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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Baptism of Our Lord 01/08/2012

I don’t know how familiar any of you are with Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, a play about life among ordinary people in a small New Hampshire community back around the 1930’s.  It won a Pulitzer Prize and used to be and maybe still is standard fare in high school literature classes; that’s when I read it, little knowing that I would wind up living in Our Town not too many years later.  Peterborough, the town where I lived and taught school, was the town, or I guess, to be honest, one of the towns on which Wilder based the play having worked on it while he was a resident at McDowell Colony, an artist’s colony located in Peterborough.  (the main street in Peterborough is Grove St. and Wilder calls his town Grover’s Corners so you can see why Peterborough gets mileage out of claiming to be Our Town.)

I’d never actually seen the play performed live until they did it here at Northern a few years ago and what happens at the beginning as the house lights go down is a man wearing a hat, with a pipe in his mouth walks on stage carrying a bench.  The props that indicate a house, a garden, the kitchen, are minimal, a table, a few chairs; if people are upstairs they stand on stepladders. Before the action that will depict life in this town gets underway, the man in the hat, the stage manager he is called, sits down on the bench and provides some folksy words of introduction.  Throughout the play he more or less continues that role, not really part of the action but providing background and description, he himself, in a sense, part of the background.

This isn’t my main point this morning (I’ll let you know when I get to it), and this may constitute one of the biggest reaches I’ve ever made from the pulpit, but contrast this role of the stage manager with the opening verses from Genesis that serve as today’s first lesson.  In Genesis there is no preamble or prologue, no stage manager providing background information.  In Genesis the story starts right up; the main actor, God is right there and everything flows from him.  “In the beginning, God.”   This isn’t a God who is merely part of the background, he is up front, the main character. 

If you can get past the familiarity of this text, the words really are quite awe inspiring, among the most magisterial words ever written about the wonder of the created world.  It certainly wasn’t an accident that the Apollo 8 astronauts chose to read these words to the American people on Christmas Eve back in 1968 as they circled the moon, looking back at the earth, a blue and white marble hanging in space some 240 thousand miles away, the first human beings to ever see the earth that way.  If you’re old enough, you remember.

Moving closer now to my main point, from ancient times until now, whether sitting around fires and looking at the night sky or using fancy high powered telescopes, people have marveled in various ways at the wonder and vastness of creation.  It still boggles my mind to think that the light from some of the stars that we can see at night with the naked eye left those stars 1000 years ago; even the light from the closest star we can see apart from the sun takes over four years to get here.  It is all quite awe inspiring but at the same time it can give any one of us a feeling of being pretty insignificant in the face of that vastness.  “Who are we that you are mindful of us?” the psalmist of Psalm 8 asks. 

In the play Our Town this vastness that can lead to a sense of insignificance is reflected at one point when one of the main characters, Rebecca Gibbs, mentions a letter one her friends got from her minister, a letter which he addressed to “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God,” at the end of which one can’t help but be aware of what a tiny speck they represent in the vastness of the universe.

Genesis offers a different perspective of the same thing.  It looks in the opposite direction of that Our Town address, essentially beginning with the Mind of God and moving toward humanity in the creative process.  It’s a different perspective in that it moves from chaotic vastness toward significance with human beings as the culmination of God’s creative work.  Each of us may be but a speck in the universe, but in God’s eyes, we are much more than that. 

Which, moving still closer to my main point, brings me to baptism.  Baptism can be unpacked in a number of ways, but in part, baptism is a sacrament that is about significance.  Today we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord.  Jesus’ baptism is an event that can raise some theological questions because of the connection we make between baptism and forgiveness of sin.  If baptism is about forgiveness, why did Jesus have to be baptized?  I’m not going to take that on because I don’t really have a good answer, but also because I think we do better to understand Jesus’ baptism to be about significance and because I think the gospel accounts take us in that direction. 

In all of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, the emphasis quickly moves beyond the baptism itself to what happened as Jesus emerged from the water.  All of them tell of the opening of the heavens, the heaven are torn apart in Mark’s version, with that followed by the descent of the Spirit and the voice, the voice from heaven now almost acting like the stage manager of Our Town, announcing Jesus as “my Son, the beloved.”

Jesus’ baptism is about his significance.  In all of the gospels, this event marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and mission which symbolically is seen as removing the barrier between heaven and earth.  The heavens are torn apart as the Spirit appears in the form of a dove anointing Jesus for the work to come, work that is “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Nicene Creed.

Jesus’ baptism is a central event in his identity becoming known.  It’s an event that we celebrate every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany and it is an event of significance, which finally brings me to my main point.  Seeing Jesus’ baptism as an event of significance reminds us of the significance of our own baptism.  Baptism is how we ritually enact the significance that God finds in each of us.  Jesus’ baptism was central to his identity becoming known and our own baptism is central in our identity becoming known to us.  Jesus was called “my Son, the beloved” and when each of us was baptized we were called by name as children of God.  That is our primary identity, and it is significant because from God’s side, that’s always who we are.  We are not just specks in a vast and awe inspiring universe, we are children of God and that too is awe inspiring.

That’s our identity and it’s one we need to be reminded of as we live out all the other identities that are part of us.  All of those other identities are subject to change; they do change.  But amidst the change and the variability of life, we are always children of God.  That’s how God sees us.  Whatever we face, we face it as a child of God.

That identity is a source of great comfort to me and I hope it is to you as well.  Living out all those other identities we have, we do face difficulties and we do mess up, but we’re still children of God.  We can begin again, and we must begin again because we are called to act.  Jesus’ baptism was an anointing for mission and that’s true for each of us too.  What we are called to do isn’t the same in every case, but the identity we start with is the same. That identity will always provide some guidance as we make decisions on how to act, particularly as we consider the model of life and the teachings of Jesus, the baptized and anointed Son of God.  We mostly live ordinary, Our Town kind of lives, but we do so as children of God.

In the vastness and wonder of creation we are significant.  The same God who created the world and who shakes the wilderness, makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forest bare, that same God calls us his children.  We are children of God and we are significant, and that is the main point.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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