Date: January 13, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Sermon: Rev. Kim Wells
The Leaning Tower of Pisa has become an architectural icon, having begun to list even while it was under construction.
But even more noteworthy in Pisa, in my opinion, is the Baptistery. It is a beautiful round building modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It is set apart from the front of the cathedral. Outside, the baptistery is adorned with columns and arches in a Moorish style with John the Baptizer atop the dome. Inside, the baptistery is a large, spacious octagonal room bathed in light. In the center of the space, raised three steps, is an 8 sided baptismal font, the size of a small swimming pool. It was designed to accommodate adult immersions. There are four corner basins for infant immersion. The marble mosaic flooring of the chancel is stunning. The whole building feels ordered, radiating beauty, housing holiness. It is stunning, far more beautiful to me than the adjacent cathedral.
As we visited these monuments at Pisa, my daughter Angela asked what the baptistery was for; after all, there was a whole, huge, gorgeous cathedral. What was the point of the baptistery?
This beautiful sacred space was designed, created, and set apart to be used only for baptisms. The sacrament of baptism was considered so significant, there was a separate church built just for that ceremony. In the first century of Christianity, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus was one of the most important high holy days of the year, far more significant than the celebration of Christmas.
Baptism signifies God’s incomparable love. It is a human action intended to acknowledge God’s divine love and claim upon our lives. It is the mark of entrance into the faith community where God’s love is fully embodied, nurturing, supporting life, and a source of comfort and joy. Baptism is about belonging to God and God’s people gathered as the church.
In baptism God declares you are loved and you will be cared for by the church. At the heart of baptism is recognition of God’s love and care. Love so incredible, an incomparable pure gift. Love over which we have no control. Incomparable, unconditional love. Love not as a reward or payment and not given for good behavior or faithful service. Love not offered in response to right belief or moral conduct.
Baptism is about God’s love given. Simply given. And we have no choice in the matter. We do not determine God’s love. We can’t influence it. We can’t choose it. We can’t start or stop it. We don’t change it. God loves us. And God seeks us out. And claims us in baptism. To the church of Pisa this made baptism worthy of its own stunning space, set apart for only that special purpose.
In the story of Jesus’ baptism we hear of God’s love affirmed at baptism. We are told that a voice is heard: “This is my child, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” God’s love for Jesus is declared. But God also expresses satisfaction with Jesus. Well, what God wouldn’t be pleased with such a child who healed people, forgave people, multiplied food, embodied justice and was willing to die for the cause. It’s everything God wants from a Messiah, according to Isaiah and the prophets.
But when we look at the wider context of the baptism story, we see it as the beginning of the Gospel. It comes before the story of the temptation in the wilderness, before any teaching or preaching or healing, or dying, before Jesus has begun his ministry, before any stories about what Jesus has done. We are told God declares, “This is my child, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” With no indications what’s behind, God’s love and blessing is given. And with no indications of what is ahead, it is received.
In that moment of baptism, Jesus is surrendering himself to God’s love. He is letting go of his control and entrusting himself to God. In the depths of the Jordan, the self-centered and self identity is drowned. In the flowing current, any self-serving agenda is carried away. God is pleased because Jesus is putting his life into God’s hands. He is willing to be who God intends. He is acceding to God’s will for his life. This pleases God. Not what Jesus has done, his deeds, but his willing spirit; which will, of course, lead to incredible deeds of powerful love.
It is this surrender when we acknowledge God’s love. When we acknowledge and celebrate God’s love, we learn to trust God. We learn to surrender ourselves to God because we know God only wants our highest good, our deepest joy. When we acknowledge the gift of love we have been given, we can surrender to that love which supports and nurtures us, empowers and embraces us. Gathered in by that love, we want to please our beloved. We want to delight the source of life and joy.
We become part of God’s dreams. We witness to hope in the face of despair. We witness to peace in the face of cruelty and violence. We share the light of justice, exposing oppression, bigotry and greed. We are freed from al other societal and cultural constraints. We are part of God’s powerful loving of this world. When we know we are beloved by God, it is our joy and delight to love as God loves.
When we surrender to God’s love; when we trust God; when we abandon our self-centeredness, we please God. When we are open to becoming the precious, unique individual God intends for each one of us to be, we please God. When we listen and tune out all the other voices, – the voices that say “You’re a failure.” “There’s nothing you can do.” “It can’t be changed.” “You have no choice.” “You’re not good enough.” “No one cares.” There will still be the voice that can’t be silenced; can’t be muted; can’t be turned off. The voice over which we have no control. The still speaking voice uttering love.
The L’Arche Communities were established by Jean Vamier as a refuge for people with mental handicaps, who are limited physically and intellectually. They live in community sharing their lives with those of “normal” abilities. Vamier tells this story about one of the residents.
“In one of our communities there is a man called Pierre who has a mental handicap. One day someone asked him, “Do you like praying?”
He answered, “Yes”.
He was asked what he did when he prayed.
The answer, “I listen”.
“And what does God say to you?”
“God says you are my beloved son.”
(Quoted from Resources for Preaching and Worship Year A: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild. P 48.)
It is all we need to hear. Interestingly, the Baptistery at Pisa has amazing acoustics. In its way it is an architectural marvel. A whisper uttered from the center of the rotunda reverberates and echoes throughout the expansive space. “You are my beloved.” That’s all we need to hear. Everything else will follow.
You, too, are baptized. Keep listening. Amen