Baptism of Our Lord
Children’s sermon: I wish we could gather here together at the front of the church, and let you get really close to the altar and see these things up close but for today we have to use our imagination that we are together. I have my mask off because there’s only one person around me today! Our assisting minister, Megan Yemm, is in the sanctuary, more than six feet away, and we talked before worship and agreed it would be okay to remove our masks while we’re speaking. It’s important to wear masks while we’re in groups of people outside our homes, but since today we can’t all be together in person, I can remove my mask.
Some of you are already in school and you’ve probably noticed that tomorrow is a holiday. Do you know what the holiday is for? Martin Luther King, Junior! His birthday was yesterday, but people in the United States always celebrate the Monday after his birthday, so that we can remember Martin Luther King, Junior and the work he did.
The first thing to notice, since we are a Lutheran church, is that the names are similar. Our church follows the teachings and theology of Martin Luther, a pastor who lived five hundred years ago. He was so important to history that Martin Luther King, Junior’s father decided to change his name, and then his son changed his name too. So Martin Luther King, Junior, lived a long time after Martin Luther, and they are not the same person!
Martin Luther King, Junior was a Black man who lived in a time when Black people were treated differently and very often treated badly. He spoke up for civil rights, even when it made other people angry. He met with lots of different leaders, Black people and white people too, and together they thought of creative ways to protest the mistreatment of Black people. He worked to change unjust laws. Martin Luther King, Junior was a Christian and a preacher, and he believed God called him to do this work. The sad thing is that someone who disagreed with Martin Luther King, Junior, decided to kill him. But the promise of justice did not die, and people are still talking about his influence, many years after his death.
What are ways that God might ask you to care for other people, to notice when things are unfair for someone else? Children are important leaders too!
In my imagination, there’s a gathering of people in the gently-moving river. In my imagination, it isn’t winter and the water isn’t freezing or frozen—the water is freely flowing. The people are standing in waist-deep water. It’s not the Mississippi River, for crying out loud, that wouldn’t be safe—I’m imagining a smaller space where it’s safe for people to gather, to touch the water, to see how your finger moves the surface of the water to create ripples that travel out and out until they can’t even be seen anymore.
We’re standing in the water together. We chose to stand here, and we’re all a little surprised about it. We thought we were just coming to check out the wild preaching of John the Baptist, his words echoing the ancient prophets at the same time he is creating space for something new. We thought we’d just check things out and keep a safe distance, not get too involved.
But something drew us in. Perhaps it is the anxieties we brought with us—living through a pandemic, unsure what the next day will bring, lifting up prayers for the sick and for the healthcare workers even as we wonder when we’ll also grow sick and will it be manageable or do we have to take off work for a few days or even weeks or will we be hospitalized. Is it the worry for our culture, where people are deeply divided in their loyalties and growing ever stronger in their opposition and lack of understanding? Is it the fatigue of navigating the world? Is it a desire for vengeance for our enemies?
John the Baptist has been saying, “I’m not the one you’re looking for, but the one you’re looking for is on the way. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire—he comes to gather the good grain and burn away the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
What’s so attractive about unquenchable fire? Plenty of preachers call down fire and brimstone, and plenty of people listen—it must be nice to feel like there’s some order, some authority in the world. And maybe if we’re cozy with the power that can enforce that authority, then that makes us okay, right? Proximity to goodness is good enough, right?
But what if we are never good enough on our own? What if God comes not to destroy sinners but to destroy evil itself? Can we imagine things we’d like to see go up in flames? Which manifestations of injustice would you like to light on fire? Burn away the racism and burn away the white supremacy that supports it. Engulf with flames the abuse of children and the life-altering effects of trauma. Reduce to ashes the pain of poverty. What if all the pain of life could be burned away, and we’d get to live in freedom, liberated from the things that weigh us down?
