Sermon: Sunday, March 13, 2011: First Sunday in Lent

Texts:   Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7  +  Psalm 32  +  Romans 5:12–19  +  Matthew 4:1–11

Well, something’s not quite where we’re used to seeing it this morning, is it? I hope none of you stumbled over the baptismal font getting to your pews this morning – but of course, having gone to the trouble to move the font for these upcoming weeks of Lent, I hope you’re at least a little curious about what it’s doing there.

Many of you know that, in the long history of the church, the season of Lent was used as a time for preparing people to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. At that vigil we will hear again this year the same verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans that Christians have turned to for over two thousand years,

“do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)

Because the newness of life we experience in Christ comes to fulfillment in the story of the resurrection, Easter became for the early church the natural time to celebrate entrance into the body of the resurrected Christ, which for us takes place in baptism.

20-Shivta-Baptismal-FontIn different places, preparation for baptism took place in different ways. Some churches practiced baptism on a variety of festival days, and used the weeks before those festivals to prepare candidates (called catechumens) for baptism. Other churches read the account of Jesus’ baptism on the festival of Epiphany, then celebrated a forty day fast afterwards in recognition that following his baptism Jesus went into the wilderness for a period of forty days. Some church were baptizing on Easter early on, and simply counted backward forty days from there to mark the beginning of the season of preparation. By the end of the fourth century, however, the practice became fairly standardized and churches throughout Christianity observed the forty days before Easter as the season we have come to know as Lent for baptismal preparation.

(Incidentally, the word itself “Lent” has very little to do with any of this, it is an old Germanic word meaning Spring, literally meaning “long,” referring to the lengthening of days during this season.)

While there were still whole families coming to Christianity at the end of the fourth century, as the religion was fused onto the Holy Roman Empire there were fewer and fewer adult baptisms after that time. In short order the spectacle of adult baptisms at the Easter Vigil gave way to baptisms of infants born to Christian families. Understandably the character of Lent had to change to accommodate that new reality – there’s just so much baptismal education you can do with a newborn.

So the season of Lent, which started out as preparation for baptism, gradually became what we call a penitential season. As the name suggests, it was a season for penance and repentance. This was the season those who’d been excommunicated from the church used to make amends through the practices of prayer, fasting and acts of charity. That’s starting to sound a bit more familiar, isn’t it? What began as preparation for the new life in Christ that comes through baptism had changed into a season of penance for those whose lives did not reflect the marks of that new life.

But it didn’t stop there, because really, whose life does adequately reflect the new life that comes to us as a gift from God? So Lent as a season of individual penance morphed again, this time into a season of penitential disciplines for all of us – the stuff we’re more familiar with: abstaining from meat and dairy, or fish on Fridays, or giving up chocolate, coffee or alcohol for Lent. All useful disciplines in their own way, but harder and harder to trace back to their origins as preparations for the sacrament of baptism, unless perhaps we remember that in baptism we drown to one way of living so that we can be reborn to a new way of life. These little sacrifices, these little deaths to creature comforts, point us to and prepare us for a much larger revolution that is always occurring as God calls us to lives shaped like the cross on which God showed divine solidarity with all the world’s suffering.

So we’ve moved the font to the center aisle this Lent. It’s almost a stumbling block where we’ve put it. It’s kind of in the way, hard to miss, as it should be. And throughout these forty days we will hear passages from Matthew’s gospel and from John’s that are filled with watery images, that speak of healing and new life, and that font will be there to call us, to remind us, that we have always dying and being reborn.

Next week Chris will be preaching on the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of night to ask how one can be born again from above as Jesus teases him with the idea of a new birth by “water and Spirit.” The following week we’ll gather at a well, where Jesus will share living water with a Samaritan woman whose life is heavy with suffering. As we move into April Jesus will mix the waters of his own spit with those of the pool at Siloam to heal a man born blind, and we’ll wonder what kinds of vision our baptism affords us – and that brings us back to today, where it all begins – with another question about vision.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, on the surface, seems to be the least watery, least baptismally focused of the gospel readings for this season of Lent. I’m sure we could try and make the comparison between Jesus’ urge to eat the bread offered by the Tempter, and our urges to sneak just one sip of coffee or nibble on just one piece of chocolate, but there’s really no comparison, is there. Hard to see on the surface just what these texts have to do with baptism.

Unless you start to remember any of the baptisms you’ve ever witnessed. It’s been a few months since Rebecca and Emmett were baptized at this font, but not too many. Do you remember the promises that their parents made as each of these children was brought to the waters of baptism?

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

The Lenten journey, the baptismal journey – which is just another way of saying, the life we lead as baptized Christians, is one in which we are always being invited by God to renounce ways of life that are self-serving but unsustainable, or self-promoting at
the expense of others:

  • The life of the baptized, or the life of the Christian, is one that is always challenging us to discern the ways in which we are tempted to horde the bread that isn’t ours, rather than trusting God to provide our daily bread;
  • or the ways we are tempted to avoid pain and harm, rather than standing in solidarity with those who weep and mourn;
  • or the ways we are tempted to see ourselves as a cut about the rest, better than our peers, rather than acknowledging that by our baptism we have been joined to all those whom God loves, which is all those whom God has created, which is everybody.

The life of the baptized is a life that renews us, forgives us, heals us and gives us a new vision of the world, one that puts we before me. That’s why we moved the font for this season, so that in its centrality we would maybe begin to imagine it as the hub of a wheel that connects us all. Look at it, where it sits in the middle of the assembly. If we want to come closer to those waters, we will have to come closer to each other. That’s baptism.

We are already preparing for one baptism this Easter Vigil. Emily Vignaroli, daughter of Kristin and Mark Vignaroli, born this past January. And we are preparing to receive new members into the congregation by affirmation of their baptism. But I wonder, are there any others here who want to be baptized? We make such a point each Sunday of saying that we celebrate an open communion, but we rarely offer such an open invitation to the font. Let’s end there then this morning. Just something to think about. If you have not been baptized already, let this be our invitation to you. God is reaching out to you just as God is reaching out to the whole world. Come closer to the waters, and let us come closer to you too.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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