The Sunday that I traveled up to Cherokee, my nine-year-old cousin Taylor was baptized.
One afternoon, she came home very upset from school.
You see, one of her best friends at school had asked her that day if she had been baptized.
Taylor wasn’t sure, and her little friend responded: If you aren’t baptized, you can’t be a child of God.
When I first heard the story, I remember feeling a flash of horror come over me. Did she really say that? What a terrible and awful thing to say to someone!
And then I started to wonder why exactly that statement was so off-putting to me: If you aren’t baptized, you can’t be a child of God.
Looking deeper, I realized that my understanding of baptism… the Methodist church’s understanding of baptism is very different from the view expressed by that little girl.
You see, in our United Methodist tradition, baptism isn’t a pre-requisite for receiving the love of God… it is a sign, it is a reminder, that we are already loved.
Baptism is acknowledgment of the fact that God’s grace is already active in our lives… it goes before us – before we even know it is there.
Pop quiz time: Who remembers what kind of grace that is? The grace that goes before us?
Prevenient grace – gold star!
As much as that statement about baptism made me quake a little bit – there is also a measure of truth to the statement. In baptism, we do put on Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness, we are adopted in the family so to speak. In our baptism, but also in our confirmation of that faith when we stand before the church and profess what we believe, we are say to God – I accept that you have called me and claimed me. I will live as a child of God with your help.
But what is important to remember is that it all starts with God. And God acts in our lives because we are loved.
Often times, it is hard to see God acting in the world. Sometimes the world is cloudy and dim and life seems bleak. In fact, in our Advent scriptures this morning, we hear words of promise spoken to people who were scared and broken. In the midst of troubled days, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and offered a sign – a young woman is with child and will bear a son… and his name will be Immanuel.
God with us. Emmanuel.
God acted when He spoke His Word and all creation came into being. God with us, Emmanuel.
God acted when He led Abraham to the promised land. God with us, Emmanuel.
God acted when He saved a baby from the Nile river and led His people out of Egypt. God with us, Emmanuel.
God acted when He anointed a young boy named David as King over the people. God with us, Emmanuel.
God acted when He spoke through the prophets and gave them warnings and signs and promises. God with us, Emmanuel.
And then God acted in the life of a peasant girl from Nazareth. God with us, Emmanuel.
Paul saw these mighty acts of God as he looked back upon the faith he received and he proclaimed that it is through Christ – through the prophecies, through his ancestry, through his birth and life and resurrection – that God has come to be with us. Emmanuel.
He knew that it is only through Christ Jesus that hope, peace, joy and love are truly possible. In Christ we receive this generous gift of life, Paul writes, and we have the urgent task of passing it on to others who will receive it.
We have the obligation… the responsibility… right now… to take this hope, peace, joy and love that is taking root in our hearts… God with us… and to share it with everyone we meet.
And what is it that we proclaim?
God is with us… Emmanuel. And just as he did in the past, God goes before us making a new way.
I think a prime example of that during this Advent season is the vision given to Joseph.
Can you imagine what this man must have been feeling? He is engaged to Mary, looking forward to their marriage, and he comes to find out that she is pregnant.
God did it, she tells him.
Yeah…. Right… Of course he did… Our God goes around impregnating people.
But he loved this young woman.
According to the law, her punishment would have been stoning. But he didn’t even consider it. He didn’t want to make a scene, he didn’t want to humiliate her… and he certainly didn’t want to pretend that another man’s child was his.
He made up his mind to break off the engagement quietly. She wasn’t showing yet – people wouldn’t know that she had cheated on him.
Her child was conceived by God, the angel assured him.
God has done this to save his people… remember the prophets? Remember Isaiah? This is the one that you have been waiting for. This is Emmanuel. This is God, come to be with you.
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
God acted once again. God intervened and spoke words of comfort and peace.
And Joseph woke up, and took Mary as his wife.
I can actually imagine him running out the door in the middle of the night and heading over to her father’s house. I can see him pounding on the door, begging to see her. I can see them rushing over to the nearest rabbi’s house and waking up the whole household in the process…. Can you marry us tonight?
Because you see, when we realize that God is with us. When we realize that Emmanuel has come to dwell in our lives… we are filled with urgency. Urgency to share that good news with others. Urgency to tell the story. Urgency to obey God’s commands. Urgency to spread hope and peace and joy and love to everyone we meet.
When my cousin Taylor came home from school, believing that she wasn’t a child of God, my uncle sprang into action. He called up the pastor and asked what could be done. And there is no better way to remind us of the way that God loves us – the way that God has already acted in our lives – than to touch these cool waters of baptism.
And so, with our whole family there, that weekend, we surrounded Taylor with our love, reminded her of God’s love for her, and she knew that she was a child of God. She knew that God was with her… Emmanuel.
The only question left for us is who needs to hear those words today? Who needs to know that they too are loved? Where is God already moving and waiting for you to act?