By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts
February 28, 1999

Psalm 24:1-6 Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
For he built it upon the deep waters,
and laid its foundations in the ocean depths.

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts;
who do not lift up their souls to idols,
and do not make false promises.

They will receive blessings from the Lord,
and God the Savior will declare them innocent.
These are the people who seek God,
who come into the presence of the God of Jacob.

Mark 1:1-11 Baptism: the beginning of the good news

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet:

"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way."
"A voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.'"

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven saying, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

The Heavenly City #202, 203 The significance of baptism

Baptism was set up as a symbol that we are religious, and as a reminder that we are meant to be reborn. The washing in baptism is spiritual washing, which is rebirth.

All rebirth comes from the Lord through the true ideas in faith, and by living in harmony with them. So baptism demonstrates that we are religious, and that we can be reborn. It is through our religion that we know the Lord, who gives us rebirth, and through religion we have the Bible, where there are true ideas of faith through which we can be reborn.

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to idols, and do not make false promises. They will receive blessings from the Lord, and God the Savior will declare them innocent. (Psalm 24:3-5)

I love this passage from Psalm 24 because it gives a sense of our life as a journey--a spiritual journey ascending the hill of the Lord to stand in his holy place.

A couple of weeks ago, when Patty and I were in Arizona for a week-long retreat, we went on a mountain climb led by the Rev. Frank Rose, pastor of the Sunrise Chapel in Tucson, Arizona. We climbed Mt. Wasson, which is a 4,600 foot peak at the upper end of a long ridge. The first part of the climb was not a climb at all. We walked along the trail for a mile or so on the flat plain leading to the base of the ridge, surrounded by the surrealistic landscape of cactus and dry desert plants and trees. Then we headed up the side of the ridge on long, switchbacking trails that kept the climb from getting too steep, but also made it a longer journey than if we had simply made a beeline for the top of the mountain.

When we reached the top of the ridge, we were rewarded with a view to both sides of the ridge, giving us a taste of what was to come. We traveled on a fairly flat trail near the top of the ridge, with special vistas at various points along the way. The last part of the climb was the most challenging. There were high winds that day, and we had to struggle along the windswept side of the mountain for the last mile and a half of the trip. Any hats that were not tied or held down were soon blown off!

Finally we reached the top, and were rewarded with a panoramic view of southern Arizona. It was not a clear view, since the wind storm had kicked up the dust, and the valleys were obscured. But it had a beauty all its own. The dust gave a water color effect to the scene, softening all the lines of the mountains and ridges, and giving a sense of mystery to the landscape that was laid out before our eyes.

With that experience still fresh in my mind, when I read the words from the Psalm, "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?" I think of life as a journey. Life is a mountain climb leading to the beautiful and still mysterious mountain of the Lord--a heavenly kingdom of mutual love and understanding. It is a kingdom that we do not have to wait to die in order to experience, since we can be building it here on earth among the people we see each day.

That is what baptism is all about. The Psalmist asks, "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?" And the response is, "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts; who do not lift up their souls to idols, and do not make false promises." To climb a physical mountain, the qualifications are that we are physically fit enough to be able to make it to the top. Whether we are clean or not doesn't make much difference. But the hill of the Lord is a spiritual mountain, and the qualifications for climbing it are different. As the Psalmist suggests, to climb a spiritual mountain, we need to have clean hands and pure hearts.

In the Gospel of Mark, the story of the Lord's journey here on earth begins with baptism. We are immediately introduced to John the Baptist, who prepares the way of the Lord by "baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Baptism is a ritual of washing. To put John the Baptist's message in more modern terms, baptism is all about cleansing our hearts, minds, and actions of everything that keeps us from living in the spirit of love and service to one another.

The water of baptism is a clear symbol of the spiritual truth that we learn from God's Word. The Bible gives us beautiful teachings such as the Golden Rule: that whatever we would like others to do for us, that is what we should do for them. It tells us that we should not hate our enemies, but love them instead. It tells us that we should put God first in our lives, and love others as much as we love ourselves.

These teachings are like clean and flowing water in our minds, helping us to wash away our faulty and negative attitudes, our bad and hurtful habits, and everything else that makes us treat other people and ourselves in a way that is less than thoughtful and loving and kind. In baptism, we use physical water as a sign and symbol of the spiritual washing that is the essence of a truly religious life.

That is why we begin the journey of life with baptism. Little Tommy hasn't had time to develop negative and faulty attitudes, or the kind of bad habits that plague us as we grow older. In our church, we don't baptize babies because we believe there is anything dirty or wrong about them. There is no sin in a newborn baby. Of course, there are the seeds of problems that may develop later--just as we are born with hereditary tendencies toward certain physical and emotional illnesses that run in our family. But babies come to us in the atmosphere of the highest, heavenly angels, who carry with them the tender love of God.

And so, just as in the Gospel of Mark, where baptism begins a spiritual journey, Thomas's baptism today is the beginning of a lifelong journey of both physical and spiritual growth that will continue throughout his life here on earth, and on into eternal life.

Each one of us here today is somewhere along that journey. Each one of us has followed a particular path through life to get us to where we are today, and each one of us has a path ahead of us, too. Like the mountain climb that Patty and I took a couple of weeks ago, that journey is sometimes flat and level as we travel along in our usual routines. Sometimes life takes more effort as we climb up an emotional ridge in order to reach a higher level of understanding and caring about the people we see each day. Sometimes our journey is windswept and stormy as we struggle with difficult and painful events both around us and within us. Sometimes it switches back and seems to be going downhill again--although when we look back on those times we realize that they, also, were necessary parts of the journey.

Yes, each one of us is on our own journey. And as we celebrate the baptism of Thomas Anderson--of that wonderful new life that has joined us here on earth--we can look ahead to the journey that he will travel in his life. We, his family and friends, can rededicate ourselves to learning more and more every day about how to set aside our own faulty and self-involved attitudes, our own prejudices and unkind thoughts. We can rededicate ourselves to our own lifelong journey of allowing ourselves to be baptized with the Lord's pure teachings about loving the Lord our God above all else, and our neighbor as ourselves.

This is the message and the reminder to each one of us as we celebrate the happy event of baptism. The Lord is asking each one of us to continually look for ways in which we can have clean hands and pure hearts, so that we may ascend the hill of the Lord. And as we each dedicate ourselves to this sacred task, we are building a better world both within us and around us. We are building a world in which Thomas and all the other precious new lives may grow and flourish, and receive blessings from the Lord. Amen.

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Music: The Prism (Colors of Love)
1999 Bruce De Boer


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