It Begins with Water and Promise (Sermon)

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 8, 2023, The Baptism of Our Lord. The gospel text was Matthew 3:13-17. The video of the sermon hasn’t yet been posted to YouTube — when it is, hopefully I’ll remember to replace this sentence with a link to it.

This is how it all begins: with water and promise.

So many of our stories of faith are about beginnings, and so many of them involve water and promise. In the first creation story told in Genesis:

In the beginning, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.

And when God had created all the animals and humankind, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply. I have given you and every living creature every green plant for food.”

Water. Promise. The promise to provide nourishment and life.

We also hear a story of God making a new beginning with the people of earth, a time to start again.

God did this by flooding the earth with water. And when the rains subsided, God placed a rainbow in the sky, saying, “This is the sign of the promise that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Water. Promise. The promise to keep all life safe.

We hear a story of when the people of Israel became the chosen people of God.

God brought them out of Egypt and led them on a forty year journey to the promised land. That journey was bookended by water. They crossed the Red Sea to begin the journey out of Egypt, and forty years later they crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Water. Promise. The promise that God would be their God, and they would be God’s people.

There are more, if you want to look them up: Hagar and Ishmael. Naaman. Baby Moses in the rushes. The woman at the well. So many stories of new beginnings through water and promise.

Today’s story is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The beginning of his adult life. The four gospels differ in how they talk about the birth and childhood of Jesus. But they all agree that his adult story starts right here, at the Jordan River. This is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus came from Galilee, Matthew tells us, to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John didn’t want to do it – he didn’t think he was worthy. But Jesus insisted, and John consented. And then the miraculous happened: God showed up. The heavens opened up and the Spirit descended like a dove and landed on Jesus.

Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ adult story, the same Jordan River that the Israelites crossed is flowing. And here, at the beginning of Jesus’ adult story, the same Spirit from creation hovers over the face of the waters again. And here is a promise.

The promise is the voice from the heavens, that says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is a promise, because it’s a new name from God. When God gives new names, they are promises.

  • God met Abram, and gave him the name Abraham, and the promise that he would be the father of a great nation, a chosen people.
  • God met Jacob, and gave him the name Israel, and the promise that he would strive with God and prevail.
  • Jesus met Simon, and gave him the name “Rock,” which in Greek is “Peter,” and the promise that “on this Rock I will build my church.”

And here, God gives Jesus himself a name: “Beloved Son.” This isn’t God looking back at what Jesus has done, saying, “Attaboy. You’ve done a good job so far.” Rather, it’s a promise, a promise that Jesus is, and will continue to be, God’s chosen and beloved child, a child who will be God’s very being on earth.

And so it begins. A journey of teaching and healing and eating and forgiving and loving and raising people from the dead.

And at the very end of Jesus’ ministry, there is another beginning. After Jesus has been raised from the dead, he gives these final words to his followers:

Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Again, water. The waters of baptism. And again, promise. The promise to be with his disciples always.

This is another beginning. The story of Jesus’ ministry ends with a new beginning – the beginning of the church, the beginning of a new chapter in God’s story of love for the world. A new beginning that again sealed with water and a promise.

We are at a time of beginnings right now. Here at Prince of Peace, we are beginning anew. After a wonderful year-long celebration of fifty years, we are embarking on our second half-century together. And this new beginning has challenges and worries, as we will this year take a very hard look at our finances, and make some challenging and creative choices about where we’re going, and how.

And we are at a time of beginnings in our daily lives as well. It is a New Year. Perhaps you are still accidentally writing 2022 on your checks. Perhaps you made some resolutions just last week. Perhaps you said, “New Year, New Me.” Perhaps you have hope that this year will not be defined by a virus. It’s a time of beginnings. And for us, beginnings always have uncertainty.

And so I encourage you to remember where God is in new beginnings. Remember a new beginning that took place for you some time ago. A new beginning that happened with water and with promise. Some time ago, many decades ago for some, you were brought to a font of water, and someone, most likely a pastor, poured some of that water on you.

You may not remember that new beginning. Many of us were infants when it happened. But let me paint a picture of what it was like, tell you the story of your baptism. Let’s pretend, for the sake of the story, that this was the place you were baptized, that that was the font, that I was the pastor who baptized you.

That day, we used water. Ordinary water. Just like John the Baptist before us, we made use of the water that is around us. The altar guild poured that water from the kitchen sink into a pitcher called a ewer. The assisting minister poured that water from the ewer into the baptismal font. I poured that water over your head.

And then it all began. Because not only was there water, but there was promise. I don’t know how it happened, but the Holy Spirit was there too. I don’t know how it happened, but when you were baptized, the Spirit of God swept over the face of those waters. In that moment, God showed up and brought the promise. We brought the water, but God brought the promise.

Like John the Baptist before me, I stood back and marveled as the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon you. And God said to you, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”

You were given the new name, “God’s beloved child.” And with that name was the promise that you are God’s child, and always will be. A promise that you have, and always will have, the Spirit of Christ within you. A promise that Christ is, and always will be, walking beside you. That you have, and always will have, the ability to proclaim and embody Christ’s kingdom in the world. 

God has made a new beginning in you, through water and promise. And that new beginning is always new. It wasn’t just a beginning on the day the water was poured. It is an eternal beginning. A beginning not bordered by time. It is still a new beginning right now, because you were baptized into Christ, and Christ is eternal. Christ is alive. And so are you. Right now. You can do what God made you to do. You can be what God made you to be.

You are baptized. And the new beginning lives in you, full of water and promise.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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