Baptism in a Fear-Filled World

Isaiah 43:1-2

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Do you remember your baptism? I suspect most of us don’t. Back in a time before memory, a pastor made the sign of the cross on our forehead, invoked the Holy Trinity with traditional or contemporary words, and proclaimed God’s grace, as loving parents, friends, perhaps, grandparents, and maybe even great-grandparents looked on. Before you could achieve anything, God said “yes” to your life, claimed you as God’s own, and made an eternal promise, “You are my beloved child. You are mine forever. Nothing can separate you from my love – nothing in life or death can prevent me from loving you and that means nothing in this life or the next.”

Or, perhaps you actually remember your baptism. You were an older child or adult at the time, and you may even have been immersed. When I was nine, I “came forward” at a revival meeting, the Roundup for God, and accepted Jesus as my savior. I made a choice to follow Jesus, but deep down I also realized that wherever I was on life’s journey, God would be with me. Over the past fifty years, my life has meandered, and I have moved forward and backslid. I survived the “summer of love, in the sixties” the challenges of a marriage of 37 years this Wednesday, a child’s cancer, daily temptations to turn away from my values and commitments, and living in Washington DC on 9/11.

I’ve been afraid and anxious, personally and professionally, but even when I was afraid, something deep in me remembered that I had been baptized and that no sin or threat could separate me from the love of God. I could be afraid, but I didn’t have to be ruled by my fears, because I was in God’s loving care, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

There is a lot of fearful talk these days. A television commentator recently noted that despite the objective realities that America has the most powerful military, and a growing economy and low unemployment, many people are afraid, and that politicians are capitalizing on that fear for political gain.

It is true that we live in a scary world without guarantees of health, success, or safety: I lived in Washington DC on 9/11 and it took me four hours to drive 4 miles from my classroom at Georgetown University to meet my wife at her church and bring Matt home from school after the plane had hit the Pentagon. On that day, I realized that there is no “evacuation route” if there is a truly catastrophic event. I have spent days in hospital rooms with congregants and family members and I know life-threatening illness and death can strike without notice. There are no guarantees in life. Like you, I worry about violence at schools and domestic terrorism in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. Even churches aren’t immune as we remember the deaths in South Carolina. But, when I am tempted to panic and let the reptile brain – dominated by fear and survival – to take charge, I take a deep breath, remember that God is alive and at work in the challenges of our world, and move from panic and fear – and dare I say, hate – to courage, trust, and love.

Even if I don’t say the words or remember the exact date, I recall my baptism and God’s protective and providential presence in my life and the world.

Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, dealt with his own inner and outer threats. He was often on the run, pursued by those who would kill him because of his challenge to the religious leaders of the time. He also suffered from bouts of depression and physical ailments that made his life miserable. At such moments, he scrawled on his desk, “I was baptized, I was baptized” to remind him that God was a “mighty fortress” and that even if property, health, and life were at risk, God had the final word and that word was grace, a grace that loved us into life, forgave our imperfections, brought good out of evil, calmed our inner turmoil, and promised everlasting life.

When Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized, God filled him with grace. The Holy Spirit, God’s spirit of inspiration and healing power descended upon him, and he heard words that comforted and empowered him the rest of his life, “you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” These words set him on the move. He went to the wilderness to reflect on his vocation and face the temptations of greatness and, surrounded by God’s grace, he left the wilderness to teach, preach, and heal, to welcome the lost and embrace the forgotten, to create a community where everyone belongs, and where the past can be forgiven and the future become a horizon of growth and grace, and new life.

We may not ever see the Jordan River. But, whether or not you’ve been baptized – and baptism is not a condition of God’s love or salvation – you are in God’s hands forever: God’s Holy Spirit provides wisdom and counsel, and you can cling to God’s promise to Jesus, “I love you and I have plans for you – for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.” And, you can move forward, knowing that whether we live or die we belong to God, and no terrorist act, economic downturn, serious illness, addiction, or loss, can ever defeat God’s love for you. With confidence, amid our anxieties and fears, we can be faithful, true to God’s word and wisdom, welcoming friend and stranger alike, and become God’s companions in healing this broken, fearful, and war-torn planet one act at a time.

Remember you are loved! God’s healing waters surround and uphold you. You belong to God – forever.