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The text for our consideration is from the Epistle reading assigned for the Day of the Baptism of our Lord, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 6th chapter, especially these three verses, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom.6:3-5)
The holy day of Christmas is the celebration of God come into this world according to His promise. He who created the world, entered the world. The writer and the director of the pageant has written Himself into the story and has the lead role. He knows how the story begins and He knows how it will end and He knows every little scene and all of the dialog and action that will happen between these two points.
The Christian Church never gets tired of telling the story, rehearsing the scenes and repeating the dialog and even physically moving the movements over and over again. Because somehow we know that this pageant about God becoming man and dwelling among us in the flesh involves us. After all, He comes to where we live and move and have our being. And so we are also a part of this story, and have our and parts to play with lines to speak and movements to make.
When Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem, the angels spoke their lines and sang their song right on cue. And the shepherds in the field hear the angels and responded by going to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And as we speak their lines and sing their songs, and even as we have done this morning, recreate their movements, we understand that we are not simply recalling and reenacting an old, old story, but that we are actually participating in the story itself, as though it were happening in the present moment, not only some 2,000 years ago but now, not only in a little village in the Middle East but right here.
As we retell the story, we understand that it is both ancient history and current event. It happened long ago and is happens right now as we retell it. We worship the Christ child this morning, right alongside those shepherds from 2,000 years ago and we are moved to respond right along with them. “When THEY saw it, THEY made known the saying that had been told THEM concerning this child.” And so do we.
With each new recital, the story is brought forward in time and another generation of men and women, boys and girls become participants in it. It becomes 'our’ story. And “when WE see it, WE make known the saying that has been told Us concerning this child.”
It’s really a very mysterious kind of pageant isn’t it? A story that happens both in the course of human history but that also transcends the boundaries of time and space and happens again and again, every time and place that it is retold, reenacted.
Who else but God Himself could write and produce a story like this?
And really, the whole thing gets even more mysterious when we realize that it doesn’t happen like this for everyone. Clearly, there are some, in fact many, for whom this story is nothing more than an old, old story, just religious literature or ancient history, or maybe even fable, not really a historical event. And when they hear it told or even participate in its retelling, nothing really happens. It’s all someone else’s story and words and movements that have no connection to their life.
Maybe another way to put this would be to say that some are audience and some are participants. For some, the story is entertaining or absurd or instructive. But for others, it is all about God becoming man – FOR ME. God with US.
And the thing that seems to make the difference between audience and participant is that thing called ‘faith.’ Without ‘faith,’ it’s just an old story and we are just a part of the audience and we watch it through the retelling and we admire it or despise it, critique it or reject it.
But with ‘faith,’ everything is changed and it all becomes a great mystery, and we find ourselves in the story and it the story becomes ‘my story’ about ‘my life,’ and ‘my dilemma’ and ‘my disappointments,’ ‘my joys,’ ‘my sorrows,’ and ‘my forgiveness,’ and ‘my salvation,’ and ‘my God, my God.’
And that leads us right the subject of ‘baptism,’ because ‘baptism’ is the place where this thing called ‘faith’ is given. Baptism is the ‘portal’ through which we enter into the mystery by faith. It's the door that opens to us and through which we go from audience to participant.
This is what St. Paul is getting at when he says that through holy baptism we become participants in the life of Jesus Christ, to the point that as Jesus was crucified and died because of sin, we were crucified with Him and actually because of sin. “We died with Christ.” Through baptism, we actually die even while we are still alive.
And in the same way, just Jesus actually rose from the dead, so we have actually risen from the dead. “You were raised with Christ.” Through baptism, we have actually risen from the dead before we die.
What Paul is saying is that holy baptism actually incorporates our life into the life of Christ to the point that “We have been united with him.” The story of Christ becomes our story. Christ’s death and your death are not two separate things. Christ’s resurrection from the dead and your resurrection from the dead are not two separate things. By baptism and the faith that is given in baptism they are united together into one death and one resurrection.
Now, the mystery goes even deeper than this. We should understand that when we enter into this marvelous and mysterious story through the portal of holy baptism, or maybe better to say, when through baptism we are taken into the story, it is not just the birth and death and resurrection scenes that we participate in, but all of the other scenes and dialog and action that takes place between His birth and death and resurrection as well.
So, for example, when we retell that scene where the lepers see Jesus coming and call out to Him, ‘Kyrie Eleison,’ ‘Lord have mercy,’ that becomes our story and we are those miserable, leprous humans calling out to Jesus and to whom Jesus responds by restoring our life.
When we retell that scene where the blind men hear Jesus and they call out “Kyrie Eleison,’ ‘Lord have mercy,’ that becomes our story and we are those blind men to whom Jesus comes and opens our eyes so that we may see.
There is that scene in St. John’s gospel where Jesus is walking with His disciples, not just the 12 but many who followed Him and John tells us that at one point Jesus said something that many of them just couldn’t accept, and “many turned back and walked with him no longer.” “So Jesus said to the 12, ‘Do you also want to go away as well?’ And the 12 replied, “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
When we rehearse that scene together with faith, we suddenly realize that we are the ones who must answer His question and come to grips with whether or not we believe His Word and promise and will follow Him or turn back.
It’s like this with every scene in the gospels. But its not just the gospels that we enter into through our baptism. We also enter into entire act that leads up to Jesus’ birth and an entire act that follows His resurrection. And through the portal of holy baptism, we enter into all of this as well.
For instance, take the scene in Isaiah 6, where the prophet “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels who are singing, ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” And in the final act, there is a very similar scene in the book of Revelation, chapter 4, where St. John sees the living creatures surrounding the throne of God who never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Whenever we retell those scenes we enter into them through faith and become firsthand participants in them. We are standing before the throne of God and we are a part of that strange choir that sings, “holy, holy, holy.”
Frankly, the problem with a lot of contemporary worship these days is that it treats those present as though they were only audience. It sees itself as entertainment and therefore needs to be entertaining because that's what audiences come for. Historically, the Church has never thought of worship as entertainment but of participation the mystery. And so the form of the historic liturgy treats those gathered together, not as audience but as participants in the story that is being told.
We are the blind and leprous who cry out in the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy upon us.” And we are the ones who respond to Jesus' calling, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” And we participate with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in that unending hymn around the throne of God, ‘holy, holy, holy.’
And so, because the historic form of worship expects our participation in the story that is retold, we enter into this story through the portal of what else, but holy baptism. In our baptism, we received the sign of the cross and the name of the Triune God. We enter into the Liturgy by invoking our baptism, making the sign of the cross and “In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
And so our celebration of Christmas is the all about the mystery that God so loved the world that He entered into it in order to participate in our life. And in so doing has opened the way of Holy Baptism whereby we may enter into His life and participate in it, a way that He Himself entered when He was baptized with all the people.
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”