God remakes our human nature
A sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, January 10, 2021
The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord,
Year B, Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room
Happy Epiphany and Happy New Year! I’ve been thinking about this past year a lot. It has been a stressful year, for sure. It occurs to me that this has been a year in which we’ve seen some of the darkness of human nature on display. We like to dress ourselves up, and clean up the story for photos and movies. We celebrate our humanity and give ourselves permission to pursue our passions. But we ignore the flaws of human nature at our peril.
This year, the pandemic has shaken our sense of security across the globe. Our anxieties easily lead to conflict and division, even turning masks into a partisan issue. This summer we saw the price of our blindness to racial bias, and we saw the way pain and pent-up anger at injustice could spill into the streets with unrest. And this week, we saw what happens when partisanship overtakes law and order.
We often forget how human nature and human emotions can drive the worst parts of ourselves. The mess that we fight often comes from within us, even when we believe we are doing the right thing. What are we to do? How do we get out of this mess?
Some of the answers are found in today’s feast day, and in today’s readings. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany: The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Our readings start with invoking God’s power at work in the waters of creation, with the Holy Spirit brooding over the face of the deep.
We heard from the Acts of the Apostles about how baptism in Jesus also fills the person with the Holy Spirit. And in our Gospel reading, we watch as Jesus comes to the river Jordan to be baptized by John. He goes down into the water to be immersed; he comes up out of the water. The Holy Spirit descends on him, and God the Father declares Jesus as his son. Then Jesus goes into the wilderness before he begins his ministry.
Jesus’ baptism is a unique baptism. Baptism was a Jewish practice, meant as a sign of repentance, or for the washing of sins for converts to the faith. John the Baptist called people to repent and be baptized, to turn away from their sin and toward God. As John notes in Matthew’s account of the scene, Jesus does not need to be baptized. Nonetheless, Jesus comes to be baptized. Jesus leads the way for us, and calls us to be baptized.
In this sacred act, Jesus calls us to repent—to turn away from our sins and be washed clean in him. He calls us to turn toward God and to follow Jesus to walk closely with God. In calling us to be baptized, Jesus calls us to the new life in him. Baptism is a sign of God remaking our human nature in God’s likeness.
When the church talks about the dark side of human nature, we describe this as sin. Sin is separation from God, turning away from God and toward our own self-interest. When we talk about original sin, we are talking about the brokenness of human nature, how we are unable to get things right always. Someone once said that original sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the church: no one is perfect, and we all need God’s forgiveness.
The good news is, of course, that God does not leave us in this brokenness. God comes to us in Jesus to call us back to him, to save us from our sins and give us a new life, renewed from our brokenness and restored to God. Jesus gives us the gift of God the Holy Spirit to empower us to walk more closely with God each day, to form and shape us more into the image of God.
In Baptism, we say that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ. Going into the water, and coming out of the water: dead to the old life, and alive to the new life in Christ. We are immersed in God’s grace and mercy, we are immersed in the Holy Spirit who begins his work in us. Baptism is a sign of God remaking our human nature in his likeness.
Does this mean that we are now perfect? Obviously, the answer is no. We must seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance and strength. Each day, we choose to live into our Baptismal Covenant with God. In this covenant, this bond God makes with us, God forgives us and saves us through his son Jesus. God fills us and empowers us with his Holy Spirit. In this covenant with God, we respond to God’s grace with faithfulness to him, in worshipping God, in walking with him in prayer and study. We respond to God in relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in sharing God’s grace with the world.
One theologian says that there are two parts to the liturgy of Baptism: Bath and Teaching. For adults, the teaching comes first: the adult is taught and prepared for the Christian life, and then Baptized. For children, they are Baptized first, and then immersed in the Christian life in their family and their church. I think this continues to be true for us as teenagers and adults. We continue to learn and grow in Christ. We continue to seek God and find God and live more fully into our Baptismal covenant.
Of course, we can forget this covenant. We can forget what God has done, and let ourselves get distracted by the world. But oh, how much God wants to bless us and renew us and restore us and walk closely with us in our lives! Why not answer that call and open ourselves to that blessing?
Each day, we can choose to live into our Baptismal Covenant with God. We can open ourselves to God’s daily remaking of our human nature. Baptism is a sign of God remaking our human nature in his likeness.
This year, when the world around you and in you is stressed by COVID or politics or the weight of our culture’s sin, open yourself to God’s remaking of you. Renew your commitment to seeking Jesus and following him to a new and better nature. Baptism is a sign of God remaking our human nature in his likeness. Remember your Baptism and show that renewal in your life.