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Jan 08, 2023

The Power of a Vow

The Power of a Vow

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2023


Today's Sermon


"The Power of a Vow"


Isaiah 42:1-9
Matthew 3:13-17      

          13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Power of a Vow

            Why?  Why do we think Jesus had to be baptized, understanding baptism as we do?  Today is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, but if Jesus was who we say he was, why did he have to be baptized.  That’s John the Baptizer’s question.  John the Baptizer was using this water ritual to encourage people to repent, turn from their ways.  Did Jesus need to repent?  People point to the end of the passage where God pronounces Jesus as son.  Why use that particular ritual to make that point and what does that ritual mean for us? 

            Rituals are important.  I was listening to an interview this week with author, theologian, priest and activist Matthew Fox, who was making the case that we’ve become a ritually-starved people.[1] Compared to the ritual lives of some other traditions and cultures, Fox says we’re deprived of meaningful embodied ways of progressing through, and therefore making sense of, the world.  We do have baptism, and yet many of us know so little about it.  I took a course in seminary where we had to report on our own baptisms, but because so many of us had been baptized as infants we had no recollections of them.  In fact, where we found meaning was in practicing baptizing one another.  Then ritual then brought tears.  I wonder what you know of your baptism if you’d been baptized.

            On a day when we remember Jesus’ baptism, we can deepen our understanding of this sacrament.  I should back up and first say what I mean by the word sacrament. The simplest definition is that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward and invisible grace.”  That’s a definition that goes back to Augustine of the 5thcentury.[2]  Like all good ritual, a sacrament brings to light, makes tangible and tactile, what is real but perhaps otherwise unnoticed or not perceived.  A sacrament isn’t a conjuring of a new reality as it is a recognition of what most essentially is or what is becoming.  Even though Christians understand the sacraments quite differently, all sacraments help point us to the sacred.  

          Baptism for us has several connotations:  In it we recognize that God’s grace comes to us before we need to or even can make a decision for God.  The starting point is God’s love and acceptance, not ours.  This is why we baptize so many infants.  Baptism is a ritual cleansing—a washing away of sin, a leaving behind an old way.  It’s an enacted dying—did you know that?  We say in baptism we die and are reborn in Christ.  It’s a recognition that not only has God claimed us, but we claim one another as kind in the faith.  This is why all the baptisms in our tradition have to be public, taking place in the worship of the whole community.  

            We could go all over the place talking about baptism, so a way to focus our exploration is by exploring the three baptismal vows we take or make on behalf of others at a church such as this.  Appreciating vows, like having deep rituals, has faded in our culture, but vows are powerful, the pledging of one’s self to an idea or relationship.  First, does anyone know what our three baptismal vows are?  (They are the renunciation of evil, the profession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and the declaration of intention to participate actively and responsibly in the life of the church.[3])

            Let’s take them in order – The renunciation of evil. Evil repels people.  Well, evil attracts people.  I mean the word “evil” repels people.  We find it unevolved, uncivilized, though sometimes we confuse enlightenment for truly seeing clearly and naming honestly about what’s happening in the world. (Sometimes that’s because we are directly or indirectly involved in supporting that which could be described as evil.)  If evil is too much of a roadblock, too loaded, think destructive, abusive, exploitative, unjust.  The aforementioned Matthew Fox would contend the point of Jesus was to teach us that the world is sacred, then we have an interest in identifying and opposing that which denies this through destructiveness, abuse, exploitation, and injustice, that which is evil.  You heard yet again from the prophets today about the work of justice that is at the heart of faith.  The first vow we make is about what we promise to stand against.  This is why it’s not enough, it’s incomplete to have an exclusively private faith that refuses to engage the realities of the world.  It’s not whole. 

