This sermon was preached on December 10, 2000.
+ In the Love of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I know that Harry Potter is all the rage now, but long before Harry Potter, there was Merlin, King Arthur's great wizard.
If you remember Merlin, then you'll know that Merlin doesn't grow older— he grows younger; and that's because Merlin isn't traveling through time from the past to the future.
Rather, he's traveling from the future into the past.
That gave King Arthur an important advantage: Merlin could give King Arthur a glimpse of the future.
The Season of Advent is like Merlin:
Advent, like Merlin, travels backward in time, and Advent, like Merlin, gives us a glimpse of the future.
Every Advent follows the same pattern.
On the first Sunday of Advent, we are with Jesus in Jerusalem for the last week of his life, and he tells his disciples about his Second Coming at the end of time.
And then on the second and third Sundays of Advent, we travel backward to a time before Jesus even began his ministry, and meet John the Baptist.
And then on the fourth Sunday of Advent we travel backward to the time when Mary is pregnant with Jesus.
So then, like Merlin, let's travel backward in time to this morning's Advent Gospel.
The Gospel begins "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. . . ."
St. Luke begins this way because he wants us to know that the Gospel is rooted in time. That's why he mentions the Roman Emperor, and Pontius Pilate, and Annas and Caiaphas. These are the great political and religious figures of Jesus' time.
And yet, Luke tells us, the word of God didn't come to the Emperor in Rome, it didn't come to King Herod in Galilee, and it didn't come to the High Priests in Jerusalem.
No, "the word of God came to John in the wilderness"; the word of God came to an ordinary human being in an ordinary place.
And so it has been in all times. The word of God comes to ordinary people in ordinary places at ordinary times.
And so, impelled by that word of God, John preaches "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
This morning we are baptizing two babies. And the question is, what's the difference between John's baptism and our baptism?
We know from this morning's Gospel that John's is a Baptism of Repentance for the Forgiveness of Sins; but ours is a Baptism of Forgiveness for the Repentance of Sins.
So what does that mean exactly?
Well, with John's Baptism, first we repent— that is to say, first we change our lives— and then God forgives us.
Now that sounds like a very reasonable time-line: first, sin; second, repentance; and third, forgiveness.
But Christian Baptism is very Advent-y, very Merlinesque, and it operates on a very different time-line: first, forgiveness; second, sin; and third, repentance.
That's why baptizing babies is such a powerful witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ: before they do anything sinful at all, before they even know what sin is, their sins are forgiven.
This time-line of forgiveness, sin, and repentance is found in "The Baptismal Covenant" in our service of Holy Baptism.
Remember, that most people at the service are reaffirming their Baptismal vows when the celebrant asks:
"Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" [Book of Common Prayer, p. 304.]
Notice how realistic this question is: it doesn't say "if you fall into sin" as if we might somehow manage not to sin again!
It says "whenever you fall into sin. . . ."
And then it gives the remedy: "repent [that is to say] return to the Lord."
So, Christian Baptism really is "a Baptism of Forgiveness for the Repentance of Sin."
There's one more piece of Advent-y and Merlinesque business we have to attend to, and that's the last sentence in the Gospel from the prophet Isaiah:
"Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
Just as King Arthur was able to glimpse the future thanks to Merlin, so we can glimpse the future thanks to Isaiah.
And in God's future, every valley has already been filled, and every mountain and hill has already been lowered, and all flesh— every human being— has already seen the salvation of God.
Unfortunately, so many people, including many Christians, live their lives from the past: they hold on to grudges, they nurture resentments, they keep old wounds fresh.
For them, the old time-line continues: sin, repentance, forgiveness— and forgiveness is sometimes a long way off.
For them, the valleys are still deep, and the mountains are still high.
But Baptism gives us the power to live our lives not from our past but from God's future.
Because we know ourselves to be forgiven even before we repent, baptism gives us the power to repent; and
because we know ourselves to be forgiven, baptism gives us the power to forgive others even before they repent.
For us, the new time-line prevails: forgiveness, sin, repentance.
For us, the valleys have already been filled, and the mountains and hills have already been brought low.
Thanks be to God!