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Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.The article goes on to describe folks placing greater emphasis on worship elements that had great meaning for generations past but supposedly no longer mattered to the faithful of the 21st century. The phenomenon is crossing all religious lines - Christian, Jewish, Muslim - according to the article. What does it mean? No one is quite sure, but that simply offers a new avenue of investigation for scholars, so stay tuned.
For what it is worth, I think the news story is not really "news" at all - this return to tradition is a movement that began years ago and is only now being noticed. For example, in our Presbyterian family, many of us grew up without ever hearing much about the seasons of the church year, liturgical colors, lectionary lessons, etc. - Christmas and Easter were observed, of course, but Lent and Advent and so on were left to the Catholics and Episcopalians. But in 2008, we take for granted that on Ash Wednesday we will have ashes on our foreheads, the color purple will appear on our pulpits, and the scripture lessons will begin to focus on introspection and repentance. We have been moving in this direction for years.
What we observe here today is another reflection of that movement. As a boy in the church, I never heard of a Sunday being set aside to remember the Baptism of the Lord nor to reaffirm our own baptism, and, to be honest, I think my experience was the poorer for that. I am glad we have recovered that practice. Not only is it personally meaningful but it helps us to understand a passage that could be confusing.
In a recent issue of The Christian Century, novelist and poet Kathleen Norris writes,
I suspect that to many Christians baptism seems a curious and antiquated custom. People want their children baptized but can't say much about why they want it, and what the rite is meant to signify. Many adults who attend church faithfully nevertheless would be hard-pressed to say what their baptism means to them. It might help to remember that in the early church the baptism of Jesus was a much more important feast than Christmas. Now that Christmas has become the year's biggest marketing machine, we may count that as a good thing: imagine John the Baptist in his animal skins as a singing plush doll. (2)The scene in our lesson shows a throng of people from all walks of life having made a mini-pilgrimage into the countryside, come to see an itinerant preacher who is more than passing strange: a coarse camel's hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, certainly no model for a plush doll. They had come because there was a sense that something was missing in their walk with God, so they were ready to listen to a new voice. And this was a powerful voice.
Suddenly Jesus is there. The request for baptism. John's initial reluctance, then acquiescence. Finally, the dramatic climax. As our lesson has it, "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING! Jesus' baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John's baptism was, but the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God. Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it.
Part of the message of Jesus' baptism and our own is that we are loved. Most folks understand that, and that is why they get all warm and fuzzy when it comes to presenting their little ones for the sacrament. But there is more: WE HAVE WORK TO DO. Remember, this happened at the START of Jesus' work. This was his commissioning service. Now, 20 centuries later, when someone is baptized in the church, whether infants or adults, it is no different. We still have work. We are receiving our commission.
Walter Rauschenbusch, that great Social Gospel theologian of a century ago, found justification for bold social action in the enigmatic "kingdom of God" lessons Jesus taught his disciples. Rauschenbusch asked, "Why not connect baptism to the kingdom of God?" If Jesus himself was baptized before preaching, the reasoning went, why not see that event as a great swinging door in divine history - "the exit from the kingdom of Evil and the entrance to the kingdom of God." (3) Baptism enabled Jesus to proclaim that the kingdom of God was among us, even though its power was not yet fully realized. In Rauschenbusch's view, baptism becomes an opportunity for all Christians "to express their solemn dedication to the tasks of the kingdom of God, and accepting their rights as children of God within that kingdom." (4) There is work to do, so let's get on with it.
That wonderful Georgia preacher Fred Craddock tells a story. (5) There is a little community in southwest Oklahoma, near the Washita Creek, where the Native American Black Kettle and most of the women and children of his little tribe were massacred by General Custer as he and his troops swept down in the early morning hours. The community is named for the general, Custer City. The population was about 450. There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church where Fred ministered for about three years. Each had its share of the population on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Each had a small collection of young people, and the attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest the wheat.
So saying, the most consistent attendance in town was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked, and all the men were inside discussing the weather, and the cattle, and the wheat bugs, and the hail, and the wind, and are we going to have a crop. All their wives and sons and daughters were in one of those four churches. The churches had good attendance and poor attendance, but the café had consistently good attendance, better attendance than some of the churches. They were always there. Once in a while they would lose a member there at the café, because their wives finally got to them or their kids, and you'd see them go sheepishly off to one of the churches. But the men at the café still felt strong. "We are still the best, biggest, and strongest group in town." And so they met on Wednesdays and Sundays and every other day, discussing weather and crops - not bad men, but good men, family men, hard-working men.
The patron saint of the group that met at the café was named Frank. Frank was seventy-seven when Fred first met him. He was a good, strong man; a pioneer, a rancher and farmer, and a prospering cattle man too. All the men there at the café considered him their patron saint. "Ha! Ol' Frank will never go to church."
Dr. Craddock describes meeting Frank on the street one time. He writes, "He knew I was a preacher, but it has never been my custom to accost people in the name of Jesus, so I just was shaking hands and visiting with him, but he took the offensive. He was not offensive, but he took the offensive. He said, 'I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business. Far as I'm concerned, everything else is fluff.' You see what he told me? 'Leave me alone, I'm not a prospect.' I didn't bother Frank. That's why I, the entire church, and the whole town were surprised, and the men at the cafe church were absolutely bumfuzzled when old Frank, seventy-seven years old, presented himself before me one Sunday morning for baptism."
Some of the talk in the community was, "Frank must be sick. Guess he's scared to meet his maker. They say he's got heart trouble. Going up there and being baptized, well, I never thought Ol' Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared... " All kinds of stories.
But this is the way that Frank told it to his new pastor. Fred writes, "We were talking the next day after his baptism, and I said, 'Uh, Frank, you remember that little saying you used to give me so much: I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business?'
"He said, 'Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot.'
"I said, 'You still say that?'
"He said, 'Yeah.'
"I said, Then what's the difference?
"He said, 'I didn't know then what my business was.' He had discovered what his business was - to serve [the purposes of God]."
"And so I baptized Frank," writes Dr. Craddock. "I raised my hand and I said, 'In the presence of those who gather, upon your confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, Amen.'"
What's YOUR business?
1. Jay Tolson, US News & World Report, 12/24/07, pp. 42-48
2. Kathleen Norris, "Marked for a Purpose," The Christian Century, 12/25/07, p. 17
3. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology of the Social Gospel, (New York: Macmillan, 1922; repr. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 201
4. ibid., p. 200
5. Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 67-69