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Today is an occasion of great joy. Today we celebrate the baptism of Parker, who is already a child of God by nature and now becomes a second time the child of God by grace. Today Parker becomes a member of Christ’s Body. Today the Holy Spirit descends on him, just as the Spirit descended on Jesus, and God says, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased!” Today, too, Parker is joined with us as part of the communion of saints, all God’s people in all places and times, past, present, and yet to come.
So on this joyful day it seems a little out of place that we’re confronted with such stern and bracing scripture readings. The prophet Isaiah writes about suffering for his faithfulness to God: people striking him, pulling out his beard, insulting him and spitting at him—a passage that Christians have always seen not only as about Isaiah’s own suffering but also as a foreshadowing of the suffering of Jesus. Then we hear the early church leader James strictly cautioning us about the damage our words can cause, telling us not to curse others with the same mouth we bless God with, and telling us dramatically that the human tongue is a fire, and a world of iniquity. And finally our gospel reading has Jesus predicting his own death and telling us to take up our own cross if we want to follow him.
If it was up to me, I might have liked happier readings today. But the lectionary doesn’t always cooperate with what we want. And that’s OK. Often the Holy Spirit has something up her sleeve that’s different from what we want.
Because if we only had happy readings today, we might be tempted to just dwell on the easy, pretty parts of baptism. A cute baby in an adorable outfit. Happy, proud parents and godparents and family and friends. And today is about those things. But it’s not only about cuteness and prettiness, as if we were hiding from all the difficulty and darkness in the world. Parker, like all of us, has been born into a world of great beauty and great joy, but also of great troubles and great suffering. This is a world of Mozart and Yosemite and good food and drink and the love of family and friends. It’s also a world of detention centers and climate change and addiction and estrangement. And today in his baptism Parker is receiving the strength and grace to be enlisted in God’s cause: the cause of setting the world right, the cause of healing, the cause of standing against injustice and evil and choosing the path of love.
In the gospel reading from Mark we heard Jesus ask his disciples who they say he is. And Peter, in a flash of insight, blurts out for the very first time: “You are the Messiah,” the anointed one sent by God to save the chosen people. And Jesus accepts that title from Peter. Jesus is the Messiah. But he then says that part of what it means for him to be the Messiah is that he will suffer and be crucified. And Peter can’t believe this could be what it means to be God’s anointed one.
It seems harsh, what Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” Why does he call him Satan? Peter may not be a perfect disciple but he’s not exactly the Prince of Darkness. But there’s a good reason for what Jesus says. Because in this passage, Peter is unwittingly playing the same role that Satan plays earlier in Mark’s gospel. It happens right after Jesus himself is baptized, when he goes out into the desert, and Satan appears to tempt him. Satan is trying to get Jesus to abandon his mission and settle for success on worldly terms. And, with the best of intentions, that’s what Peter ends up trying to do in this passage.
Now Mark doesn’t give us details about the temptation in the wilderness, but in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Satan offers Jesus three temptations. First he offers him bread to fill his hungry belly. Then he offers him a chance to amaze the crowds by performing a miracle: jumping off the Temple and floating down unharmed. And finally he offers him a chance to be the king of the entire world. For the sake of alliteration, we might call those temptations the three P’s: pleasure, prestige, and power. Pleasure, in the sense of creature comforts. Prestige, in the sense of the admiration of others. And power, in the sense of being able to make others do what you want.
Jesus rejected those temptations in the desert. And today he rejects them again, as Peter, who loves him and doesn’t want him to suffer, suggests that just maybe he should abandon this servanthood business and be more of a conventional Messiah, one who conquers Israel’s enemies and sits on a nice throne. Peter will eventually learn a different way himself. After Jesus dies and is raised, Peter will go on to be a great apostle and will even give his life as a martyr.
All of us too face choices each day. Will we follow the world’s idea of pleasure, prestige, and power? Or will we follow Jesus’ path of love and service? If we do that, we will at some point experience suffering. For a few of us, that might even mean martyrdom; for most of us, it will mean other ways of taking up the cross. It might mean enduring discomfort. It might mean making unpopular choices when we stand for what’s right. It might mean refusing to manipulate others and taking their needs into account as if they were our own. One way or another, those who choose to follow in Jesus’ steps will face trials. But when we do follow Jesus we discover that oddly enough, that’s where a truer and deeper pleasure, prestige, and power are to be found; not on the world’s terms, but on God’s.
Today we welcome Parker into the family of followers of Jesus. As he grows older, he will have opportunities to continue to choose the way of Jesus for himself. And we, together with his parents and sponsors, are called to support him, love him, and pray for him. May this little person know the true pleasure, prestige, and power that comes from the path of faithfulness and love. And may he be blessed and held in God’s love every step along the way.