“Have you been born again?” Many of us good honest liberals, hearing those words, run screaming in the opposite direction. “NOOOO!!!!! I’m being attacked by someone who wants to convert me!!!” And that’s a fair response. We’ve been born once; many of us have been baptized once; many of us worship regularly. We don’t need to be born again.
And yet… there was a woman I baptized long, long ago in a faraway land… She’d had a tough life, and she starting to turn around. She wanted a physical, tangible sign that she was making a 180 degree turn in her life, and God was the center of it.
So she came up to me and said, “I know was baptized as an infant, but I want to be baptized now- now that it means something to me.” Now, good theology teaches that a person may only be baptized once. One and done, as they say. God is faithful throughout your life, and you don’t have to keep getting baptized.
But I am more of a practical theologian that an ideological one, so I thought about her request. She wanted a new life. She wanted to do something important, spiritual, to mark her new life in the presence of God. And baptism means new life. So after pondering the theological implications, I said that of course I would re-baptize her.
And I remember, when she looked up with water streaming down her face, it was like Jesus coming out of the water to God’s words, “You are my Beloved Child, in whom I am well pleased.” God was there, as she was born again into the presence of life, with a radiance beaming from her face.
That’s what baptism is for an adult. It’s dying to ourselves- our old ways of thinking, our old ways of acting in the world, our old ways of relating to people and to God.
If someone from the other side of the theological fence comes up to me and says, “Have you been born again? I’d say Yes. Because I remember the day when I was 23 years old when I was baptized. I had been hounded by God for about a year. Everywhere I looked, there were Christian tracts on the buses, Christian books on the library shelves, Christians popping up out of the woodwork. Maybe they had always been there- I don’t know, I had never noticed them before. But something in my heart was becoming receptive, yearning. And for the first time I started noticing- the tracts, the books, the people.
Then at one point, after about a year of this divine subterfuge and a lot of reading C.S. Lewis’s books, I decided that I wanted to give my life to God. So I walked into the first church that I came across- University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. And as I walked out of service that first Sunday, I asked the pastor to baptize me.
I must have smelled like the Holy Spirit or something, because the pastor didn’t tell me to take some classes or learn a catechism. He told me to come in the next day- Monday- at noon, and he would baptize me during my lunch hour.
I came in- it was just me and him. He was doing it all wrong- baptism is supposed to be a public witness, not a private act. But he poured the water, and laid his hands on my head: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And suddenly my body was engulfed from the inside out with a power greater and more holy than I had ever known. And I was born again.
It took me a number of years to figure it all out. Actually, I’m still trying to figure it all out. But that act started turning me around to a new way of living, of being.
When I read the Gospels back then, I read how Jesus said to love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you. I took it seriously, and started working with the Non-Violence movement. I started buying sacks and sacks of rice for the recently immigrated Hmong community in our midst. (Of course, I bought the wrong kind of rice the kind that Americans eat, and the Hmong feed to their pigs!)
But bit by bit, I learned. And bit by bit, I felt a yearning to give my whole life to Christ. I didn’t know much, but reading about the life and teachings of Jesus gave me a pretty good idea of where to start. And my whole life began to turn in a different direction, from working retail copywriter, to becoming a minister.
Dying to an old life; being reborn in another.
That’s just my early experiences of life in God. I know that a number of you have had your own experiences of wonder, of turn-arounds, of feeling the power and presence of God. We’ve talked about it. And in your own way, you have been born again- changed into a different kind of person because of the presence of God.
Dying to the old; arising new and somehow changed.
In two weeks, I will be dying to you, and you to me. And you will begin the process of rebirth into a more complex, more aware, more humble congregation. That’s what happens when we have an old way of being taken from us, and we are left with two choices: Do we risking going under the water, to rise again with Christ? Or do we stay on the dry land we have always known, living in ways that have always worked before.
Let me give you a hint about what happens if you decide to get wet. This comes from the Gospel of Luke. First you meet God, and something inside you calls you to commit yourself to God’s purposes. And then God’s Spirit drives you into some hard and barren places- places you’d rather not be. Places where demons whisper to you that trusting in God is a fool’s path. Much better, the demon says, to place your trust in yourself to create a new church, a new ministry.
That’s what happened to Jesus. He was baptized, and then the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness for 40 days to fight His demons. And you know what Jesus did? He clung to God, in spite of thoughts and doubts that would keep him in his old way of being. And Jesus willingly became what God had created Him to be.
In two weeks, when I leave, God is going to be leading you into hard places. That place of losing someone we have loved is always a disorienting, unsettling wilderness. Who are we? Who are we to each other? Who are we to the world?
If they’re good at their job, your interim minister will be leading you into places that are not comfortable, that will make you look into your old selves and ask, “Is this who we want to be? More importantly, is this who God is calling us to be? A new creation. A holy people. A people of compassion and justice?”
And to give you a hint as to what that new creation might look like… In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus is baptized and forced into the wilderness by the Spirit, the first thing that He does when He gets back is He opens the Bible, and He starts reading to the people in his home church:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because God has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of God’s liberation.”
Dying to the old; arising new and somehow changed. And then He said to all these people He had known for all His life, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
Dying to the old; arising anew with fresh vision and purpose. Will you be born again, dear friends? I pray that, by the grace of God in the next months, you will be. And that you will know a way of being in the world that is deeper and more important that you have ever been before.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE FOR JAN. 12, 2020 MATTHEW 3:1-17
In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the Reign of Heaven has come near!” John is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord and make God’s paths straight!” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, as did those who lived along the Jordan River. They were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he raged at them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come! Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these very stones! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear food fruit and cut down and thrown into the fire! “I baptize you with water for repentance, but One who is more worthy than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry His sandals. Her will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and will gather His wheat into the granary. But the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire!! Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan River, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by You… and you come to me? Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is My Son, the Beloved One with whom I am well pleased.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.