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Baptized to Serve
Isaiah 43: 1-7 & Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Baptism of the Lord/ 11th January 2004

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

It is fitting, now that we’ve taken down the Christmas tree, packed away the decorations, and put away the gifts to get on with our lives and try to figure out where we're going.  It is fitting on this Sunday in the liturgical calendar – Baptism of the Lord – when the lectionary texts bring us to the River Jordan, that we go there too and maybe find in these waters some guidance for where we’re going in 2004.  What is God calling me to do?  What is God calling us to become?  What work, what special task, what unique job is God giving me to fulfill in 2004?  You can extend these questions beyond 2004 – what does God want to do with my life? 

There are many here who are asking these questions almost daily: high school seniors preparing for graduation; college students trying to discern their calling; individuals, couples and families trying to figure out what comes next.  Folks in midlife (which is whatever age you wish it to be; I say it is 50, for strictly personal reasons) with a better sense of who they are than when they started in their career or when they got married are now raising these kind of questions free from the expectations of parents, and peers, and society.  These questions are also being asked of folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s – What is God doing with my life?  What does God want me to do?  For it ain’t over till it’s over, friends.  If you’re breathing, then God has work for you to do.  And even though you might be retired from the professional world, remember, as Billy Graham likes to say, “God never retired anyone.”

We know this by looking at all the figures God calls in the Bible, especially Jesus.  According to Luke, Jesus’ calling begins here along the River Jordan.  This is a decisive moment in Jesus’ life.  As you might know, for more than two hundred years, Biblical scholars have raised the question – When did Jesus realize he was the Son of God?  When did the reasons for his life become clear to him?  Some argue that Jesus knew all along, for he was an especially precocious child.  Look how he was teaching the elders in the temple at twelve (Luke 2:41-52).  But that doesn’t mean he viewed himself as the Son of God sent on a mission.  Others believe that Jesus knew he had a calling to preach and teach about the Kingdom of God, but did not really, fully understand his role in the Kingdom and the salvation of the world until he suffered upon the cross.

But according to Luke’s gospel, it seems that Jesus becomes fully conscious of both his identity and his calling along the River Jordan.  I say “along” and not “in” the river, because Luke tells us that Jesus had already been baptized and was deep in prayer when the heavens opened and he heard a voice say, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”

At this point, it becomes crystal clear to Jesus who he really is.  He is human, flesh and blood.  And yet his humanity is not divorced from divinity, for the being and love of the Living God pours through him.  So that in his humanity he reveals the presence of God and tells us who God is; through his divinity, through his Sonship, he shows us what it means to be human and thus shows us the purpose of human life.  Jesus’ identity is firmly grounded in his own personal epiphany.  Because he now knows through and through who he is, he now knows why he is.  He was born to serve the Living God.   This is where Jesus’ ministry begins, at baptism. 

Next comes a time of preparation.  Immediately, the Holy Spirit moves him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days (which is the Bible’s way of saying, for a long time).  Note:  it is the Holy Spirit who moves Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4: 1-13).  On the other side of this struggle, he shares his message with the folks in Nazareth synagogue.  He’s the liturgist for the morning, opens the scroll and reads words from Isaiah.  Isaiah’s words become Jesus’ words, his own personal mission statement, which is nothing less than a summary of the work of God.  Imagine Jesus reading these words, fully aware of his identity after being driven into the wilderness to listen to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

“The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4: 18-19)”

When he finished reading Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:21)”   From this moment, there’s no stopping him.

If Jesus’ ministry begins at baptism, then this is where our ministry begins, too – at baptism.  Or to put it another way – everyone who is baptized is baptized for ministry.  There is no exception to this.  Now you might say, not everyone baptized is called to be a minister.  If you mean called to be a pastor, then you’re correct.  Every baptized person is not called to be a pastor (there would be no one left in the pews).  But everyone who is baptized is called to be a minister.  A minister, coming from the Latin, is a servant.  Ministry means simply to serve.  This is why everyone who is baptized is baptized for ministry.  We are baptized in order to serve.  And there’s no exception to this.  If we are baptized in Christ then we are called into service to him – and only to him.  Jesus’ life tells us what the purpose of life is.  Jesus, the fully human one, who knew how to be human shows us that we were born to serve:  to be in service to the Living God.

Years ago, when I was at Yale Divinity School (before I saw the light and transferred to Princeton Seminary), I had the privilege of meeting William Sloane Coffin, certainly one of the leading lights of our time, a stellar preacher, poet, writer, prophet, and protester.  He was for many years chaplain at Yale and minister at the Riverside Church in Manhattan.  He’s not in good health and rarely preaches any more. Last October he returned to preach at Riverside Church and the United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan (who is an Episcopalian, by the way) made a special visit to hear him.   I can’t remember what he spoke about the night I heard him.  But afterwards a group of friends went up to talk with him.  He was so full of joy and life.  We told him we were struggling through Greek at the time.  He reminded us who we were by referring to himself as Χριστού δοϋλος, a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).  (It can also be translated, slave of Christ).  I’ll never forget that.  Coffin is a man who gave his life to Christ and lived it as his servant and was not afraid to go where his Lord compelled him to go.

This is what our baptism in Christ calls us to – service to the Living God, which entails service to others, which entails service to the world. Baptism is more than an act of initiation into the church.  It is more than a protective measure that prevents you from going to hell.    My father’s mother was Roman Catholic and she was upset with my mother that she waited three months to have me baptized. The Book of Order says that baptisms should be done “without undue delay, but without undue haste” (Isn’t that marvelous?).[1]  It’s more than a socialization ritual. 

