On our youth mission trip to Alaska there is no running water where we stayed in Manly Hot Springs and so we had the great pleasure of bathing in the slough of a glacial river. To say this water was cold is an understatement and every afternoon during our trip I found myself wrestling with what felt like two bad choices to jump into that cold water and scrub down as fast as I could, or spend the night coated in the Deep Woods Off we used everyday to keep at bay the Alaskan mosquitoes that looked more like Cessnas than insects. In the end, I always picked the slough and I was glad for it, but I have to admit that jumping into that water always required a certain amount psyching up on my part.
Let me correct that. I always jumped in except for the first night we were there. We had just arrived and unloaded the vans when a number of the kids headed off for a dip in the slough. They asked me if I wanted to come along but the memory of my warm shower that morning at the motel in Fairbanks was still fresh in my mind and I just wasn t ready for the slough. After all, I thought to myself, I have just gotten here, I haven t really done anything yet, I m not even dirty, I don t need to wash in that cold, cold water. Tomorrow, I told myself, tomorrow I will be ready for the slough.
Some people ask me why it is we baptize infants when they haven t done anything to get dirty? If part of what baptism means is the forgiveness of sins, what sins can an infant have committed? Why do they need cleaning up before they have even really done anything? Shouldn t we wait till the kid gets dirty?
But that s the point in infant baptism. We say that God says this child, this baby is loved and welcomed even before he s done anything deserving love or anger, judgment or reward. Infant baptism is God saying, I love the child first. I love her knowing she will do both good and bad . . . and will steadfastly love her through it all. And I will give her the chance to restart, over and over again. Baptism is a once-and-for-always marking that we are children of God, loved and given the opportunity to start over again and again. 1
As far as we know, Jesus is the only person who never needed his baptism. The Son of God so deeply connected to the will of the father lived his life and journeyed all the way to the cross and the grave without sin. Sin is that which separates us from God. Jesus was never separate from God.
But you and I, that s a different story – you and I cannot not sin. We are not capable of not sinning. Jesus shows us the perfect human life, but you and I at our best can only approximate that life. But part of the wonder of our baptisms is that God proclaims to us that we are loved, we are washed clean, in spite of our sins. Ours is a religion of second chances.
When I was a kid pre Xbox, PS2, Nintendo and the like; the great treat was to be able to walk to the 7-11 with a pocket full of change to play the pinball machine. The Who s rock opera Tommy was a big hit in those days and I relished every opportunity I had to be the pinball wizard. Now, I am not a gambling man but give me a bunch of quarters and good old pinball machine and I will spend every single one of them trying to beat the high score. I would stand there for hours if you let me always wanting one more game to get it right. I remember one day trying to sell my pocketknife for a few extra quarters because I knew I was close to the perfect game. I just needed one more chance, just one more.
Well the promise of our faith is that we have a pocket full of quarters and all the second chances we will ever need. The promise of our baptisms is that God knows our hearts, our shortcoming, our dark sides, our failings, and God loves us anyway. Billy Graham has always gotten this right . . . and it s been the key to his being the most successful evangelist of all time. From the start of his ministry, he has always stressed that the Gospel is all about a God of the second chance. Graham has always centered his preaching on the simple idea that God wipes the slate clean over and over again so that, no matter the mistakes of our past, we can start over again. And that s the gospel . . . and that s baptism. A chance to start over again. 2
What a great message of hope as we begin this new year so full of potential and possibility. We get the chance to start again. Every time we confess our sins, every time we repent (which literally means to turn around) and ask for forgiveness, every time we seek to genuinely amend our lives, we are re-immersed once again in the waters of baptism and washed clean. We are playing with Jesus quarters, hard won on the wood of the cross, but they are given freely for us all if we want something different for our lives, if we want to become different people.
As you begin the journey of 2007 let me give you one simple sentence that I invite you to use as the foundation for your life this year. God loves you. No strings attached, no ifs-ands-and buts, God loves you yesterday, today and tomorrow. Now stand on that foundation and try again. You cannot fall but so far. That love will always catch you. Reach for the person you aren t yet& but are called to be. If you need to forgive others in your life then forgive them. Let go of the malice in your heart; give them another chance because God has given you one. If you need to be more patient, more understanding, more kind to the people around you then try again God loves you you can play for the high score. We have been washed with the waters of baptism once and for all time. We are not free from sin, but the promise of baptism is that sin does not own us, God owns us. We are the beloved children of God the God of second chances. Amen.
1 The Rev. Peter Wiley.
2 The Rev. Peter Wiley.