Jesus is our Hope

A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

January 9, 2022

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”

Jordan by Emmy Lou Harris

Oh, come in as you tread life’s journey

Take Jesus as your daily guide

Though you may feel pure and safely

Without him walking by your side

But when you come to make the crossing

At the endin’ of your pilgim’s way

If you ever will meet our Saviour

You’ll surely meet him on that day

Now look at that cold Jordan, look at these deep waters

Look at that wide river, oh hear the mighty billows roar

You’d better take Jesus with you, He’s a true companion

For I’m sure without him that you never will make it o’er

It was a bitterly cold Winter evening in January of 1971 at Beech Mountain Missionary Baptist Church in the Dark Ridge when three Southern Baptist Congregations: Beech Mountain, Fall Creek, and Whaley, gathered to observe the Ordinance of Baptism and through this Service to welcome the handful of new believers into membership in the Church. It was a very rare thing for these churches to do something like this together. However, as the result of a series of Revivals after the harvest, there had been a number of persons who had been saved. Since Beech Mountain was the only church which had an inside Baptistry, it was the logical choice for the Service.

Even though there was an indoor Baptistry (with an incredibly beautiful mural of the River Jordan—painted by Deacon Truman Church), the water for the pool came from a stream not far from the church. It was NOT heated, although the church was. As a result the water was VERY cold. It was so cold, in fact, that when the preacher entered the water (wearing wading boots like mountain fishermen often did when they went into the cold mountain streams) there was a thin layer of ice on top of the water. Those who were to be baptized, and who were watching from the room just off the side heard the ice crack as the preacher walked down the steps into the water!

Before each person was Baptized, the choir sang a verse of “Shall We Gather at the River,” and then the baptizand walked down the steps, into the water, and out to where the preacher was standing. At the front of the Baptistry there was a glass window some four feet tall (rising from the metal tank) which allowed those in the church to witness what was taking place).

I was eight years old, and was one of the neophytes that evening. I think that I was tall enough to have at least my shoulders and head above the water. But, this was a mysterious and somewhat frightening thing. I had seen other Baptisms of course, even some at the “Baptismal Hole” in Beech Creek, flowing down towards Watauga River. But those services happened during the day—and in far warmer weather.

The preacher said a prayer, and then when everyone shouted “Amen,” he raised his left hand and said something like, “Brother Mickey (that was my childhood name) upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord we baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” He then placed a clean white handkerchief over my nose and mouth with his right hand, and immersed me in those cold Baptismal waters. Even though I was already cold, being thrust below the surface of those cold waters was literally shocking, I nervously struggled, for a moment, to breathe. When the preacher lifted me up, out of the water, I will never forget that first deep breath which I took! Later, in looking back on it, that language which Saint Paul used to speak of burial with Christ in Baptism and rising with him to newness of life made perfect sense to me!

Then, I went into the men’s Sunday School Room and put on the dry dress clothes which Momma had prepared for me in advance and then went back into the church. When all the Baptisms were completed, the Preacher invited the joined congregations to come and to welcome us with the right hand of full membership. Of course, I was related to almost everyone there. So, there were lots of hugs and tears as well as handshakes.

Those of us whom come from a catholic Traditon have a somewhat different understanding of, and a different experience of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. For us, Baptism initiates the Christian life. In it we, who were previously, “strangers and aliens,” are adopted through Baptism, washed from anything which could ever separate us from God, and are claimed as Christ’s own forever. The old language spoke of an indelible mark which no power could ever erase. We were changed. We were reborn. We were welcomed into the household and the family of God.

Through the Blessed Holy Waters of the new creation, we were given a share in the three-fold ministry of Christ who is priest, prophet, and king–and do remember we just celebrated the symbols of that three-fold ministry in the gifts of the magi on the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord: gold (a gift for kings), incense (a gift for priests), and myrrh (a gift for the bodies of the prophets who, more often than not, were martyred).

And thus, we began the Spiritual Life. Now since most of us were babes or children, our parents and godparents made promises and commitments on our behalf. We belong to a tradition which regularly chooses to renew, reaffirm, and recommit to our Baptismal promises. And, so children in The Episcopal Church grow up thinking that this is not just a onetime experience which happened to us in the distant past. We will never be re-baptized, there is no need for that. But, in order to live out our Baptismal promises, we need to turn from sin and embrace the good news every day. And it is with that in mind that we publicly acknowledge our failing to do so almost every time we gather as a community. Several times a year, though, and most often today, we collectively renew our Baptism through the profession of our faith and through our re-commitment to the Baptismal Covenant.

It seems incredible to me that these five questions which we hear, and to which we respond, capture the heart—the essence of what Baptism means to us—both individually, and as people who aspire to become “Beloved Community.”

Celebrant   Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Although Baptism is the beginning of our journey with God, it is not the totality of that journey. God offers us further grace and power through the other Sacraments of Initiation: Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. In times of physical and spiritual illness we are offered anointing and absolution. And to enable those called to Holy Marriage and to the ordained ministry and service to the People of God,  there are Sacramental graces as well.

Our Church made the decision that, because Baptism is an entrance into Community, we ought to routinely and normally celebrate it on a Sunday Eucharist. And so the notion of “private Baptism,” really does not make sense—unless there is some unusual reason which would necessitate such a rare occurrence.

As I have grown older, I have become much more aware of the need for faith in Christ to be a source of light, of leaven, and of salt. There seems to be so much darkness in our world, and such a need for the light of Christ. In my own case, this has caused me to return to certain prayers and devotions which I knew in my younger years. Some of these I later tossed to the side as being “old fashioned,” or “too conservative.” For me, though, and I speak here only of my own life of prayer, they have become a source of hope, encouragement, and of invitation. In reflecting on the reality of Baptism, I am reminded of a prayer from the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy which speaks of the water and blood which flowed from the pierced side of Our Lord on the Cross.

“You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world. O Fount of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.

O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You!

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.”

I began these words today with the music of Emmy Lou Harris. As we approach the cold waters of the Jordan in our own time of uncertainty, fear, and darkness, may we choose to trust in our Good Shepherd to lead us safely to our destination.

Now look at that cold Jordan, look at these deep waters Look at that wide river, oh hear the mighty billows roar We’d better take Jesus with us, He’s a true companion For I’m sure without him that we will never will make it o’er.

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