Green Book, Red Book, Pastor Fred
In Luke’s birth story of Jesus, at Christmas time, the gospel proclaimed that Jesus, son of Mary, born in barn, was the true Son of God, and not Emperor Augustus, who ruled through a line of elites, and Roman conquerors, declaring himself, Son of God. The rule of Jesus came directly from God, who reveals to us, what God would be, and act like, if God were one of us.
Today in the baptism story, on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, we see that that person of God, Jesus, now an adult, is tied-into a very public ministry, a whole movement. Jesus is baptized in community!
For some years in the Lutheran Church, at least up until the new liturgy in the green book in 1978, baptisms were often done in private, usually at the parent’s home. It was a big occasion for the family, but not the church. I often heard stories, ten or twenty years after that, from the old timers in my Upper Michigan parish, about how the preacher was called to come and baptize them, about a week after they were born. In Iron County in the early 1900’s there was one preacher, shared by the county’s 3 Lutheran congregations, about 15-20 miles apart, and the pastor traveled by train. So the family would have to send one of the children from the farm, to pick the preacher up at the train station, with the horse and buggy. So it was quite an occasion for the family, (as I said). The preacher stayed for dinner, and had housing overnight, and it was a great private-family celebration – another Finnish or Swedish child of immigrants, was christened and made part of the whole clan.
The focus at the time, was that, through the preacher, and the promise of the Word of God, baptism would save the child from sin, and more-or-less, guarantee eternal life. Catechism slowly turned the tide as a teaching tool over time, leading up to the changes in the green book in 1978. But back then, you didn’t want to wait more than a week to get baptized – in the days infant mortality was so much higher – and risk your child being gathered up with the chaff! Baptism was your opportunity to enter heaven’s granary, in the words of John the Baptist.
Those were still strong elements of baptism my parents taught me, growing up, but as I said, things changed with our new liturgy in 1978 (a year before I entered seminary, BTW). And truth be told, we are still in various stages of learning what that change is all about! The big change, of course, was the Rite of Baptism was crafted for Sunday worship in community, and Baptism at home, became a thing of the past, for the most part.
And, we can point to our gospel reading of Jesus’ baptism by John, as the most obvious reason why. Jesus’ baptism was a public baptism, a baptism in community.
Jesus went down to the river Jordan and joined in the long parade of his fellow Jews, being baptized by John – his relative and elder by 6 months – and took his turn in the huge public event. It did not take place in Mary and Joseph’s home, and neither was it like his relatively private birth in the manger, hidden away from the world, while Mary pondered the meaning in her heart.
But, why didn’t John the Baptist go to Jerusalem where all the people were? Why did he instead make all the people of Jerusalem’s metro area, trek on down to him at the Jordan in the wilderness? Will the symbolism of John’s prophetic act of communal baptism was all about Israel’s geopolitics, at the River Jordan. And there was no way the Israelites could miss its meaning!
Here – everyone knew – at the eastern border of Israel, was the ancient boundary of the people’s entry into the Promised Land, under Joshua, the protégé of Moses. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness –where John the Baptist now was – after the Passover, which had liberated them for this journey; after being led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, carrying the ark of the LORD the entire way – here at the Jordan, the Israelites entered into the promised land, finally, to begin their life of freedom, their life of peace and justice with the God who had freed them, and given them this incredible opportunity, this ‘holy land.’
It was a fulfillment of the promise, first made to Abraham and Sarah as the chosen people, a corporate consecration by their God. At the Jordan River, they entered into all this, the whole community, together.
But that was nearly 2 millennia ago. And now, John the Baptist and (his cousin) Jesus, knew that God was doing a new thing, and was calling on the chosen people to once again be a brightly shining light, a beacon to the nations – and that the spirit that moved over the waters at creation, needed to be invoked for a new creation, that all the people were expecting – and needing!
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
(the prophet Isaiah declared on behalf of God)
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isaiah 43: 1b-3a
Baptism is about, the turning of the age, about entering the public sphere of God’s new order, about joining the movement.
With the publishing of the new red book – the ELW now in our pews, about a dozen years ago – this public liturgy of Holy Baptism from the green book, was enhanced, including an optional Gathering rite of Thanksgiving for Baptism, which we do on certain appropriate Sundays like today, on the Baptism of Our Lord. We even get a little dangerous, by sprinkling the assembly with water as a remembrance of your baptism! And we remember, not just our own baptismal day, but that baptism is a public event, where God has named and claimed us, and called us beloved children, just like God did for Jesus.
Baptism makes us members of a local congregation, as well as a member of the worldwide Christian church. Baptism washes away sin, and joins us to the new life of the kingdom and realm of God.
Now, we are engaged in the movement, and become followers of Jesus the Messiah, and we continue to ask for forgiveness, and lean into the Holy Spirit to reform our lives in the world.
So, baptism is much more than a private affair. Baptism joins us to the new age that God is revealing to us, through the incarnated Son of God. Baptism calls us out from our homes and our private cultural faith, and into the arena of Jesus’ public baptism, at the entryway to the promised land, of the new age, which also has a history of conflict as we engage with those other cultures, those other peoples, who are also children of God, and who, we are called to live with, and share the good news.
In Jesus, we find that God is a Reconciler. God wants to make our world a beautiful life-giving place, and so we must stand up for respecting and care-taking it. God wants to make our world an open responsibility, and a land where we share our resources and talents, and so we must stand up to those who would build walls and draw rigid borders, that mostly protect the greed of those who would hoard God’s resources and gifts.
Baptism enrolls us in the new age, the realm of God that has dawned in Jesus the Messiah. We are followers in public, as much as in private. For, ‘if we do not work and pray for the kingdom of God for everyone, we cannot have the kingdom and realm of God on earth for anyone.’
We are baptized into the most universal principal of all, God’s gracious gift of love, which leads to our work in community, (of peace and justice). When God carries us across the Jordan, from the wilderness to the promised land – we need not fear that our baptism includes a public naming – “you are my child, the beloved,” God declares; “with you I am well pleased.” A public baptism is a community event, which Sends us out as the followers of Jesus, our Messiah.