The Spirit and the Child

January 12th, 2020

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!

I hope this finds you well as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ – as well as—at this/ the 8:45 service—the baptism of Norlaina who will be welcomed into Christ’s one holy apostolic church today. So, for those of you who were with us last week, you may recall Jesus was still a baby then. But today, the Jesus we encounter is around thirty…. And I don’t know about you, but I am not sure that I am ready for this fast forward to Jesus the man in just one week. I feel like we’re in one of those soap operas where one of the characters has a baby but after the initial birth and all the storylines that can be spun around the baby still conveniently wrapped in swaddling clothes, the writers aren’t exactly sure what to do with the baby. So, one day we have a baby and the next thing we know we are introduced to full-grown character who is now ready to start dating or driving a ca. But the truth is not much is known about Jesus’ life before his ministry began at 30.

And so, while our lectionary story may have moved on, I am so thankful that we have the chance to welcome this lovely baby girl as a new member of our Epiphany community – especially since she served as our baby Jesus at our  Christmas Eve service.  On this celebration of Jesus’ baptism by John, I want to spend a little time thinking about baptism and the question John asks Jesus, “Why be baptized.”

Now, of course, little Norlaina isn’t going to be the one to respond when Doyt asks her parents and godparents about baptism. But that doesn’t mean that the baptism that she will receive is somehow less than the baptism she might receive if we were to fast-forward through her childhood. I have been thinking about this a lot because I think that one of the things we often do as adults and human beings is to wrongly assume that God’s children and creatures who do not talk as or communicate as we do are not able to experience things as deeply – that something is somehow lacking. But while Norlaina’s experience today will be different than it might be if she were older, it is no less.  

Our assumption that it might be, however, can be seen in these questions from Catechism in Book of Common Prayer:

Q. What is required of us at Baptism? And the answer is:  A: It is required that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

And then goes on to ask the following questions:

Q. Why then are infants (and it seems to be saying, if they can’t verbalize the above) baptized? Answer:  Infants are baptized so that they can share citizenship in the Covenant, membership in Christ, and redemption by God.

Now as any folks who have met with me about baptism can attest, I find the catechism a very concise and approachable presentation of what the Episcopal Church believes. So, it is probably for this reason that I haven’t ever really questioned the assumption that seems to implicit in this section.  We baptize children because we want them to grow up in the faith, but it is not the same as if they were baptized as adults. This is one of the reasons why our youth make an adult affirmation of faith in the rite of confirmation.

But, this year in particular, I am struck by what this story about Jesus’ baptism really says. Because while Jesus was an adult, the parts of baptism on which we so often concentrate –the affirmation of faith, renouncement of evil and repentance of sin, while important parts of the baptism, are not the only or perhaps even most significant parts of Jesus’ baptism. We know this because this is why John hesitates to baptize Jesus. What distinguishes our baptism in Christ from the baptism of John is that in Christian baptism, as first modelled in Christ’s own baptism, we are not just or even primarily receiving forgiveness of sins, we are being made members of the church, inheritors of the Kingdom of God [BCP, pp. 298, 858]) AND given a new life of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, did not need to seek baptism from John as a cleansing of sins, he sought reunification with the Holy Spirit. And just as he emerged out of the water the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested and remained with him. As the Spirit descended a voice from heaven could then be heard saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now that is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Jesus’ identity as the only begotten Son is affirmed and the Holy Spirit comes down to earth and rests—not just for a moment – but comes to stay with Jesus throughout the rest of his earthly human life. The Holy Spirit does not leave Jesus of Nazareth after his baptism – and in the same way, the Holy Spirit will never leave Noralaina or any one of us who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that gift of the Spirit cannot, regardless of our age, ever be truly explained with words. The Holy Spirit is God’s abiding presence within us and around us. It is the Spirt that draws us together as a church where the Holy Spirit has chosen to dwell. From this day forward Norlaina will be officially sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. But as a child of God, she has always known God’s presence. And, while she cannot affirm this with words, if we are curious, she can communicate to us the wonder and awe she still fully experiences as a child.

Now I know I sounds strange to think of a baby as a teacher because we are a culture that likes words, explanations, and answers.  But while babies can’t talk, our hearts know where the little child can lead us. Jesus tells us in Matthew Chapter 18 of children’s knowledge of God, “Take care that you do not despise…these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” And of their ability to lead us he says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like …[a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

What we love about the Christ child it that he reminds us of our need to re-learn the wisdom of the wonder and hope of children. Our awareness of this need is reflected in our larger culture. In Star Wars recent incarnation, the Mandalorian, for example, much love and hope is vested in a small and loveable child-like creature; Baby Yoda. Parishioner Terresa Davis really got me thinking about this. (I follow Terresa pretty ‘religiously’ on Facebook because she posts super funny memes and pictures of her cute children and kittens). Anyway, it was Terresa who first introduced me Baby Yoda and pointed out how he has much in common with the baby Jesus. He, too, is revered and is referred to as “The Child.” And his promise has the powerful frightened and seeking his life. And as the Force is strong in Baby Yoda, the Spirit is strong in our children.

Children, through their dependence on us, remind us of the truth about the life of the Spirit. Though we adults may believe we can ‘take care of ourselves’, we can’t. And we never have. Our lives always have and always will depend on God and one another.

Today baby Norlaina becomes a full member of the church so while we can’t yet give her the keys to the car, we should recognize that she can give us the keys to the kingdom. We need to remember what she knows – what Jesus modelled for us in his baptism.  It is the gift of the Spirit that makes us full members of his body, the Church. And the Spirit knows exactly what to do with the baby. Spirit has been with us and will remain with us forever.