Years ago, when I was rector of the American Church in Florence, Italy, one of the joys for our family in the weeks after Christmas was to visit the presepi in the Florentine churches. A presepio is a crèche – but not just the holy family and a few wise men and shepherds. A presepio is the whole biblical countryside – mountains, rivers, fields, towns, with people carrying out everyday tasks of work and daily routine. There is always a shepherd boy who fell asleep and missed it all – Peppino was his name as I recall; the children loved to look for him behind a rock or under a tree in the busy scene. And somewhere, in the midst of all the hubbub and everyday activity, and often not very visible, was the holy family in the stable.
Crowds of people came to see the more elaborate presepi – often you had to wait in line to get into the chapel or shed where they were set up. But, when you did get in, everyone was quiet, gently showing their children all what was to be seen, especially the Christ child and Mary and Joseph.
I remember these annual pilgrimages – and, even after all these years since we left Italy, I still miss them. After Christmas there was no rush to get back to work or to go to the stores for post-Christmas sales. We lingered at the crib, in the presence of the holy family, taking in every detail, every figure, two-legged, four-legged and winged.
It was a profound witness to the incarnation – Jesus was born, not in an isolated scene on a Christmas card but right in the midst of everyday activity. God comes, without our help and without our notice in the midst of all the activity of the world– God comes, God is made flesh in Jesus.
But sooner or later – the Christmas season ends. The presepi are closed and put away for another year. But as the memory of Christmas fades - we should remember – there is more.
To be an observer, a spectator, at the birth, no matter how sentimental or moving that experience might be, -- that isn’t enough. That is not the end of the story. The world doesn’t remember Jesus because he was born. Something more has to happen. And today we hear about the beginning of that “something more.”
John the Baptist shows up, preaching fire and brimstone. He is expecting the Messiah. Crowds turn out to hear him and be baptized. Why? Probably not because they wanted to hear a sermon which was full of judgment and condemnation, and probably not because they wanted to get washed in the muddy water of the river. I suspect they turned out because they hoped. They hoped that somehow, someone would come and bring them a word of life in the midst of their trials and worries and problems. They needed to hear that life was worth living, and that they were worth something themselves. Kind of like us.
John the Baptist got them ready for this hope by his preaching and his baptism. He expects someone to come and bring God’s kingdom along with him. John expects an “ax-wielding arsonist” (as one preacher termed it). One wonders if Jesus met his expectations – probably not. But it wasn’t long before John realized that his expectations were wrong. Jesus brought a different and unexpected message.
There he was – Jesus – with the Holy Spirit coming to roost on him like a dove – and those words from heaven: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And suddenly a door opened – a whole new world was revealed, the world of God’s forgiveness and love. This was the Messiah, the one who had been hoped for for generations and now was here. God’s Son. God’s Beloved.
The promise of the ages was not fulfilled by a Messiah of power, riding into town on a white horse to conquer and set things right. God’s revelation to the world, is amazingly simple: Jesus -- and the rest of us – are beloved children of God!
We no longer stand on the sidelines, as spectators, like fascinated children looking at the scene of the presepio. Now we are in a living, loving relationship with God, intimately involved ourselves with the Incarnation, with the life and ministry of Jesus, the Word made flesh. Now we are given hope, because we see that we are filled with grace and life.
Now – we realize that we are beloved children, loved by God. That is who we are created to be, who we are, no matter what obstacles or burdens or misfortunes we have in life. Beloved children, beloved by God from creation and forever. Now, here, in Jesus’ baptism, the truth of God is shown to us. And we are called to action. We are baptized too and we follow Jesus.
Jesus’ baptism was the beginning. It showed Jesus his identity. At his baptism he discovered who he was, what he was to do and who he was to be. Jesus’ baptism drove him to prayer and then to ministry.
Our baptism does the same: we are baptized, we discover that we are God’s beloved children, and we are called to let the light and love of God shine in our lives so that the world can see what God intends for us all. Our baptism doesn’t make us holy; it makes us aware that we are already filled by grace, created in love, and called to live God’s love in the world.
Remember your baptism! How many of you here can? (hands)
Whether you can or cannot remember the event doesn’t matter. Know that the fact of your baptism changed your lives.
Your baptism is the most important event of your biography. You are a beloved child of God. Never, ever, forget that.
No matter what is happening in your life or in the world, don’t let anyone tell you that you are anything less than a beloved child of God. And don’t tell yourself that – ever!
Knowing that basic, foundational fact of faith, of life, we go on: we pray and we live in the power and the grace of God who created us, who redeems and loves us, who gives us the gift of God’s Spirit.
We live a baptismal life, defined by the baptismal vows which we will reaffirm in just a moment.
to continue in worship and fellowship; to learn God’s Word and proclaim the good news of Christ by word and example.
to continue to resist evil of all kinds in our lives and in our world.
to see Christ in all, our neighbor and ourselves; to strive for justice and peace; to know that all people are beloved children of God.
to live God’s love each day.
We are not bystanders, spectators, looking at the birth of Jesus, then turning and going away like visitors to a presepio.
We are baptized adults, living our baptismal covenant: we love God and love our neighbors in all that we do.
This is the hope and the life we yearn for and need.
As we heard this morning, in the words of Isaiah spoken so many centuries ago, words sung by God in the birth of his son, words spoken in the baptism of Jesus and in our baptisms:
“Do not fear, you are precious in my sight, and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you. You are my beloved chi