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Sermon: God's Love Cannot Be Earned

Over the course of the year, through the Church’s different celebrations, we get to live the entire earthly life of our Lord. Actually, we really do so in a matter of five months between Christmas and the Ascension. After Christmas, we fast-forwarded to when He was 12 years old for the finding in the Temple, then we rewound again on January 6th for the Epiphany, and now we have made the biggest leap yet, all the way to 30 years old, as Christ is Baptized in the Jordan by His cousin John.

I mentioned last Sunday that today’s feast is the conclusion of the historical Octave of the Epiphany, and that today and next Sunday we will be unpacking the other two mysteries of that great feast: the Lord’s Baptism and His first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, by which He inaugurates His public ministry. As so often happens in the Church’s celebrations, we find ourselves looking backwards and forwards at the same time, unpacking the mysteries that we have celebrated and looking ahead to our Lord’s proclamation of the Gospel.

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is also the conclusion of the Christmas season. This week, the beautiful Christmas decorations will be taken down, and we will probably be taken aback to see the simplicity of our church next Sunday. It is fitting that our celebration of Christ’s birth should end with our celebration of His baptism, even if they are separated by 30 years. After all, Baptism is a second birth. At our baptisms, we went down into the waters, symbolizing Christ’s death, the darkness of the tomb, and His descent into the underworld, and were reborn by rising with Him to new life as we emerged from the waters (either literally or symbolically). Natural birth brings earthly life, but re-birth in the Spirit through Baptism brings heavenly life – the life of grace in the soul.

Baptism is so much more than a ceremony welcoming a child into a family. If we really understood Baptism, we would approach it with the same sense of wonder and awe than a child has at her first Holy Communion. Because of original sin, children are born with physical life – a beautiful miracle – but with souls that are dead through sin. For this reason, St. Augustine observed that, “all persons run to church with their infants for no other reason in the world than that the original sin which is contracted in them by their first and natural birth may be cleansed by the regeneration of their second birth” (On marriage and concupiscence, Bk. II, Ch. 4).

This reality of the state of the human soul before the first infusion of grace was acknowledged by the rite of Baptism in use for centuries in the Roman Church (and which is still an option that can be used, should the parents of the child so desire). As the priest prepares to admit the child into the church for the first time, he instructs Satan to depart from him, saying, “I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father + and of the Son, + and of the Holy + Spirit, that thou goest out and depart from this servant of God, N. For He commands Thee, accursed one, Who walked upon the sea, and stretched out His right hand to Peter about to sink. Therefore, accursed devil, acknowledge thy sentence, and give honor to the living and true God: give honor to Jesus Christ His Son, and to the Holy Spirit; and depart from this servant of God, N. because God and our Lord Jesus Christ hath vouchsafed to call him (her) to His holy grace and benediction and to the font of Baptism.”

These are strong words, indeed, and the reality that they convey – that the unbaptized are under the dominion of the Devil – can be shocking. Lest we think that this is a medieval superstition that corrupts the pure Gospel of love, though, St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians, “[God] has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). However, far greater even than the power of Satan, whose dominion is broken by the sacred waters of Baptism, is the love of God our Father, who through this same sacrament adopts us as His beloved sons and daughters. In the Gospel today, we hear God the Father say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” as the Holy Spirit descends upon our Lord in the form of a dove. This is the greatest mystery of Baptism: that through this sacrament, God has chosen us for His beloved sons and daughters, that He sees in us, thanks to the permanent mark left on our souls by the pouring of the sacred waters, the image of His own beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

This can be one of the most difficult truths to accept, that we do not have to (and even, that we cannot) earn God’s love. It is a free gift to us. Most, if not all, of us know this in our heads, but we so often struggle to live the reality of God’s love as a free gift. We tend to beat ourselves up when we make mistakes, forgetting that God loves us precisely in our weakness. We can focus on the negative things in life. We can feel unworthy of God because of our sins and imperfections.

These feeling of unworthiness are one of the Devil’s favorite tricks. If he cannot convince us actually to turn away from God, then he works to convince us that we are not worthy of Him. He takes something that is in itself good –the sense of guilt and shame that God uses to bring us to repentance and share with us the wonderful manifestation of His love, His mercy and forgiveness – and distorts and exaggerates it to make us dwell on our faults and unworthiness. He does this in order to limit us to a mechanical relationship with God focused on obligation, rather than the fullness of divine sonship or daughterhood that God desires for us. While a sense of obligation can keep us practicing our faith for a while, it cannot last forever. Satan knows that a life of faith that loses sight of the ultimate goal – a loving relationship with God that will last into eternity – will eventually crumble, so he works to trap us into trying to earn what God already offers us as a free gift – the love of a father. But trying to earn God’s love through perfectionism leads to frustration and spiritual bewilderment.

The world, too, can distract us from our primary identity as God’s sons and daughters by baptism. The world might tell us that we lack value because we are too young, too old, the wrong racial or ethnic background, the wrong sex, too poor, not productive enough, or any other variety of excuses to erode our God-given dignity. But God’s love is not earned by economic productivity, by being the right age, sex, race, or social status, or even by good works. It is a free gift.

The Church concludes the Christmas season today by inviting us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s baptism. In doing so, She encourages us to hold in high esteem this great sacrament of our second and definitive birth to spiritual life, made holy by Christ in the Jordan, and to recognize its necessity for salvation (as our Lord tells us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God”). By Baptism, we are not only saved from the power of the devil, but we join Christ in the waters, hearing the Father speak to us from above: “You are my beloved [sons and daughters]; with you I am well pleased.”

God is not pleased with us because of any great accomplishment on our part. He is just like an earthly father or mother who need no reason to delight in their child other than that he is their son. When the Devil tempts you to dwell on your mistakes or the world tells you that your life is without meaning, recall who you are by the glory of your baptism: the son or daughter of God the Father, whose pleasure in your very existence can never be earned and does not have to be, because it is a pure and generous gift. God’s delight in you is worth far more than the approval of any human person, even your own.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, A.D. MMXIX

Image: Master of St. Bartholomew Altar. Baptism of the Lord. Oil on panel, circa 1485-1500.

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