            Second, notice we do not ask if Jesus is yourLord and Savior.  We simply ask if Jesus isLord and Savior.  The difference of that one word could hardly greater.  Much of Christianity has reduced the faith to a propositional statement about your acceptance of Jesus as your personal savior. Like “your,” “personal” is often inserted, reducing the faith to some personal transaction, and the implication is one makes it primarily to avoid hell.  I believe Jesus would find this completely foreign.  I have found this form of practicing the faith to be spiritually abusive and miraculously at the same time incredibly trivializing of the path of following Jesus.  Why would Jesus come to offer you a personal ticket to heaven that you could earn simply by saying a few magic words?  Jesus came to invite transformation on earth and show usthe way. 

            What we ask is much bigger than who your Lord and Savior is, though it’s well and good to have a personal devotion to Christ. We ask the Christian whether they recognize Jesus as Lord, the ultimate authority, embodiment of the divine, model for our lives.  Jesus doesn’t belong to each of us, we to him.  The claim of Jesus as Lord like all claims is born out of a particular context (as we’re learning about in our Wednesday morning study).  In Jesus’ time Caesar Lord.  Ceasar was the Son of God.  In fact, almost every title we ascribe to Jesus was lifted from titles attributed to Ceasar.  To say Jesus is Lord was to say Caesar is not, and so while I know people don’t like to mix their politics with their religion, the first foundational claim of the church was both spiritual and political (and I don’t really separate the two), and a subversive one at that.  Jesus was the anti-emperor emperor, the anti-warrior warrior or peaceful warrior, the servant-leader and on and on down the paradoxical chain.  This is the vow that got Jesus killed.

            Third, we vow to participate actively in the church, or for a child, provide for their Christian nurture.  Notice again, the emphasis is on something bigger than yourself. This is so hard to understand in our culture which sees everything through the lens of the individual. Pastors will sometimes get a call from a hospital desperate to find a clergy person because they have a family with a dying baby, and they want someone to baptize them.  Of course, one goes in order to provide comfort to the family, but in doing so one assures them that the eternal care of that child is not bound up with whether or not the pastor gets there with the water on time. For us, you might say, baptism is for the living.  It’s how we promise to live together in a certain way and covenant to support one another in doing so. 

            The pressing question for a church in making this third vow is how we live up to it.  We love the moment, as we should, where the beautiful baby is brought to the font, innocent and pure, sprinkled with water and paraded around for all to behold.  In this third vow, we are saying if and when that same child makes a less idyllic appearance, if they get into real trouble, when they need real support, mentorship, or loving accountability, we will be committed to being there for them then just as enthusiastically as when they oogled before us as a precious child. It’s a way of saying we will always treat them as precious in our sight.  When we show up to their baptism we are saying, we’ll show up to their ballgame, or performance, or…court date.  How well do we do that?  How many of us invest in the lives of our baptized, babysit for them, teach in their Sunday School, serve as confirmation mentors or maybe most importantly simply get involved supportively in their lives?  Baptism is not the last word; it’s the first of a lasting promise.

            That leads us to the question I asked at the outset. Why would Jesus feel the need to submit to baptism?  The simplest answer I can give you is that this story of Jesus, like all the stories of Jesus, are most powerfully understood when they are taken to show not only what Jesus did, but what we are called to do.  In baptism, Jesus submits himself humbly to the way of God, recognize God in the world.  That’s what it means to understand the world as sacred.  Jesus shows us this of rebirth, something that is not a one-time thing, but a continual process.  Our vows have power not only because we make them, but because we continually work to keep them and return to them when we stray.  When I marry a couple, I say to them it’s not only about the vows you make in the moment, but the commitment to these vows also expressed in every moment.

          In baptism Jesus shows us symbolically how to be rinsed of one way of being, to die to it, that we might be free to receive and live, be born, into another.  He shows us what it looks like to receive blessing from God and then he shows us, in turn, how to move through the world as if it is and its inhabitants are blessed, sacred.

            This water reminds us that this way was not just for Jesus, it is for us and it is for always.  At any time, dip back in to be reminded.





[3]The Book of Order:  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part II, W-3.0405.