Texts: Genesis 1:1-15 (the first day), Psalm 29 (the voice of God), Acts 19:1-7 (Paul provides a second baptism), Mark 1:4-11 (the baptism of Jesus)
On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus; and it falls to me to offer a reflection on it. Today, I begin by outlining the meandering stream of consciousness that eventually led to this sermon.
My first idea was to talk about infant versus adult baptism. On Monday, I got an email from a 17-year old asking how the United Church views baptism. She is looking for a church in which to be baptized.
I replied that most baptisms in Mill Woods United are infant or child baptisms, but that we are also pleased to baptize youth and adults. In the latter cases, baptism becomes both an initiation ritual and a confirmation of faith.
Then I wondered, how many people are waiting to be baptized? On an average day, there are about 350,000 births worldwide. Since one third of the world’s people are Christian, there must be on average more than 100,000 baptisms each day – well, probably more on Sundays, but you get the picture.
Then my mind turned to population growth. On an average day, about 150,000 people die, which means that the human race increases by about 200,000 people a day. In my lifetime, human numbers have increased from less than 3 billion to more than 7 billion.
One result of an extra 200,000 people each day is pressure on resources. Among other things, this mean that the recent fall in the price of oil to less than $50 US a barrel is probably temporary. Each year 100 million new cars and 7,000 new jet planes are built. So I expect that many of the 200,000 extra people on earth each day will soon be buying cars and flying in jet planes.
Alberta is dependent on the oil industry, which makes the fall in the price of oil a big deal here. But if world population increases from 7 billion today to 9 or 10 billion in 2050, and if the amount of energy used by each person continues to increase as it has for the last 200 years, I see little but clear sailing ahead for the oil industry.
The world consumed about 30 billion barrels of oil last year. If that figure nudges up by 1 or 2 billion barrels this year, oil will once again cost more than $100 a barrel and the Alberta government will stop talking about deficits. The fact that climate scientists say oil consumption must decrease by 95% in order to stabilize the world’s climate and that society must leave most of the remaining oil, gas, and coal in the ground seems beside the point.
I am all in favour of preserving the environment and limiting the consumption of fossil fuels. But with an increasing world population and with an economy based on unlimited growth, I see no force that will make the human race collectively decide to leave most fossil fuels in the ground.
This is part of what the 350,000 people born each day have to be baptized into – a world of increasing numbers and disastrous climate change!
Later in the week, my attention was riveted by the horror of terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria. On Friday, Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria massacred about 2,000 villagers in its deadliest attack yet. And in Paris, three armed gunmen killed 20 journalists, cartoonists, police officers and hostages in four separate incidents.
I pray that the ongoing conflicts within Islam in countries like Syria and Iraq, between Islam and Christianity in countries like Nigeria, and between religious fundamentalists and the secular majority in countries like France will not completely unmoor us from values of inclusion, hospitality, and love.
On Friday, vandalism at Gurdwara Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple just 3 km from here was a racist response to the news from Paris. One of the hate-filled messages written on the Temple said, “Leave Canada.” On behalf of Mill Woods United, yesterday I sent a message of support and solidarity to the Temple as they deal with the stress and pain of this racist attack. It is important that we stand against racism here in Mill Woods just as in any place in the world.
A key battleground is immigration. Countries like Canada that have a birth rate below replacement level rely on immigration to keep our economy growing. But fear of foreigners leads many of us to oppose immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries. At the same time, there are demands that Canada take in more of the refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria, several million of whom are living in misery in Lebanon and Jordan. In the last four years, Canada has taken in fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees.
A few weeks ago, Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition,” contrasted Canada’s attitude to Syrian refugees today with that of 1956 when Canada admitted 100,000 refugees after a failed revolution in Hungary – this when Canada had less than half of its current population – and with that of 1979 when it admitted 100,000 Vietnamese boat people.
To the question, “How could Canada possibly take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees?” Enright gave a simple answer: “on airplanes.”
If Canada were to welcome all Syrian refugees who wanted to flee to Canada – as we did with Hungarians who fled Communist tyranny in 1956 – 200,000 or more might come. I believe this would greatly enrich our society, boost the economy and ease some of the horrible burden of the Syrian civil war.
Unfortunately, I also believe that many — perhaps most — Canadians would be outraged by the prospect. They would argue that the economy could not afford 200,000 more refugees, despite the fact that Canada’s prosperity is directly tied to increases in population. They might also fear that the sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and between Muslim Syrians and Christian and secular Syrians would be imported into the country.
I believe there is no way to wall a country like Canada off from the divisions, hatreds, and violence that affect places like Iraq and Syria. We are one world and one people. Opening the country to Syrian refugees today as Canada did to Hungarian refugees in 1956 and Vietnamese refugees in 1979 would help it play a bigger role in healing a world broken by centuries of colonialism and its resulting racism.
So, these are some of the places my mind went this week as I contemplated the baptism of Jesus! My attention is often on the broad context in which we conduct our worship and mission as a church – things like population growth, oil prices, and racism. However, I am also aware that not everyone is focused on this level, and I worry that my interests don’t always meet the needs of this gathered community.
Given my fear of a disconnect between my focus and that of others in the congregation, I decided to hear all four of the assigned Bible readings today in search of inspiration for a sermon that might offer more spiritual food than one solely focussed on big social issues.
This leads to another question: can talking about baptism be an antidote to all the scary stuff I have touched on so far? And the answer is . . . yes, of course it can.
Three of today’s readings mention the voice of God. In the first verses of Genesis, God creates by speaking — “Let there be light.” Psalm 29 also speaks about God’s voice as a creative force in the world. And in Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus hears a voice declare that he is God’s beloved child.
The reading from Acts tells about Paul’s baptism of a group of Christians in Greece. Paul draws a distinction between the baptism of John, which is for the repentance of sins, and baptism in the name of Jesus, which is about receiving God’s Holy Spirit.
When Paul baptizes this group of about 12 people, they receive the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus did in the Jordan.
Baptism is not a requirement for being forgiven or for receiving the Spirit. But baptism can remind us that God both forgives us and anoints us with power.
Being forgiven and receiving the Spirit do not solve big problems like pollution, racism or terrorism. But baptism gives us the freedom to cope with these problems and to stand up for what we know is right.
God’s Spirit also helps us to cope with smaller things that arise in families or at work. And it frees us to be followers of Jesus in the world. Many fears run rampant in our culture – about immigration, or pollution, or the economy. But because we have been freed in the waters of baptism, we can let these fears flow out of our hearts and minds. This gives us all the space we need to love our neighbours as ourselves.
As a people forgiven in the waters of baptism and embraced as God’s blessed children, we are free to stand against racist vandals and in solidarity with all the victims of religious violence, whether in France, Nigeria, Syria or here.
Part of me worries about the 350,000 babies born into our troubled world today. I can easily conjure up terrible images of the future they face.
But then, I hear again God’s call to come down in the river to pray. The heavens are torn open. We see God’s Spirit descend as though it were a dove. And a divine voice says, “You are my beloved children. In you I am well pleased.”
At such moments we know that we are saved, that we are free, and that we live within God’s kingdom of Love right here, right now, come what may.
Thanks be to God.