(a sermon for January 8, 2017, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 3:13-17)
It was many summers ago now, back when all three of our children were still quite young; and we were in the midst of a week-long camping trip at one of the state parks in Vermont (Silver Lake, if I remember correctly). We’d been spending a lot of time that week exploring the backroads of rural Vermont, and we made a discovery that most natives already know: that there are as many dirt roads in Vermont as there are paved, and just because there’s a black line drawn on a road map doesn’t mean there’s actually going to be found there any kind of highway at all! So we got lost… a lot (!), and especially given this was in the days before GPS units quite often we’d find ourselves literally “following our noses” as we drove along these beautifully unimproved roads winding through hill and valley, forest, field and village!
Well, one afternoon we’re driving through this deep, rich green expanse of forest which as near as I could tell was several miles from anywhere (!), when suddenly from the back of our mini-van, I hear one of my children ask the question, “Whose woods are these?” And friends, immediately when I heard that, the memory of high school English classes of many years before stirred within me; and I had an answer:
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
(“Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost)
And suddenly, here I am driving down this road reciting Robert Frost… and from memory! Of course, this ability didn’t impress my children one lick, and Lisa probably just rolled her eyes (!); but for me the realization that I’m actually on this very land which inspired Frost to write all that wonderful poetry was a powerful thing, indeed.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Understand it’s mid-August, many months away from the first snowfall, but still these woods were “lovely, dark and deep,” and I found myself thinking how good it might be to live out there amidst the beauty and the quiet of just such a forest; to follow in the poetic footsteps of a Robert Frost or a Henry David Thoreau, to be dwelling in harmony with nature, living simply and somehow outside the confines of the rest of the world and all its confusion (trust me here, it’s a bit of a daydream that still enters my mind and heart from time to time!)
However, as is the case with most such daydreams, sooner or later I come to realization that as nice as it sounds, it’s not going to happen; but not for the reasons you might think. Actually, it’s because in the end, these woods – wherever they happen to be – are not the place of my life’s calling. You see, I, too, have promises to keep; many promises, in fact, that I have made freely, gladly and joyfully in the midst of my life. These are the promises, for instance, that I’ve made as a husband to “love, honor and cherish” my spouse and partner in life; there are the promises I have made as a parent to love and nurture my children (even now when they’re all grown up!); and then there’s the promise I made as a Christian to love and serve God as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The bottom line is that who I am and what I do ultimately has a great deal to do with all these promises I have made in my life and more. Likewise, I am responsible and accountable to the commitments I have made; to myself, to others and to God. So… while the woods are lovely, dark and deep, I do have promises to keep; and miles – a great many miles, I trust – to go before I sleep!
Actually, I’m mindful here of another poem, a little free verse piece I found years ago in some pastoral resource or another: “And God said, ‘You are free… free… FREE (!)… to be bound in any way you wish.’” Truly, even in these uncertain and swiftly changing times, if there is one value upon which we all can agree, it is most certainly the value of freedom; and yet, would you not agree that the exercise of our freedom exists and rests wholly on our full commitment and allegiance to that which sets us free? Think about this: a free nation must from time to time be forced to zealously guard and defend that freedom, even if that regretfully means going to war. A marriage vow shared by free and loving hearts must be held sacred against all the temptations that would seek to destroy it; likewise, the task of raising children to be free and independent adults requires us to keep a fairly tight hold on them as they grow and learn about the world around them.
Even our faith – our very freedom in Jesus Christ that comes to us in our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit – even our faith must be embraced with the spirit of obedience to God’s righteousness. This is why we do not merely sprinkle water on the baby’s forehead without first asking the parents if they promise to hold that child’s Christian faith in trust until they are old enough to confirm that choice as their own. That is why we ask all those being baptized if they promise, “by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best [they] are able.”
All of life, you see, and our faith itself is wrapped up in the promises we’ve made; the same promises we are charged to keep.
