NOTE: There will be much talk about Star Wars in this sermon, but NO SPOILERS about the new film.
I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back was released. As a little kid, I saw the movies and played with the toys. My younger brother and I would dress up as the characters. Since I was the taller one, I would put on a football helmet and tie a towel around my neck and become Darth Vader. My brother would be Luke Skywalker. Then our dad would put on his Star Wars disco record (and yes, it was still a record) and we would duel in the living room with plastic baseball bats as lightsabers. As I got older, I would re-watch the movies with my friends and read the novels and comic books. Several of us got together and played a Dungeons and Dragons style role-playing game based on the movies. When I was nineteen years old, I met my wife in the same week that Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I won’t lie: I saw it six times in the theater that summer… and I’ve already been to see The Force Awakens three times since it came out last month.
I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. There has never been a time in my life when these movies weren’t there. Their presence has been a given in my life, and I made their story my own as I grew up. And now, I get to pass them on to my kids as the saga continues in these new films that are coming out.
Tell you this today, not just to gush about these movies, but because I can see in my love for them something about how Christian faith begins and grows in the Church. And my point will be this: faith begins, not with what we do or believe in relation to God, but with what God does and believes in relation to us.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Scholars generally agree that this event is the moment when Jesus’ public ministry begins. Jesus’ baptism is, in a sense, his ordination. Especially interesting are the words spoken to Jesus after his baptism: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Jesus’ ministry begins with the message, communicated to him in baptism, that he is loved. That love is a given. It’s just there. It’s the foundation upon which the rest of Jesus’ ministry is built. There is no part of Jesus’ life that is not shaped by this love. Because Jesus is loved, and because he knows he is loved by God, everything else he says and does becomes possible: his teaching, healing, forgiving, welcoming, even dying, and rising again from death. God’s freely given, unconditional love is the source for all of this.
The same is true for you and me. Those words, which God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, God also speaks to you in your baptism: “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” God’s love is a given. Like the Star Wars movies, it’s just there. We grow up with it. Most of us take it for granted and never stop to think about how amazing it is.
The sacrament of baptism is how we become conscious of God’s love.
The word baptize comes from the Greek word baptize, which means “to submerge or immerse.” Think about soaking in a bathtub, jumping into a swimming pool, or floating in an ocean. When we are immersed, the water surrounds us on all sides, holds us up, and carries us along in its currents. Now, imagine that the water is God’s love: surrounding you, holding you up, and carrying you along. God’s love washes us clean. The water of baptism is a symbolic representation of that truth. The sacrament of baptism is not a religious merit badge or even a rite of initiation. Baptism does not make God love us; it makes God’s love real to us in a physical way.
The Holy Spirit meets us as we celebrate this sacrament and speaks to each and every one of us the same words that God the Father spoke to Jesus at his baptism: “______, you are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
This, by the way, is the reason why we Presbyterians (along with Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican Christians) have always been comfortable with the baptism of infants. Whenever a baby is born, we believe that God loves and accepts that child before he or she can say, do, or think anything. We believe the spiritual journey does not begin when a human being makes a conscious decision to search for God, but when God makes a decision to search for us. And the good news, the best news, is that God already made that decision a very long time ago. God says in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.”
The promises we make in baptism, to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, are only ever a response to the grace that God has so freely bestowed upon us. This is why we say that baptism is not a merit badge. It is not something we do for God; it is something God does in us.
In the same way, growth in the Christian faith is not about how much we love God; it’s about realizing how much God loves us. Like Star Wars, God’s love is ubiquitous: it’s just there, all around us. We grow up with it, and we grow into it.
The more we realize just how much God really does love us, and how there really is nothing we can do to about it; the more our lives and our ministries begin to look like Jesus’. Everything Jesus did, from teaching, to healing, to feeding, to welcoming, to forgiving, even to his death and resurrection, was based on this core truth that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.
I pray that we, as a church and as Christians in this world, would realize this same truth in our own lives, and that our lives, one day a time, might begin to look more and more like his life.