newborn Jesus here on Christmas Eve. With all the festivity of Christmas it is easy to forget that in the early church the baptism of Jesus was more celebrated than his birth. In the third century there were three major Christian festivals - Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Then Epiphany was not a celebration of the arrival of the magi but of the baptism of Jesus. Imagine our life built on a threefold rhythm that marked Jesus’ Baptism, the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. That is how it was in the church in the second, third and fourth centuries. Today we are back at the beginning. Back at the river. And we are here as witnesses of young Jakob’s immersion in the water.
There is another reason why it is particularly appropriate that Jakob is here for baptism today. Listen to the first words from Isaiah’s mouth:“Now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.” It is a text addressed to Jakob. Remember Jacob. He is the second of the twins. The first is Esau - “red”. The second is born hanging onto his slightly elder brother’s heel and is called Jacob - “heel grabber”. Then comes the hard story of Jacob’s life and the dramatic night when his encounter with God changes everything - including his name. At the end of that dark struggle he is no longer Jacob, he is now Israel - “God wrestler”. The name is an important name. It carries with it the whole history of a people. Because when Isaiah begins to quote the LORD he is not speaking to any one person, he is speaking to a people. The people itself is being called Jacob, the people itself have been given the name Israel. The baptism of young Jakob today is not only his baptism. It is also the acting out of our communal baptism. Little Jakob stands in for this congregation, for the whole church, when he goes through the waters.
Now hear the word of the LORD to those who meet at the river’s edge: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Looking at the newborns in the congregation we can well imagine that these are the very words spoken to them in the womb: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” These are also the words spoken when we find ourselves at the end of life, preparing to cross through the waters: “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.” The font has often been domesticated in the church. There is just a small amount of water. There appears to be no danger of drowning. We can be led to think it is as simple as giving a blessing without risking life. But the font stands here every Sunday as the risky entry point to new life. This is the river bank that terrifies. These are the womb-like waters that lie between us and new life on the other side of dying to the way things are.
Isaiah encourages the great congregation that goes by the name of Jacob - Israel - to step into the river. Speaking for Yahweh he says there is no need for fear because “I have redeemed you”. Israel has not yet been rescued. It is in captivity. Exiled. Troubled. Lost. Still on the wrong side of the river. It is the location of more than a few of us who are here. Not yet rescued. Captive to forces that cause despair and ache. Troubled. Lost. It doesn’t seem that life has already been redeemed, restored, saved. But Yahweh says “I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” The LORD has called you by name: Jacob - the heel grabber, with a sordid history, who has run away with Esau’s inheritance - has been called by the name Israel and is God’s own family. It is the reason that baptism is a place of naming. It is the place where the early Christians are given new names - Christian names - to tell the world that they have died to their former existence and have been born into a new way of life. It is a “Christening”. An adoption into the Body of Christ. This is huge. At the font the LORD lays claim to lost souls. Here the lost are found and named and claimed. Here God says: “These are my own”.
This sounds crass. Isn’t it a bit crude to say that some are especially claimed by God? Yes. Perhaps it is. But it is what God says. Yahweh says that there is a people who are chosen, called, named and rescued for a purpose. It is a people for whom God is prepared to pay an exorbitant ransom. Isaiah reports that Yahweh will exchange the ancient superpower Egypt, along with Ethiopia and Seba for tiny Israel because “you are precious in my sight and honoured and I love you.” This little, salty people is God’s beloved witness in the world. In other words, this is a people who have a challenging calling. It is a people whose entire life is given to wrestling with God and serving God. It is not everyone’s life calling. But it is Jacob’s life calling. When John invites Israel to gather back at the Jordan river he intends to remind the people of this forgotten calling. Israel has been through the waters but has forgotten that it was saved for a purpose. It is like a church that imagines that it is free to do whatever it chooses. It has begun to run off after tempting illusions of a better life. John says it is time to return to the river where it began. Passing through the waters, beginning again, letting go of the past is a frightening prospect. You may wonder how much of a new beginning this can be for young Jakob. After all, he is just three and a half months old. Make no mistake. Jakob’s future direction changes here. Here he dies to the story that would tell him: “Be whatever you wish. Your life belongs to you. So long as you are happy and satisfied, all is well.” Here, at the font, he is immersed in a different story. Here he learns that he has been redeemed even before he discovers he is lost. Here he is named and chosen by God to belong to the people who the LORD calls and wrestles with. Here he is promised that “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
We do not know what dangerous waters little Jakob will have to get through in his lifetime or what rivers of doubt and trouble will threaten to overwhelm him. But we can imagine what they may be. We know them. Some of us are in the midst of those terrifying currents now. We didn’t know that they were baptismal waters. We thought they were a terrible ordeal, a chaotic storm, a test of endurance. But the journey to the new life with God is not without risk or cost. It means leaving behind settled ways, letting go of lives that we have grown accustomed to, trusting that God will carry us through the uncharted waters. John says that when Jesus arrives the baptism in the river seems tame by comparison. Jesus does not baptize with water. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. You have heard of a “baptism by fire”? That’s a Jesus baptism. No sprinkling of water. In fact, no water at all. When Jesus baptizes it is with the rush of gale force wind that is the power of God’s energy coming to stir everything up. Jesus baptizes with a fire that burns away the chaff of life. The unnecessary parts are incinerated. Gone are the addictions that devour. Greed and pride and arrogance and violence become a pile of ash. No one looks forward to a baptism by fire. It is human nature to run the other way, to delay, to hope it will pass by. Finally it becomes clear that the only way home, the only way to wholeness, the only way to life is through the fire. It takes all the courage one can muster to walk into the fire, trusting that it will not destroy everything. That is when Israel remembers - that is when hear - the promise of the LORD: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you ... Do not fear, for I am with you.”
The font is the starting point. Here we recall that the way home is through the deep waters. Here we cannot forget that when Jesus arrives on the scene he baptizes the church with Holy Spirit and with fire. That is the reason that we place the font in a place where you cannot see the table or the pulpit without looking at the waters. It is also true that you cannot look at the waters without seeing the table. Because if the font is the way home, the table is home itself. The welcome table is the location of God’s great homecoming for those scattered souls whose deep desire is to be with God. They are the lost descendants of Israel. They are Jews and Gentiles. They are the dispossessed and forgotten and overlooked. They are the seekers and doubters who cannot seem to stop thinking about God and longing for God even when they are sure that they have given up on God. They are the ones who the Good Shepherd is seeking and guiding home, as Isaiah foretells: “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth - everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” The wonder of it all is that this is not simply a poetic dream or a romantic hope. It is the truth. It is what is happening here and now. Along with little Jakob you belong to the great congregation of surprised seekers and aching longers and daring hopers who have been called by name and who are being led home. You need not fear the waters of trouble that terrify. They will not overwhelm you. Do not fear the fiery future that lies ahead. The flame shall not consume you. How can I be sure? I can be sure because this is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.