For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with the people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, ‘It is finished!’ For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own. And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: ‘We love because God first loved us.’
These are the words of the liturgy that I typically use when we baptize children. I have no claim on authorship –preachers and theologians have adapted them through the years, but they originated with the French Protestant church. And though I wish I could say this was intentional, it was not my thought to choose this text in a week when the French people have been reeling from their national tragedies. It is a moment like this when I am reminded how the Spirit intervenes and binds us, all of us, regardless of nation or creed, together.
What is so compelling about this prayer to me is how it is, at the same time, both intimate and universal. God brought everything into being – for you! God came as Christ – for you! Christ ministered, died, and rose – for you! You, whom I can fold and hold within my arms, have captured the imagination of our limitless God. “For you, little one…” You!
This comes in the echoes of our lesson this morning, where John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the wilderness, down in the murky waters of the Jordan River. John has been preaching about Jesus, building him up. He knows the crowds have been coming out to see him; he must be aware what a wild figure he strikes, too, that he has grabbed their attention, and that they will listen closely to whatever it is he has to say. Jesus, he says, “is far more powerful than I! I’m not even worthy enough to bend down and touch his filthy, dusty sandals. You think water is powerful? Wait until you see what his holy fire can do.”
So when Jesus comes to John, it is understandable that he would demur. The way he has talked about Jesus, it’s not right that he should baptize him; it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptizing him into righteousness. Jesus simply says, “Do this. It’s the right thing to do.” And as the hands of the wild prophet release Jesus from under the waters and back to the safety of the open air, the skies ring out: “My Beloved!” as the entirety of holiness joins in to celebrate the moment.
“For you, little one…”
Can we even begin to get a handle on this concept? Do we believe that baptism really represents God’s undying pleasure in us, and that this pleasure has very little to do with whether we had a say in the matter ourselves? Not only is baptism both intimate and vast at the same time; it is also a moment where we admit how little we really know about God’s love. The French liturgy puts it this way: “All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”
God’s love for us does not depend on our love for God. Christ’s death and resurrection did not wait for us to say that we were on board. In the language and metaphors that dominate our household right now, God loves both superheroes and supervillains alike. God may not love what they do, but God still loves them. In other words, baptism is our collective act of faith that God will continue to act in our lives in ways we can only begin to glimpse.
“For you, little one…”
While in seminary, I got to know Ben, who attended the church where I worshiped. He was in his sixties, and had some kind of cognitive issue that meant he was more like a child than an adult. He was a huge movie fan. He gave every film he saw the same review: “Very good.” He had grown up in the church, and had been baptized as a child. Somehow, though, he had never been confirmed. The reason, it turned out, was that he had never been considered “adult” enough to articulate his faith. The more the Session contemplated it, though, one thing stood out clearly: Ben knew that church meant a place where he was included. And in his life, there weren’t many places like that. In many ways, Ben understood God’s love far better than most of us ever will; he joined the church the next Sunday.
Being a Christian is more than being able to understand or explain the faith. Being a Christian is grasping that, far beyond anything we could ever do, the skies are willing to split open for us and name us as God’s beloved! And so, as God’s people, we continue to tell the stories of our faith – of faith both intimate and vast – to others, so that they might receive the gift of making stories of their own. We work alongside God to create a community where people know, more than anything else, that they are included, welcomed, and beloved, too.
“For you, little one…”
As we continue into this new year, and on this day as we consider what baptism meant for Christ and what it means for us, I want to ask you this: what needs to be made new for you? Where is it that you need to know renewal? Where in your life has the dust of the trail built up to the point that you need it to be washed away? Where is your soul parched and in need of refreshment?
Maybe it’s in a relationship – with a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a colleague, a friend. What once was precious and clear has become murky and worn. Or perhaps it’s in a career; an area of study; a passionate hobby or commitment: what once gave you joy is now a burden. Or maybe it’s in your spirit, your life of faith and commitment to that intimate, vast God. What once was active and crisp has turned passive and soft.
Whatever it might be for you, let’s be clear about this: renewal isn’t about returning to what was. That’s nostalgia, not faith. Renewal is a paradox, such as heading into the desert to find water. When we descend into the depths, the hope is not that we would go back to “the way things used to be”. Instead, the hope is that we would hand over those things to God so that they would return to us transformed and more beautiful than we ever could have expected!
I know of many churches – and I am pleased to say that Oglethorpe Presbyterian is not one of them – that lament the loss of bygone eras. Many pastors of struggling churches have members who recount the multiple, massive Easter services of the 1950s and 1960s and wonder why they can’t recapture those glories. The truth is simply this: being faithful does not mean going back; being faithful means an incarnate living in 2015. And since nothing else looks like it did fifty years ago, why would the Church be any different? It’s not that we seek to merely mirror culture, but rather that we give all that we do over to God so our efforts would be redeemed toward the future that God has in store for us!
The purpose in all of this, the goal, is that we would continue to draw closer to God who is already nearer than breath, who loved us before we even knew how to love, who embodies the vast intimacy we so dearly crave.
“All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”
May it be so. Amen.