Clearing the Way

Isaiah 42: 1-9 & Matthew 3: 13-17

Baptism of the Lord/ 9th January 2005/ 125th Anniversary Kickoff Sunday

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

Today we together embark on a journey – of remembrance and anticipation.  Remembering the rich and faithful past of Catonsville Presbyterian Church, as we anticipate a future that even now, I believe, God is preparing for us.  Back in 1880, Presbyterians here in Baltimore trusted in God’s call to form a new church and stepped out into the unknown, but trusted that God would be faithful.  That venture of faith brought forth a new Presbyterian church in Paradise and Catonsville to provide for the needs of people moving with the westward expansion of Baltimore.  Such a proposal for a new church – which is always, even today, a very risky venture – was received by Baltimore presbytery at its spring meeting.  Permission was granted with a classically Presbyterian response, to organize “when the way should be clear, so to do.”  God cleared the way and within the year, 1881, Catonsville Presbyterian was an official “ecclesiastical organization” (which is the date the presbytery prefers for our anniversary, but we use 1880).  So with the start of 2005 we start our celebration – a year of remembrance and celebration.

So let us remember – the faithful witness of women and men who followed after God’s call, making all kinds of sacrifices for the formation of this community.  Think of the people who stepped out and risked much for the sharing of the gospel.  Think of all the lives this church has touched over these 125 years, think of the people who first learned here the “old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Remember the turkey dinners, the plays in fellowship hall, mission trips. Think of all the people who walked through these doors and have stayed for decades and the others who have moved on.  Remember all the thousands of people who have worshipped God here in this space. All the people who helped grow this church. Bring to mind all that the people of this church have accomplished in mission, near and far.  Think of how many sermons (all those sermons!) have been preached from this pulpit, the baptisms here at the font, the meals shared around this table, the funerals and memorial services.    Remember periods of conflict and disagreement, because they too are part of our past (as in any church).  Remember all the laughter and the tears.  Remember the people who were born here, lived here, died here, gave their lives to Christ and to the work of his church.  Whose face or faces come to mind?

Now, imagine all these folks surrounding us, as if ghosts on the periphery of this sanctuary, watching us worship, staring at us, smiling at us.  Scripture tells us we are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).  The church of today is building upon what they left behind, and they’re counting on us to be faithful with what we have received.  They have entrusted to us great the commission they, like we, have received from the Lord, “Go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)” Think of all the people who have invested so much of their blood, sweat, and tears for the gospel.  We are building upon this for the future. It’s been said that we are able to see more clearly into the future because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.  But as we know from every fairy tale, the giants always have a weakness.  The saints who surround us know that they weren’t perfect, their ghosts are human ghosts, not gods, and so they look to us to make up for their mistakes, to perhaps undo things that should never have been done. We are called by them to do even better, to do what they could not do.  They sought to live faithfully as best they could, with success and failure.  We are not called to glorify the past or worship the dead in Christ; to do so would border on idolatry.  We learn from them how this church, in this community in 2005, needs to seek to be faithful to Christ in this day. 

Anniversary years are golden opportunities for churches to reaffirm who they are, define more clearly their visions and goals, and be open to the new thing that the Holy Spirit is always doing in the church – because we in the church are always running up against the sin of complacency, being too comfortable with things as they are.  Perhaps this year we as a church will ask and explore together how are we being challenged to grow in our faithfulness?  Where do we need to step up to the plate and risk something for Christ, to step out on the way that God is clearing for us.

When God wants something to happen, the way is cleared and prepared.  Sometimes the Lord calls us to step out in faith, even when we cannot clearly see that road before us.  Nevertheless, we’re called to step out.  Sometimes God does the clearing.

And there are times when we have to do our part, too.  We have to admit that sometimes us humans, we Christians, are the greatest obstacles to what God is doing in the world.  We have to acknowledge that there are things in our lives, on an individual basis, that need to be acknowledged and then set aside.  Sometimes our lives are filled with so much clutter and chatter, diversions and distortions that it’s difficult to hear God’s “still, small voice,” because we never shut-up long enough to really listen to our hearts, our inner hearts, or listen, really listen to what people are saying around us.  We need help.  We need to be purged and cleansed.  We need to be washed, restored.

We often think of baptism as an initiatory rite that brings one into the church.  But that wasn’t the case for Jesus (or for John the Baptist), because the church didn’t exist.  Baptism was first act of purification, preparing our bodies and spirits for an encounter with the Living God.  Going down into the water means putting to death all that hinders God’s will for our lives and coming up as new people. 

Jesus was baptized and in that moment, Matthew tells us, after he was coming up, then Jesus knew that he was – the beloved of Yahweh, Yahweh’s beloved son.  From that identity, firmly grounded in his Father, Jesus is ready to fulfill the purpose of his life.  Baptism is about this identity, this new people we have become and are becoming because Jesus is bringing us where he has been, down into the depths of death and through it into new life.  I believe that when God spoke of Jesus as his beloved, and because Christ is alive within us, we too need to hear these words spoken to us in our baptism – you are the beloved of God!  When we know who we are – both as beloved sons and daughters of Yahweh, and as Yahweh’s beloved people with a mission – then and only then are we able to fulfill the purpose of our lives.  Baptism helps us to remember or maybe discover who we really are – and perhaps there is no greater gift than that knowledge.   

In a few moments, we will be given an opportunity to remember who we are, but more importantly remember who God is, as we affirm our baptismal vows.  This is a perfect day to do this as we embark on this journey of celebration together – individually and collectively, affirming our commitment to Jesus Christ and to one another.  So let us clear the way.