This homily was preached on the occasion of the Baptism of Logan Roberson, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.
It was an odd thing
to look at the readings for this week,
knowing we would be having a baptism,
and to find myself drawn
toward the book of Sirach.
Sirach is one of those “apocryphal” readings,
and it was given
as an alternative
to a very similar passage
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised
if the author of Sirach
wasn’t simply reiterating the words of Deuteronomy,
“See, I have set before you today
life and prosperity,
death and adversity.
If you obey the commandments
of the Lord your God
that I am commanding you today,
by loving the Lord your God,
walking in his ways,
and observing his commandments,
decrees, and ordinances,
then you shall live and become numerous,
and the Lord your God
will bless you in the land
that you are entering to possess.”
Sirach puts this much more succinctly, I think,
as is usually the case on a “second draft”:
“If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully
is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand
for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.”
I think I was drawn to the Sirach reading
because it uses such familiar imagery and language:
“Fire and water,” “Life and death.”
But I was also struck
by the terrifying notion
that this is all a matter of choice,
knowing that my own choices
are not always the best in the world.
To have such matters in my hands
seems to be a delegation error,
one in which I have been given
far too much responsibility as a lowly creature.
And then I see the way in which
the author of Sirach invites us to choose:
“stretch out your hand for whichever you choose…”
I wonder why this language was used,
this specific image
of someone reaching out their hand
toward something – toward a choice –
that seems so far beyond our grasp.
You see, this act of “stretching out your hand”
is precisely the posture of our first parent
in the garden of Eden,
when they reached forth to grasp
something they did not fully understand,
something far beyond anything
the human creature was meant to grasp
or take hold of.
This is the posture of Adam and Eve
reaching for the fruit
of the Tree of the Knowledge
of Good and Evil.
In that act in the garden,
our first parents reached
beyond the limits given to creation.
Adam and Eve present to us
the picture of a creature
attempting to move beyond the limits
God set and called good;
they show us the danger
in believing we can discern and take hold of
what is best for us, what is true,
what is good, what is beautiful,
what is of God.
But the whole of Scripture
is this drama of God reaching into this world
to draw God’s creatures
back toward the goodness God created,
despite our regular and repeated insistence
that we know what is best for us.
We see it in the liberation
of Israel from Egypt.
We see it in the call of the prophets,
where God says,
“How can I give you up, O Israel?”
We see it in the stories of Jesus,
where God runs to the prodigal.
And we see it in the very person of Jesus,
where God reaches
into the depths of this world
to be with us.
It is the story of God
continually reminding us
that we are creatures,
that we cannot reach to God,
that God must and does reach toward us.
And of course, God’s reach into the creation
came most fully in the incarnation,
where God entered into creation,
and, in human flesh,
did for us what we could not do for ourselves.
This is why I love baptism of infants so much.
It’s a beautiful image of this very thing,
of someone who cannot do
what is best for himself,
who is utterly dependent
on his mother and father,
being brought by those who love him deeply
to the font and to the only One
who knows what is best for him.
Because it is in Jesus Christ
that the heavy burden
of the knowledge of Good and Evil
is lifted from our shoulders,
and we are given the easy yoke.
In his life and teaching,
his death and resurrection,
Jesus scoops us into the good,
the true, and the beautiful life
God intends for us
by making us members of himself,
of his very body.
Jesus takes our distorted attempts
to know good and evil –
“You have heard it said…” –
and he liberates us by his Word,
the Word that brought
the good world into being –
“but I tell you…”
And these different choices
given to us in Sirach –
“Fire and Water,”
“Life and Death” –
also seem to be taken up by him,
and they are transformed.
In Christ, we have before us
the fire of the Spirit
and these waters of baptism.
In Christ, Life overcomes
and tramples down death
so that, as our Burial rite proclaims,
“For your faithful people, O Lord,
Life is changed, not ended.”
In Christ, Christian discipleship
becomes a call to die to oneself daily,
to take up our cross and follow the Lord
of both the dead and the living
into Resurrection and Life.
In him, death gives way to life
so that we can proclaim with Saint Paul,
“If we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.
For to this end, Christ died and lived again,
so that he might be Lord
of both the dead and the living.”
It is this sacrament
we are buried and raised with Christ,
we are sealed by the Holy Spirit,
we are marked as Christ’s own forever,
and made one with him
in his very body.
Here, we are bound by the water of baptism
and the fire of the Spirit
to the life of the One
who restores us to our goodness
as creatures before our creator.
Here, we are no longer left
to our own devices and discernment,
and we are restored to the communion
with God and one another.
Here, God reaches into the depths
and draws us out of death into life.