A couple of weeks ago, despite months of planning, I was not sure today would happen. Of course, we would celebrate the feast of Jesus’ baptism regardless of whether we were gathered in person or online, but I really wanted all the things that come with an in-person baptism – babies crying the middle of sermons, moms and dads rhythmically bouncing their children to soothe them during the service, crayons scattered wherever children find themselves in the worship space. But most of all, I love having the congregation’s children gather around the font, eyes fixed on the pouring of water, clutching onto the sacred items we have asked them to hold, nervously giggling as they wait for the big moment of their friends’ baptism. Their energy is reflected by the adults in the space but seeing that energy up close is invigorating.
But then, we suspended physically gathered worship, and everything shifted. We had choices in front of us, and after much prayer and discernment, the baptismal family decided to gather their small family without the enthusiasm of the whole congregation physically present. Not until I read today’s Old Testament lesson did I appreciate the parallels in our collective journey to this day. You see, Isaiah has been prophesying to a people in exile. The sinful generations of Israel have led to their own demise, and they now sit in Babylon in despair, recognizing their failings, feeling isolated from everything familiar, wondering if they will ever find God’s favor again. Though we have not been exiled from our land, this pandemic has created our own exile of sorts. Our weary hearts long for good news.
Into these twin exiles in Babylon and in pandemic, God speaks words of redemption, belonging, and hope. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says. “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…For I am the Lord your God…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” These words from God are a balm to the people of God. But each of those promises are not only for the nation of God. Those “you”s are accompanied by the second-person-singular verb forms, as one scholar explains, “as if speaking to each member of the community.”[i] I will be with you. You are mine. You are precious and honored. I love you.
That is what we do in baptism. Although baptism is a communal event – whether, like in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus stands in a line of people to be baptized along with them, or whether we gather in some hybrid form of in-person and online worship – even though baptism is necessarily communal, baptism is also about the promises to a unique child of God: who belongs to God, with whom God is present, and who is loved. We hear echoes of God’s blessing from Isaiah in Jesus’ baptism, when God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Church claims the same for Reed and Zenora today – “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”[ii] Although Reed is old enough to hear and understand this blessing, we as a community, with Zenora’s parents and godparents, promise today to keep reminding Zenora of her identity as a child of God, whom God protects, to whom she belongs, and who is deeply loved and honored. In truth, we all need that reminder, especially during these dark times. That is why we will all reaffirm our baptismal covenant in just a few moments – so that we might reclaim our baptismal identity and receive again the charge of our call.
This service today is not just a day of blessing for Reed, Zenora, and all of us gathered in hybrid worship. Today’s baptisms are also a commission. As one pastor writes, “Luke uses very few words to share with us the baptism of our Lord. But those few words lead us to very deep wellsprings of joy in the faithful ministry. To identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for the strength to live and to love, and to hear the affirmation of your God as the source of your calling and purpose in life are the most enduring joys of life. Theses are the blessing of our life together in Christ as the church.”[iii] Our invitation today is to take this pivotal moment for Zenora and Reed, to receive the reminder of your own beloved status, and then to go back out into the world with a reenergized sense of purpose and renewal. God says powerful words to us today. I love you. Our work this week is to say the same to a hurting world. I love you. Amen.
[i] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219.
[ii] Robert M. Brearley, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 240.
[iii] Brearley, 240.