We go to the water to be washed clean, the cleansing of our lives and the purifying of our minds, opening space to believe that the things John the Baptist says really are true: we’re not just here to feel good about ourselves, we’re not just here to appease a vengeful God, but we’re here to gather with the ones who trust God that the world really can be better than it is right now. We’re here to confess that the reign of God is the reign we really want to see, and we’re willing to be part of it, to offer ourselves and our lives, to immerse our own bodies in the waters of redemption, to be baptized in the love of God.
That’s what brought us here to this river, standing together, each of us a part of the body of Christ with everything we are—our interests and desires, our gifts and our challenges, our relationships and our vocations, our callings and our treasures. Can you begin to see it?
I’ll admit it isn’t easy to see, when we’re actually separated—sitting on our living room couch, or at the kitchen table, or listening while walking around in the neighborhood, or maybe even lying in bed because we haven’t yet summoned the strength to move our bodies. Wherever you are, whomever you’re with, God is present with you. Perhaps your curiosity brought you to this river, but it’s your deep love that will keep you here, your deep desire to see the triumph of the good and the fall of evil.
God has promised—we heard it all the way back from Isaiah: “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. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…”
So we’re standing in this river that we never really expected to be in, giggling a little bit at our vulnerability, joyful at the prospect of being gathered with something really worthwhile, and that’s when we see it: we catch sight of fluttering wings, there in our peripheral vision, and we turn toward the movement. It’s a dove, coming close to someone else who is standing there with us in the river.
And that’s the moment when we hear it: You are my own. You are the joy of my life.
You hear it again for the first time—aha. Yes. The joy of my life. That’s why I am here; that’s why you are here. That’s why we keep doing this. It’s not for obligation. It’s not to please our parents. It’s not for guilt. We are here for joy, immersed in the river of life, surrounded by the joy of God, infused with an eternal light.
And God is with us, in Jesus standing here alongside us—or did you not recognize him? Maybe you missed it. But keep looking and you’ll see. You’ll start to notice, oh yes, there are signs that God is at work in the world.
A sign that God is at work in the world: it might look like the Church of Sweden, as a matter of fact. Just a couple months ago, at the end of November, the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelen, along with church leaders from other European countries, met with leaders of the Sami (SAH-mee), a people indigenous to the area we now know as northern Europe. Archbishop Jackelen offered an apology for centuries of injustice, saying,
“We cannot undo what has been done. But we can feel remorse for our part in Sweden’s colonial history. We can feel remorse for our inability and unwillingness to accept the truth and meet you at eye level.”
Ingrid Inga, chair of the Sami Council of the Church of Sweden, said, “My hope and belief is that this apology will lead to a change. I feel very humble to be part of this apology, and that it isn’t just empty words from the church. It comes with commitments and a ten-year process where they will be realized.”
It’s important to notice the places where God is at work among us, to notice who is standing in this baptismal water with us, to recognize Jesus Christ among us, to know how deeply God loves us and how much God loves all of creation and desires healing and wholeness.
This is important for us to remember as we enter the holiday to remember Martin Luther King, Junior. Our church recognizes Martin Luther King, Junior Day as a Day of Racial Healing, and the day following, on Tuesday, we recognize as a Day of Repentance. We have much for which to repent, but we’re not called to simply sit around and feel bad. We’re also called into the work of reconciliation, the work of liberation.
Martin Luther King, Junior, always kept before him the vision of justice, signs of what the world would look like—you hear it in the words from his famous speeches, visions of children holding hands, judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, visions of the mountaintop when we’ll all see clearly. Keep this vision before you too.
Our bishop of the Central States Synod, Bishop Susan Candea, lifted up this prayer:
Save us, O God, from ourselves,
from racisms often cloaked in pious words,
from machinations of white supremacy hidden in calls for civility,
from micro aggressions thinly veiled in arrogance,
from apologies when they don’t give way to actions,
from forgiveness without facing the truth,
from reconciliation without reparation.
Deliver us, O God, from expecting siblings of color to bear this emotional work, which is not theirs to do.
Grateful for the long arc that bends toward justice, we pray:
Grant us wisdom, give us courage for the facing of these days, by the power of the Spirit, all for the sake of the kin-dom that we share in Christ Jesus.