Good morning, and welcome to the season of Advent. This year, Advent and Christmas worship services have required (shall we say) an extra amount of planning, accompanied by a fair amount of hand-wringing, due to the fact that Christmas Day, December 25, falls on a Sunday. There have been conversations about whether or not we should plan something big and special for Christmas Day, or whether anyone will show up; perhaps everyone will be too busy opening presents on Christmas Day to come to church?
One idea I had to make Christmas Day worship special was to have our baptism service on that day. Needless to say, that plan didn’t work out. The baptisms got moved up to today.
However, it didn’t take me long to realize that today is actually an appropriate and very significant day for a baptism; because today is not only the first Sunday of Advent… it’s not only the day we turn our attention to the Advent of Christ and the day of Christ’s birth. Today is also the first day of the liturgical year.
The church calendar is a little different than the civic – or secular – calendar. According to the church calendar, the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, and that day is today. This is our New Year’s Day.
And what is New Year’s Day? Well, like the day of one’s baptism, New Year’s Day is a day of hope; a day of new beginnings; a day of starting over.
It is that hope, that opportunity to start over and have a fresh beginning, that inspires people to celebrate the New Year in a variety of ways. Some celebrate past midnight; others get up early to watch the sun rise on a new year5. Some people even celebrate the New Year by plunging themselves into a frigid body of water in a polar bear swim, washing off the old year, greeting the new year fresh, clean, and covered with goose bumps.
The similarities to baptism are striking.
So I guess it should not be surprising that some Christian communities have developed their own New Years’ traditions.
One that I find particularly interesting is called Watch Night. Watch Night began, as far as historians can tell, in 1733, with a group of Moravians in Germany, who spent their New Year’s Eve in prayer, waiting for midnight and the start of the New Year.
Soon, the Watch Night idea spread to the United States. It gained in popularity, especially among the Methodists, who saw it as an opportunity to renew one’s covenant with God.
On New Year’s Even in 1862, Watch Night gained a whole new significance. At the stroke of midnight, when 1862 became 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would become law. In prayer services throughout the U.S., African Americans prayed and waited for the dawn of a new age, an age of freedom. It was a night filled with hope and anticipation, because at midnight, everything would change. Life itself would be different and new. Slavery would be abolished, and all those who had been held in captivity would be free.
A number of faith communities still celebrate Watch Night on New Year’s Eve, filled with singing and prayer, remembering the freedom and new life that came with the dawn of 1863, celebrating the freedom we have in Christ, and the God who rescues his people, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters; the God who makes a way in the wilderness for his people, leading them to the promised land.
Just as God’s people passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to becoming a new nation, so do God’s people today pass through the waters of baptism on their way to becoming new, receiving new life, and being the people God has called them to be. In the waters of baptism, the world becomes new. Creation becomes new. Life becomes new.
In the waters of baptism, we know that our sins are washed away. Forgiveness comes to us.
Yet, despite this forgiveness, I sometimes think that we beat ourselves up too much over our sins. Sin leads to brokenness. Sin leaves us wounded. Sin keeps us from being whole, from being who God intends for us to be.
We know that we sin. We know that we are imperfect. We know that our lives are broken. So what do we do? We beat ourselves up because of it. We fight with ourselves. We complain about how stupid we were.
Many Christians go to church where they learn that they need to fight against the sin within. It becomes a fierce internal battle. Fight, fight, fight. We wage a war against sin. And since scripture says that it is our nature to be sinful, that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, the battle against sin becomes a battle against ourselves.
And I can’t help but wonder: Is a state of constant battle really the life to which God is calling us?
Now, if it was your young child who came to you, crying, wounded, would you beat your child up over it? Of course not. Say your child was climbing on a low wall – something that the child should not have been doing – and fell off, scraping a knee or even breaking a bone.
Would you run over to your child, laying there on the ground, injured and crying, and say, “You stupid, crying child, you have done what you weren’t supposed to be doing, and now you’ve fallen and hurt yourself. Therefore I’m going to punish you.”
No. You wouldn’t do that. If your child is laying there hurt, injured, and crying, you wouldn’t try to make your child feel even worse. At some point there may be a time to talk about the lesson learned, but for now you will hold your child, soothe your child, dry your child’s tears, and make sure that your child is safe and gets the care that is needed. You want to heal your child, physically and emotionally.
When we recognize our sin before God, God treats us and our sin the same way: with gentleness, with caring; and God seeks to put us back together again, make us whole again, make us new once again. God takes the wounds that sin creates, cleans our wounds, dabs them with ointment.
In the waters of baptism, God gently bathes your skin with gentleness, cleaning your wounds, providing healing. The forgiveness that comes to us gives us a new opportunity, a new hope. God is not going to punish us for our brokenness, and we don’t need to punish ourselves, either. We’re already wounded. What we need is healing. What we need is wholeness.
There is a personal commitment that comes with baptism. For us, it occurs almost simultaneously with God’s healing forgiveness. It comes when the person who is old enough confesses their sins and recognizes Jesus as the messiah, the one who saves us from a life of brokenness. In other churches, and in our church for those who have been baptized elsewhere as infants, that commitment comes at a time of confirmation.
And in that commitment, we say YES to the new life that God offers. We say, “Yes, God! Come and heal me. Yes, God! Come and wash these wounds. Yes, God! Make me whole again. Make me into something new.”
In that commitment, we look to God to show us the way: the way to healing and wholeness and salvation.
Some time ago I shared with you my experience at El Dorado Nature Center, and that one point at the end of the trail where my sense of direction always fails me. The path to the left just seems to me the quickest way back to the parking lot, and yet past experience has shown me that it’s actually the path to the right.
Two weeks ago, I took these three who have been baptized to that exact spot, and I asked them which way they thought led back to the parking lot. Two of the three said they were sure it was the path to the left. I said that it seems to me that it’s the path to the left, and yet I knew from experience that it was in fact the path to the right.
And I said how God often tells me to take a path that initially seems wrong to me. Love your enemies: that just doesn’t make sense. Don’t fight back and don’t seek revenge: really? Don’t pursue happiness through wealth and material possessions. It’s hard to follow that path, because it sure does seem to me that wealth and material possessions will make me happy.
But experience has shown me that when I do follow that path, I discover that God was right. I discover that what I thought would make me happy leaves me disappointed, while the path God leads me on does, in fact, bring happiness. It’s a whole new world that I discover, one that is very different from the world I thought existed, a world that is so much more than I could have imagined.
That’s what it’s all about on this New Year’s Day: a new hope, a new life, a new creation. In this season of Advent, remember your baptism, and the commitment you have made to following the way of God. In the midst of holiday sales and Christmas gift-giving, remember what it is that actually brings happiness and makes you whole. Remember the kindness, the love, the healing and wholeness that comes to you from God, through Jesus Christ.