Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I have a confession to make. For most of my life, I have not been a fan of babies.
Let me be clear, here. When I say that I have not been a fan, I do not mean that I disliked them. I mean, rather, that my appreciation for them was … academic. I was glad that babies existed. I was thrilled when I got the news that a new baby was coming to someone in my family, or your family. I was full well aware that babies are one of the ways that God tells the world that she wants it to continue, and so rejoiced in their presence. I loved to see babies … in someone else’s arms.
I never understood the frenzy at family gatherings, or in Fellowship Hour here, when those gathered would vie to hold the baby. If someone said, “Do you want to hold the baby?” I would say, “Yes!” because I’m not stupid. But I was always the uncle that handed the baby back as soon as I could do it without causing offense, the minister that loved to baptize babies but hastened to return them to their parents before they could fluster me by crying or gross me out by leaking something onto me. To me, babies were like tigers or panoramic views: best appreciated from a distance.
Then Terry and I got a baby of our own, our son Asa. And I want to tell you that in these last four months I have become crazy for babies. If I see a baby, I want to hold it. And I don’t just mean I would sort of like to hold it, I mean I can feel what that baby would feel like if she were in my arms, and my arms feel hungry to hold her. Once I’m holding her, I have to bury my nose in the top of her head and smell the baby smell. They throw up on me, and I laugh. They pee on me, and I laugh. I smile and make faces at them in the checkout line at the store, I see them on the street, and I love them. I don’t mean I love seeing them; I mean I feel love for them where before I wouldn’t have even noticed them except to wish their parents would get their darn strollers out of my way.
It’s like Asa has acted as some sort of prism or something, and all that love I have for him goes into him and is refracted into the world. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and all the world’s babyness is somehow gathered in through his lens and focused right here [motioning to heart].
Somehow, being responsible for one baby’s food, and baths, and diapers, and midnight comforting; somehow, becoming intimately acquainted with one baby’s life, and rhythms, and body; somehow, being the target of one baby’s smiles, and laughs, and cuddles, and body fluids has caused the scales to fall from my eyes and has cracked my hard heart open. Babies in general couldn’t do it; it took one baby to make me crazy for all of them.
Jesus comes to John at the Jordan and is baptized, and the Holy Spirit comes down and the heavens open and God says, “This is my son, The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God doesn’t open up the heavens for the Pharisees, or the Sadducees. God doesn’t open up the heavens for John, or for all those others standing there that day. As Matthew tells it, at least, God opens the heavens for Jesus alone and proclaims Jesus alone God’s son.
Moments like this have flummoxed and perplexed theologians since the beginning of our faith. They have proved a stumbling block to millions. This facet of our faith is called “the scandal of particularity.” How can a universal God be so darn particular? How can it be that the creator of all things, the maker of everyone and of every time, has one particular son? How can it be that a God who is supposed to be universal entered history as one particular person at one particular time in one particular place, and that the life and death and resurrection of that one particular individual time have universal implications? How could it be that God came in flesh that was alive and then that died sometime in the first century of the Common Era somewhere in Israel? How is that possible? And what difference could that possibly make to you and me?
I know how it’s possible. After these last four months, I know what difference it makes.
In a little while, you and I will be part of something remarkable: the debut of a new hymn. In the fall of 2009, at the Outreach Committee’s all-church auction to benefit Habitat for Humanity, church member Diane Gaucher, who read the Scripture a moment ago, bid on and won the opportunity to commission a new piece of music from church member and composer Erik Gustafson. Soon they decided that the piece they wanted to create was a hymn, and so they then got in league with church member and poet Bettina Blake to write the lyrics. The piece would be a baptismal hymn dedicated to Diane’s beloved husband Marc, who died in 2007, and it would be given as a gift to all of us.
Now, Diane could have asked for a piece that she could have recorded and listen to alone in her living room, something exquisite and private and lovely. Instead, she asked for a hymn for all of us, that all of us can sing. For you see, Diane is so full of love for that one particular man Marc that her love is overflowing. She so loves that one particular guy that she has found herself loving us all better as a result. And here is the result of her love for that one particular man: new music, new art, new beauty, a new way to sing praise to God, a gift to the whole wide world.
