Sunday, September 14, 2008

What I did say

I didn't say it quite this way. But this is what I said:

Stepping Stone #1- Baptism
Exodus 14:10-31
A Matter of Life and Death
Baptism is the first stepping stone of faith – and this fall, having laid stepping stones made by our young people on Rally Day, we’re going to spend a few sermons mulling over where we are in the journey of faith, and what steps Jesus our Lord is inviting us to take next as we seek to follow Him. In the Exodus story, Christians, from the first century on, have seen God doing what God does in baptism – giving new life by a passage through water.
Scientists tell us that the life they study began in water. And what is so for the physical origin of life, the Bible tells us is also true for the spiritual life of God’s people. The water is where it all begins.
This story is the time capsule, that takes us back to the very moment in which God’s people came to be.
Before the escape from Egypt, they were a bunch of slaves. Their lives were nasty, brutal and short. They served a master who valued their lives not at all, but used them up, draining their hopes and dreams and energy and will until they were as dry and as sterile as the desert sand. Before the events recalled in this story, they were nothing and they knew it.
After – they were God’s chosen ones. With an identity, with a future, with a hope. Biblical scholars’ best guess is that the story of the Exodus is the foundational story of God’s people. They experienced this. They saw that God had done this. Their relationship with God began here. All the stories that come before this come because, knowing that God had brought them out of slavery through the sea, they looked back to try to figure out what else God had done before. They were formed by water and the word, on the floor of the Red Sea, walls of water, looming to their right and to their left. With the spray in their faces and the roaring of a mighty wind in their ears, this is what melded them together with one another and with God.
The Exodus story is a story of life and death, of the end of an era and a new beginning. It is a story of what God can do, what God lives to do, what God wants more than anything in his heart of hearts to do: save people and give them a new life.
It is a story that belongs to you. And me. And to everyone who has passed through the waters of baptism and into the new life of Christ.
Baptism is one of only TWO sacraments which Jesus commanded us to observe: The Lord’s Supper is the other, of course. As He left this earth, Jesus gave his disciples what we call “the great commission” – Go, therefore, into all the world, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the earth.” We baptize at Christ’s command, because Christ’s love is extended to all people, and baptism is the sign and seal of inclusion in God’s promise of life.
Here’s the first thing we need to bear in mind about this stepping stone: Baptism is what God does – the Exodus story says (v. 14) “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (v. 30-31) “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day . . . and Israel saw the great work that the Lord did . . . ” Baptism is the first step of faith. And it is a step that God takes toward us. When we stand at this font and pour water upon the head of a new Christian, whether that new Christian is 8 months or 18 years or 88 years old – baptism is the embodiment of (here’s a theological word for you) PREVENIENT grace. Prevenient means – going before. It’s another way of saying that baptism is God’s action, not ours; in Baptism we receive and are empowered to respond to God’s grace with faith, but we do not act.
Baptism is how we enter the Christian life and the body of Christ. It is a matter of dying to self and being born again into the new life God has planned for us. Dying. Being born. These are events over which human beings rightly exercise little or no control. And we only experience them once. That’s why Baptism is a once for all stepping stone. Because it is something God does. God makes sure that once is enough. As John Calvin once argued, “The benefit which we derive from the sacraments ought by no means to be restricted to the time when they are administered to us. . . . The benefit of baptism lies open to the whole course of life, because the promise which is contained in it is perpetually in force.”
Here’s the second thing Christians know about baptism. In baptism, our sins, our old self, is washed away. Baptism is connected to forgiveness of sins – it is a plunge into the cleansing waters of forgiveness. And when we are baptized, the spiritual truth is that we come up out of the waters of baptism WET. We don’t usually immerse people when we baptize. I’d be glad to! With all this rain, we could have a great baptism in the Embarras right now! But even though our font doesn’t hold that much water, when I baptize someone I strive to get them really wet. It’s not because I’m mean or trying to make a show of it. It’s because when God forgives us, and washes away our sins, God does it in a big way. He doesn’t just sprinkle a little forgiveness on us. He soaks our whole self, our whole being, with forgiveness. Being baptized, truly, means a life saturated with forgiveness and reconciliation. We who are baptized ought to be like a dog coming out of the river – you know how they do?! They shake off, flinging droplets all around, they get everyone around them wet. That’s the way it ought to be for us: Christians can not keep the water of forgiveness to themselves.
The New Testament lesson for today in the lectionary is the parable of the forgiven but unforgiving servant. Here, as many other places throughout the gospels, Jesus emphasizes that the good news of our forgiveness, the canceling of our debt to God, the sending away of our evil thoughts, words and deeds makes possible a life in which we, too, can and can and must forgive one another. We are baptized. We are forgiven. We have been born again and the life to which we have been born is one of grace and forgiveness, through and through.
Hughes Oliphant Old stated: “Baptism is a sign under which the whole of life is to be lived. Our baptism is always with us, constantly unfolding through the whole of life.”
Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the grace of God’s forgiveness, and the watery passage to a life of forgiveness lived with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Which brings us to the idea of our walking in our baptism.
Baptism is about what God does – saving us. Forgiving us.
Baptism is also about how we are to live .
Luther, Martin Luther, said that every morning a Christian should put his or her right hand on her head and say, “I am a baptized person. Today, I will live my baptism.”
Baptism is, at one and the same time, totally God’s gift to us, and also a stepping stone upon which we are invited and encouraged to walk.
In verse 15, in which God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to go forward.” At the Exodus, God saved the people of Israel. But in order for the salvation to be effective, they had to turn around, quit staring at the oncoming Egyptian army, put all their fears aside, take courage and, against every instinct in their being make themselves walk into the sea. Can you imagine the terror? Walls of water on either side. How strongly their children must have pulled on their hands, trying to get away, trying to wriggle free from this terrifying ordeal?
God saved. God parted the sea and opened a way for the people. But they had to walk. In fact, they had to step lively in order to stay alive, in order to live in the salvation God made for them.
In the same way, God saves us from sin and death through Jesus Christ, who gives us baptism as a sign and seal of that salvation. That’s God’s doing. And at the same time, we must take courage, face forward and move in the direction baptism points us.
God spoke to Moses and said, “Tell the people to go forward.” And that’s what I’m telling you. God has opened a way for the people of God. God has opened a way for you. It is through the waters of baptism, through the unspeakable gift of forgiveness and new life.
It is a scary passage, this passage from death to life. We have to fight our instinct to turn back, and trust ourselves to a power so mighty and so awesome as to be incomprehensible. With walls of water looming, to our right and to our left, we are vulnerable. We are powerless. We are in mortal danger. Yet, with hearts pounding and eyes wide, we see the way ahead is clear. And so we take the next step.

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