I don’t think there’s any other way to say it: a baptism on John the Baptist Sunday is just plain cool. For one thing, it makes the pastor (or this pastor, anyway), feel especially edgy, getting grouped with that wild man down by the River Jordan. Never mind the fact that while he was wearing a camel’s hair cardigan, I get to wear a nice, soft alb; and while he had locusts and wild honey, I get to munch on cookies and coffee after the service. It still feels good to be in wild-man John’s company.
Far beyond bolstering the pastor’s spirits, however, a baptism on John the Baptist Sunday is especially cool because it can remind us of the wildness of this ritual we are going to enact this morning. John set up his baptism station in the desert, far from the centers of government and commerce and power and religious life. People had to go somewhere to find John; they had to journey out of the comfort of their ordinary lives to make the new beginning he offered. And it sounds like a wild and messy new beginning, filled with shouting, calls to repentance, and cold river water soaking your clothes and your whole body.
Now, what we’re doing this morning probably doesn’t feel especially wild, coming to church as we usually do, singing songs together politely, praying together, and then splashing some water on a baby’s forehead. But make no mistake: the life into which Afton is being baptized this morning is an extraordinary one, marked by the wildness of God’s own Spirit.
It’s important to remember every time we gather for a baptism that what we are about to witness is first and foremost a miracle of God’s grace. The God of the universe speaks directly to Afton today with words of promise: “I will be your God always. You are my own, and I love you. You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It’s a sacrament, a visible expression of God’s love, and it is given absolutely freely; that’s what grace is all about, after all.
It’s first and foremost an expression of God’s grace; but grace changes us. It calls forth something new. It opens up a new way of living. Although he certainly wasn’t speaking to a Christian audience, the prophet Isaiah does a pretty good job of describing the life that flows out of baptism:The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…. (Isaiah 61:1-2)
That’s the kind of life we are baptized into; that’s the kind of life that God’s grace calls forth from us. And today we get to say those things of Afton—that the spirit of the Lord God is upon her, because God has anointed her to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted. She, too, is sent to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. And there is nothing tame about this kind of life.
Youth leader and author Mark Yaconelli remembers a call he received from a long-time friend late one night. She was in tears and clearly worked up, and as she calmed down, the story emerged. Her son had called to tell her that he was planning to take a year off from college to travel to Iraq. This was during the height of the war that began in 2002, and he had decided to be part of a peacekeeping team, a nonviolent presence in areas of conflict, with the hope that they could protect civilians and raise international awareness of the suffering of the Iraqi people.
Mark’s friend told her son that he had made a commitment to be in college and that this was no time to be engaging in radical politics. Mark asked how her son responded. There was a moment of silence, and then she relayed his words: “But Mom,” he said, “this isn’t politics. This is about following Jesus. We’re going as a Christian group. Didn’t you and the church teach me that Jesus was always befriending people who were weak and suffering?” She knew he was right, of course; this is what she and the church had taught her son all along. There is nothing tame about the life into which baptism calls us—bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted may mean that you are called to be precisely where they are.
While Isaiah’s words are filled with hope, they presume that there is a great deal of suffering and darkness to be faced. He spoke these words into a world that knew oppression and broken hearts, captivity and grief. And it is no secret that Afton is baptized into that sort of a world today as well. Most of us don’t have to look very far to find suffering and grief. They are present in our lives; they are present in the lives of loved ones; they are present in the world around us.
Whether you agree with the messages articulated by the Occupy movements or not, they have drawn attention anew to the vast inequalities present in our country. At Heritage Park in Olympia, large numbers of homeless persons have joined the occupiers in recent weeks, whether out of solidarity with their message or simply because it’s a safer place to sleep these days than the places they had most recently been.
In the midst of all this darkness and of December’s still-shortening days, we have another image of the life of baptism in John the Baptist this morning. In his description of the Baptist, John the Gospel-writer makes it very clear that the baptizer was not himself the light—rather, “he came to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (1:7). In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is really John the Testifier, John the Pointer. In many icons throughout history, John is depicted with a finger outstretched, pointing to Jesus, pointing to the light that has come into the world but that the world somehow doesn’t know.
It’s surprisingly demanding work, pointing to Jesus. I don’t think it means reciting platitudes or telling hurting people that if they only had more faith everything would be okay. I think it means looking deeply and honestly at the world—in its brokenness, in its suffering, in its hope and expectation—and finding Christ somehow precisely there, where he has always promised to be. A light, shining in the darkness. It’s demanding work, but it is the most vital and important work we are given, pointing to God’s presence right in the thick of things.
Afton is of course too young to be aware of much of the darkness around us, but as she grows, she will become aware as well. So how will she learn to proclaim release to the captives and to bind up the brokenhearted? How will she learn to point to the light that is always present but sometimes all but invisible in the shadows?
She will learn from those around her. She will learn from you, Scott and Meredithe, and from you, Tracy and Mark, and from you, Griffin, and from you, Morgan and Jack. And from all of you. She will learn from others living out the calling of baptism, speaking words of hope, embodying Christ’s radical love, pointing to Christ where he shows up today.
We will all have the opportunity to renew our commitment to the baptized life in a few moments. Along with Afton’s parents and godparents we too will be asked the questions:
- Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
To put it another way: With your whole life, will you point to Christ?
Afton will be given a candle in a few moments as a reminder of the light of Christ shining in her and in the world; but like all of us, she will need to be taught to point to the light. So where do you see Christ? In those giving their time and energy to serve others this Christmas? In hot meals feeding hungry families? In the quiet presence of someone sitting patiently with a friend in grief? Keep awake for Christ’s presence—and when you see it, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell another person. Tell us all where you see Christ. He is the light shining wherever there is darkness; show us all where that promise is being kept anew today. Amen.
 Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus, 43.