It seems to me that the scandal of particularity is actually less like a scandal and more like just the way things are. I had the first part of this sermon, the part about the evolution of my appreciation for babies? I had that part all ready to go when I called Diane yesterday. I wanted to be sure I had the story of the commissioning of the hymn right, and I realized I didn’t know why they decided on a baptismal hymn instead of some other sort of hymn.
And do you know what she said to me? She said, “Marc never really liked kids. Didn’t like babies. He never had any of his own, and he just wasn’t that into them. Then my daughter had a baby”—Diane has kids from a previous marriage—“Then my daughter had a baby,” she said. “And when that baby was one hour old, I put it in that man’s lap.” Here’s where she choked up in the telling. “Ever since then,” she said, “he was crazy for babies. He couldn’t pass one on the street without stopping to see it. He loved it when we baptized babies at church, and one of his favorite things was when the ministers would carry the babies down and parade them through the congregation.” We always sing a hymn during that time, and so Diane decided to commission one that might be sung then.
When the heavens opened up that day by the Jordan, I think that the most important thing that happened wasn’t that the people saw the dove or that the people heard the voice or that Jesus’ identity was revealed. Those are important, to be sure. But I think the most important thing, the really earth-shattering thing that happened must have been when God looked down through that hole in the sky and saw that one particular guy, her one particular son, standing there. Parents out there, do you remember seeing your child for the first time? I think that what God felt then changed everything for everyone forever.
And God’s love for you and me was no longer academic, or distant, or polite.
Don’t you think that God might be like Marc and me? That having a kid of God’s own taught God to love the rest of us better? Don’t you think God loved babies in a new way after that night in Bethlehem? Don’t you think that when God bathed God’s own son, the beloved, in love and grace that day at the Jordan, don’t you think God learned to bathe the rest of us, too? And when Jesus died, don’t you think God’s heart broke, and don’t you think God learned what every parent who’s ever lost a child felt, and don’t you think God learned what Diane felt when Marc died, and don’t you think that’s why God decided to defeat death forever?
St. Paul says that we are baptized into Christ’s death. Here’s what he means: Because God’s particular love for Jesus enables him to see and to love us all yet more fully, when we die, it breaks God’s heart like the death of an only son. When Marc died, it broke God’s heart like the death of an only son. Paul says we were baptized into Christ’s death, and that we will rise like him, too. Rise out of the waters of baptism and be called beloved, and rise at the end to live forever in God’s heart. For that reason, Diane, and Erik, and Bettina, I cannot think of a better way to honor someone who has died than to create a hymn about baptism. You have done a wonderful thing.
On Baptism of Christ Sunday, churches down through the ages and all over the world take the opportunity to remind themselves of that love of God’s that is theirs because of Jesus. We remind ourselves of the baptism we have received and the grace that softens the world and the death that will not win, to remind us about the God that loves us beyond all comprehension. We will do that today as well. We have here bowls of water from the Jordan River, the same water that touched God’s own skin. In a moment, we will invite any who wish to to come forward to the head of the aisles to be reminded of their baptisms. Any who have not been baptized but would like a reminder of God’s love for them should come forward and indicate that either by telling us so or by crossing your arms over your chest; we will be so glad to pray a blessing over you.
Now, though we’re debuting the new hymn, “You Are the Promise of Tomorrow,” today, you will not sing most of it. The choir’s going to do it as an anthem today, so that you can soak in the words and begin to learn them. The song is written to be sung to a baby as we carry her around the sanctuary after a baptism; instead, the choir will sing it to you. As you come, listen to the words, bathe in them. Hear God singing them to you, and hear God singing it all because of what happened that day at the Jordan. When all who wish to have come forward, we will all rise and join in singing the refrain, which is printed on page 4 of your bulletins.
I love Asa, and that has made me a better lover of babies everywhere. Diane loves Marc, and that has made her a better lover of all of us. God’s love was particularly revealed through Jesus, and so that baptism, that bath, of love and grace and Spirit and life now belongs to anyone who wants it. Come now, particular people all, and remember that God’s love is for you. Come.