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Bible readings:

Baptism of the Lord, Year B (January 11, 2015)                                       St James', Peace River

Today we're going to do something people have been doing for two thousand years: a baptism. Emmett is going to be baptized. Think about all the people who have been baptized before Emmett. Start with Jesus and all the crowds around him where John was baptizing at the Jordan River. Fast forward a few years to the apostles and all the new believers they baptized, all the way through the book of Acts, including the ones Paul met at Ephesus in the reading today. But remember that they in their turn welcomed more people into fellowship with Jesus, and baptized them too. For generations and centuries, all the way down to our grandparents and godparents, and people like us, and now Emmett.

What does a baptism look like? I confess that what we're doing here today feels a little domesticated compared to what we hear about in the Bible. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to take everyone down to the river, and chop a hole in the ice and – oh well, maybe not! We don't have great crowds of people thronging the place either – but we're working on it. What we do have is the knowledge that what we are doing today is something that has been done since Jesus. Whoever said you can't step into the same river twice maybe never came to a baptism. The water that Ethan and I are going to pour in a few minutes is part of a river that's been flowing since Jesus and John shook hands, and before then, since God separated the waters from the waters, and made a river to water the garden of Paradise, and to flow from there to the end of time to be a river of life for all people everywhere.

What we are doing today, though, doesn't start with the water. It starts with the word; with the story. What we do first is hear how God loves; how God is love; how God loves us. Isn't it great how we start at the very beginning? The Spirit of God moved over the waters, God spoke, and light began, and a world was created, as an act of goodness and love. And then we ended up at the very centre of everything, as Jesus comes up out of the river, with Father, Son and Holy Spirit coming together in the middle of history, in the middle of the world they had made, because God's love wants nothing more than to be here with us. And from that moment the glory of God explodes to fill the whole world just as it did in the moment of creation – but now with an audience: human beings, you and me.

It's in the echoes of that moment that we come to pour, and bless, and splash water, and to speak up about how much we want to be with God too. We can do that, but only because before any of that God has poured out his love in creating and reaching out for us. Just like your baby or your child will hold on to you, and babble to you, and eventually begin to say “I wuv yoo”, because you first held and comforted and spoke your love to them.

The picture of Jesus' baptism is actually a key piece of information in understanding what we're doing – what we've always been doing, for twenty centuries – when we baptized a new Christian. Jesus' baptism is unique amongst all the thousands of people who came to be baptized by John, and amongst the billion or more who have been baptized since then. John himself flagged what was coming: someone of greater power was coming after him, to baptize with the Holy Spirit. But in an odd little paradox, Jesus accomplished that by doing exactly the same thing as everyone else – getting down in the water, ready to leave his old life behind and start out on a new one, and coming up gasping for air.

What happens in the that moment is the thing I want you to focus on, because it is what every baptism is about. Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him; and a voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This isn't just a private conversation between the three members of the Holy Trinity, something they could have said or done before Genesis when there was no world created. Humanity is now a part of the conversation. The humanity of Jesus, born as one of us; but also the humanity of all of us, which Jesus comes to be in solidarity with. When the Father's voice says “You are my Son”, it is addressed to all of us – you are my children, whom I love. The picture of Jesus hearing the Father's love and feeling the Spirit coming to him – that shows what God's deepest desire for humanity is. That is why we were made. It's a vision of what we're here for, and an offer that God is trying to reach us with.

And this vision isn't something in the far-off distant future that we can only hope for or aspire to. Jesus' birth, and incarnation, and baptism, place it right in the centre of our world and of our lives. Or in the case of Emmett here today, right at the beginning of his life! He will always have this picture to come back to, and to realize once again that this God's intention for him: that he would know God, and realize that God is speaking to him and loving him, and feel the presence of the Spirit in his own life.

It's a wonderful gift. But it feels like something is missing from the story if that's all there is to say. It won't come as a surprise to any of us there that we don't always live out this vision. It's there for us – it's there for everyone – but even those of us who are baptized and claim to practise our faith realize that, while God is always there for us, we're not always there for God. We lose focus, we get drawn into other ways of living, sometimes we out and out choose to turn away and do our own thing. Where does the story of Jesus' baptism recognize this?

I think it's there in the image of the river Jesus walked into. Remember that a great crowd of people were there before him – and no doubt after him – going down into the river at John's call, to be baptized as a sign of repentance and cleansing from their sins. Effectively, Jesus swam through all that to get to the voice of the Father and the vision of the Spirit. He waded through the muck and mire of human wrong, not as one who was above it all but as one who wanted to be where we are, with all our wrong heartedness. He dove right in. And that in itself is an image of what Jesus' life and death were all about – accepting the consequences of joining into human life, as grim as those consequences so often are.

So there is no false glory here today. This isn't about holding up a picture of Jesus and saying, “See, this is what you ought to be like!” Instead it's a picture of the lengths God is willing to go, and has already gone in Jesus, to enable us to see that vision for ourselves. God is always there for us, whenever we fall into sin, hoping and urging us to turn again and come back to him – we'll promise to do that in a few minutes, but will we realize how much that costs God? And God doesn't just call us to himself but to each other, giving us the chance to reveal God's glory in the midst of humanity when we see Christ in each other, and when we strive for peace, justice and human dignity. We're going to make or re-make those promises too, but will we realize that God's glory shines when we do those things?

Actually, I think we will. I pray and hope that we will. But I also believe that we will. Because the message of baptism, demonstrated in the picture of Jesus seeing the dove coming down from heaven, is that God's spirit is at work in us. It has been at work in us since the moment of our creation. But when step into the water ourselves, and say yes, I want to be with God, for all that I still need to reorient the whole of my life and for all that I know I will lose my way – in that moment, the door opens for the Holy Spirit to do far more with us than we may even realize.

That's why Paul prayed for those converts in Ephesus to receive not just repentance but the Holy Spirit. And that's why the church teaches that baptism into Christ is the full deal – not just a promise, not just a cleansing, but the guarantee of God's presence in your life through the gift of the Spirit. Because that's what's going on here today, not just for Emmett but for all of us who are baptized and for any of us who may sense that we want this too. We are celebrating the gift of God's own self, who will never leave us, who will keep sending us in love to each other, and who will keep drawing us to love him back for all the love he shows us, every day of our lives.