With baptism comes a new identity and responsibility.  While we Presbyterians baptize infants as a marvelous sign that God moves to us even before we can move towards God, parents should not take lightly this sacrament.  Do you realize what you’re getting your children caught up in?  Sure, there’s a lot of joy and happiness.  But do you realize the burden, the responsibility that comes with this act?  You see, to be baptized in Christ is to realize that we no longer belong to ourselves (actually you never did; none of us really belong to ourselves); it means we belong to God.  You see these lives that we live are gifts from God, but not gifts for us – they’re gifts to be given away, shared in service. 

This is the purpose of life: love God and as God’s beloved give yourself to the world in love.  This is where we find happiness and joy and inner peace, when we take ourselves out from the center of our lives and see God there instead.  Instead of being preoccupied with ourselves, searching for self-fulfillment, worrying about “Me,” we need to turn our faces out towards others so that others might live, and thus learn to use the word “We.”  Folks today are too obsessed with their own happiness. But what has that really given us?  The early church didn’t grow because people were self-actualized in their search for self-fulfillment, striving for happiness.  The church grew from struggle and sacrifice and service.  This country did not become great and strong, offering hope to the hopeless, through people who were obsessed with their own self-importance and happiness.  People reached out beyond themselves.  

In the church we become great through our capacity to love.  William Sloane Coffin was right when he said, “Love measures our stature: the more we love, the bigger we are.  There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a man all wrapped up in himself.”[2]  This is what Jesus came to show us.  Coffin writes, “Socrates [469-399 B. C.] had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.  Descartes [1596-1650] too was mistaken; ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think therefore I am’?  Nonsense.  ‘Amo ergo sum’ – ‘I love therefore I am.’  Or, as with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote, ‘Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’”[3]

Only you can decide what kind of life you want to live – choose this day whom you will serve.  Will you fulfill your destiny and serve the Living God or will you deny your birthright and serve your self?  I’m not naïve to think that everyone who is baptized will automatically live a life of service (most will not).  There isn’t a baptism fount in the kingdom that hasn’t witnessed infants, children and adults turning from their promises.  But I believe everyone who is baptized – whether they are in the church now or have drifted away – still have that potential within them.  It’s all there.  God has equipped us with everything we need to serve.  It’s up to us to decide what we’re going to do with these gifts. Will we give of ourselves or will we try to keep everything for ourselves?  “In the Holy Land are two ancient bodies of water.  Both are fed by the Jordan River.  In one, fish play and roots find sustenance.  In the other, there is no splash of fish, no sound of bird, no leaf around.  The difference is not in the Jordan, for it empties into both, but in the Sea of Galilee: for every drop taken in one goes out.  It gives and lives.  The other gives nothing.  And it is called the Dead Sea.”[4]

In our baptism we take our stand in the River Jordan.  But we have to decide what difference it will make in our lives.  Will we believe that we are beloved of God (know who we are) and then serve God with all our mind, soul, and strength (know why we are)?

I stake my identity in who I am in Christ.  For I do not wish to serve myself.  Serving our own egos needs is tiring and in the end only leads to isolation and loneliness.  I want to put my life in service to someone infinitely greater than me, in love and gratitude I press my life into serving God.  I was born to serve.  This is true for me, not because I’m a pastor, but because I’m baptized.  Being a pastor is just one way – and certainly not the only way or most noble way – of serving God.  You were born to serve. What matters is that we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, yield our spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit and have a desire to serve.  That’s what matters.  When this happens – whether individually or together as a church – there is no stopping us, because we are engaged in holy work.

There is a marvelous scene at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, part one of The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo and his companions are trapped deep in the Mines of Moria.  Frodo is on a quest to return the ring to Mount Doom and all the forces of evil are struggling against him to prevent this.  Their movement through the mines awakens the Balrog – a huge, dragon-like, flying, fire-breathing beast with fangs and a long whip-like tail.  The only way to safety is over the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm.  The members of the fellowship make it across while Gandalf, the wizard, diverts the Balrog’s attention.  Then it’s just Gandalf and the Balrog.  Leaning on his staff in his left hand, Gandalf stands firm in the middle of the bridge, will not allow the Balrog to approach, and speaks to the evil, “You cannot pass.  . . . I am a servant of the Secret Fire.  Go back to the Shadow.  You cannot pass.”[5]  Years after writing (1966) this wonderful tale, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) told a professor at Wheaton College (Illinois), that by “Secret Fire” he meant the Holy Spirit.[6]

I love that.  This is who we are. By virtue of our baptism we are all servants of the Secret Fire.  When we believe this and accept this and use the power at our disposal – there’s no telling what we can accomplish for God and for the world.  So here’s to 2004!  Thanks be to God!


[1] Directory for Worship, W-2.3008.

[2] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Foreword by James Carroll (Louisville, KY:  Wesminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 24.

[3] Coffin, p. 5.

[4] Coffin, p. 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Part One:  The Fellowship of the Ring (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1982), p. 429.

[6] Quoted on Beliefnet.com in Bradley Birzer’s group discussion of Peter Jackson’s recent motion picture depiction of The Lord of the Rings.   Birzer, with Joseph Pearce, is author of  J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth:  Understanding Middle-Earth (Dimensions, 2002) and professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.