Isn’t it interesting that the very first words that our Lord Jesus speaks in Matthew’s gospel is not about freedom, but rather about obedience. Actually, our scripture reading this morning is one of those passages that have raised questions for theologians from the early days of the church. We pick up the story as John the Baptist is baptizing in the Jordan River as a sign of the forgiveness of sins and of the “breaking in,” so to speak, of the kingdom of God. But John, as it turns out, is actually surprised when Jesus shows up asking to be baptized; and in truth, so are we. After all, this is Jesus, the one who is pure and without sin; what does he need with a baptism of repentance? And at least at first, John will have no part of it: “I need to be baptized by you, and [yet] you come to me?” But Jesus explains that this is the way it has to be; so “to fulfill all righteousness.”
It’s the first thing that Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, and it’s important for a couple of reasons: first, because it points up what God has done in Christ Jesus. When we think of God, we think of power, mystery and glory; we ponder the grandeur of creation, and the wonder of miracles. And truly, elsewhere in the gospels, there are such “signs” that point to Jesus as the “son of God.” But here, the divinity of Christ is expressed in his obedience to the will of God; or, as William Willimon has described it, “his willingness to get down in the water, so to speak, to ‘get his feet wet,’ standing knee deep in the Jordan with all the rest of us sinners.” Jesus’ baptism is a sign of his total, complete linkage to the will of God and to the fulfillment of God’s righteousness in the world. And at the end of this passage when a voice from heaven speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” that voice is expressing God’s pleasure with Jesus’ obedience; it is a celebration of Jesus’ complete submission to becoming a servant of God! Our test this morning offers up the first example we have as to what would become the very course of Jesus’ life and ministry; a journey that would culminate in his willingness to go even unto the cross. So you see, these short verses we’ve shared this morning provide us an important piece in understanding everything that is to come in the gospel story.
But there’s more: what’s also important is that in telling us about Jesus’ baptism, Matthew is reminding us of the meaning of our own baptism. Now this may sound a bit harsh, but let me say it straight: baptism is not something we have to “get done,” either for ourselves or our children; a task to be taken care of in the same manner as making sure we have a yearly physical. Likewise, baptism is not to be thought of merely as an act of church initiation, any more than it’s about whether it’s properly done by sprinkling or immersion, or if the one baptized is an infant or a deciding adult. Whatever the particular tradition or theology, whatever the attitude toward the ritual or the liturgy employed, baptism is ultimately something much more.
Baptism is nothing less that our declaration (either for ourselves or in trust for our children) of obedience to God. It’s our promise to submit to the movements of a righteous God; it’s our commitment to be faithful members of Christ’s church, to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives, to further Christ’s mission in the places of the world where we dwell. Baptism is the promise we make that we’ll let God’s will surpass and supplant our will; so that by our very lives we will show forth the righteousness of God!
Kind of changes the whole idea of what we do around the baptismal font, doesn’t it? But then come to think of it, it kind of changes our whole notion of what you and I do once we finish the service this morning and start out on “life as usual” in the week ahead! We are called to be obedient believers; but in the end, you see, obedience isn’t such a bad thing. As Richard J. Foster writes in his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, “Obedience is not as burdensome as it seems at first blush. We are doing nothing more than falling head over heels in love with the everlasting Lover of our souls.”
Beloved, as the church of Jesus Christ, we are claimed and named as the people of God; we have been sought out and gathered together into the community of the baptized. We come to bask in the warmth and the fellowship of this place as we worship the Lord in spirit and truth… and well it should be. But we’re also not meant to remain here; as baptized believers, we’re meant to go… to go out there into the community and the world, to live in obedience to God as disciples of Jesus Christ. We are a people called and led; a community directed and disciplined; men, women and children empowered and encouraged for the work of the kingdom of heaven. You and I are each and all ministers of the gospel and even now are becoming servants to God’s will and God’s righteousness.
Oh, yes, there are times we’d just like to step back and “let the world go by,” so to speak; but there’s a deeper call on our lives, yours and mine… and it’s that…
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But [we] have promises to keep,
And miles to go before [we] sleep,
And miles to go before [we] sleep.”
May we be blessed on the journey ahead; and may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry