More than Happiness

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22.

One ought to hear in these divine words an echo of those spoken by the same God centuries before to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2. God is offering up God’s only Son as a sacrifice, not to satisfy some divine metaphysical necessity for the punishment of sin, but to fulfill God’s intent from the dawn of creation to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” John 1:14. If the Incarnation reveals God’s passionate desire to draw us to God’s self, the Passion Narrative illustrates God’s determination to see that incarnational intent through to the end-no matter what the cost.

I have frequently used the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in baptismal sermons. That might strike you as unduly macabre, but it helps cut through the excessive, suffocating “cuteness” that always threatens to swallow what is supposed to be a life and death matter. After all, what else are we doing in baptism than offering up a human sacrifice? We are essentially tying the destiny of the baptized to the destiny of a man who got himself crucified. And for those of us who baptize infants, they have no more say in the matter than did poor Isaac! Believe it or not, I once turned to the baptismal family during the sermon, all of whom were sitting in the first front pews, and nearly shouted, “Are you all really OK with this?”

I could have retired years earlier if I had a dollar for every time I have heard people say of their children, “I just want them to be happy.” I don’t believe I have ever said that to or about my children because that is not all or even chiefly what I want for them. I want for my children to be kind, just, honest, merciful, forgiving, generous, courageous and faithful. I want my children to be passionate for justice, ready to put themselves between the most vulnerable among us and the jaws of oppression that would exploit them. In short, I pray that my children will fulfill the baptismal vows I made on their behalf to “learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”  

Naturally, I do not wish unhappiness for my children. But I know that living faithfully into the gentle reign of God will likely bring them into conflict with a culture that measures success in dollars, an economy that runs on greed and politics driven by hateful ideologies. Honesty, integrity, courage and compassion can get you fired, imprisoned or even killed. Discipleship can rob us of all the hallmarks of happiness. There is a reason why Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up the cross. It was not an empty metaphor. So, yes, I would prefer that my children be happy. But if unhappiness is the price they must pay for following Jesus, so be it. There is more, much more to the life God would give us than mere happiness.

Here is a poem that captures the baptismal hope I have for my children and all the people I have baptized over the years.

Your Calling

Let no one tell you, girl,

that the mountain is too high,

the evil too deeply entrenched

the valley too steep

or that it’s too far to the sky.

Let no one say, my child,

that your dreams are too big,

that you are too small,

that what your heart knows is right

can never be and so ignore its call.

Let no man convince you to be practical

or chide you for lacking common sense.

For it just may be that God’s been waiting

endless ages for someone

blind to conventional wisdom,

someone bold enough to be good

rather than merely successful,

someone brave enough to be compassionate

instead of simply strong,

someone who would rather die

for a good cause than live for none at all.

So ignore all words of caution

and shut out all well meaning advice.

Silence the timid voice of warning

and listen with your whole heart to the call.

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