Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!

What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? 

Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” 

As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall. 

Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ 

Catching sight of herself in the mirror  – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”

That is what baptism is.

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The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:

It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to. 

To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.

He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew.  My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again. 

After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name? 

And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.

We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?

And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “

And then we just paused.  We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down. 

When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”

And he said, “You know, I don’t know.  But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“

She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”

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Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.

OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

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The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away. 

In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved. 

For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity. 

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In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. 

“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.

But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.

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Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.

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Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them. 

May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen

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Mark 1:4-11

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

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Joy Sunday? In a Pandemic?

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I have a confession to make. I lit the joy candle on my Advent wreath a day early. I couldn’t wait because I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about joy – and coming up empty. Which is a problem because we’re fast approaching the season of Christmas joy, preparing for the birth of Jesus, who would later tell his disciples – and through them us:
These things I’ve said to you: that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.

Honestly, though, I’m feeling more like the John the Baptist of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, when he sends his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?” That’s quite a change, isn’t it, from our reading from John’s gospel today, where the Baptist is full of confidence, preaching with power about the one who is to come. But years later, he sits alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus this poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look somewhere else?

The movement between these two portrayals of John is from a sure, and certain confidence to a questioning doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness or injury, loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our equilibrium. And when our heartache, uncertainty, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation – as it is now in the midst of the pandemic – the anguish is overwhelming. As it was for John, I imagine.

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As it was for the exiles in Babylon, too – the ones Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote to hundreds of years before John. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a breath of good news, of hope – kind of like the news of the imminent rollout of a vaccine against COVID-19. It’s not here just yet, but it’s coming. But this is Chapter 61! There was a whole lot of angst that came before, as they wondered how they could have gotten into such a bad state, humiliated, taken away from their homeland and all they held near and dear. I doubt the words from Psalm 137 could express their heartache any more poignantly:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

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Of course that kind of despair isn’t unique to ancient Israelis. Exile is defined as banishment, being forced to live away from one’s native country or home. It’s a condition in which many people find themselves today: refugees and displaced people from Syria, South Sudan,  Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar, among others; the hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border; political exiles such as the Dalai Lama.

But we don’t have to go far to find others in exile. And we don’t have to limit the definition to being displaced from your native land. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for many LGBTQ people who have been banished from their families. Now, in the pandemic, there are those who are living at home, but with limited or no access to community support and, in some cases, quarantining with unsupportive family members.

We know also for the past four years, there are many people who are estranged from family and/or community. And now, in the pandemic, our whole country has been thrown into exile. A virus has forced us to go about our lives in very different ways. We might very well sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered the way life used to be.” Is this our home now? We don’t recognize it anymore. How can we sing God’s song in this foreign land? 

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Oh, wait a minute; this is Joy Sunday. I really haven’t forgotten. So there I was last night with my Advent wreath candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. And I realized that this has been one of the most spiritually challenging Advents that I’ve ever experienced. With everything that has happened just in 2020, I don’t know how it’s been for you, but I’ve had to go a lot deeper into these words, into the season. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you.

But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart? It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in the heart is where we find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding.

Now getting down there might not be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world even more. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess upour vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.

That must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon: 
Adonai has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve in Zion – to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.

And again: 
Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a song of joy in the midst of sorrow, gladness in the midst of grief.

And that’s what we’re called to do in Advent. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. We can return from exile. New life can emerge from the ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be creative as well. We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts.

But what is this joy?

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The Dalai Lama has said that “the purpose of our lives is to seek happiness,” which he sometimes calls Joy. Thich Nhat Hahn, another Buddhist teacher, occasionally tries to make a distinction by saying “if you are very thirsty and you see a glass of water, you will experience joy. But after drinking the water you will experience happiness.” 

Psychiatrist Georges Valliant, author of Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, has a chapter on joy.  He starts out by clarifying that happiness is “secular,” “cognitive” and “tame,” while joy is “spiritual,” “a primary emotion,” and “connection to the universe…Joy is laughing from the gut.” 

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That reminded me of my friend Dolores White who practices and leads laughing yoga. I did find a good YouTube video. It’s not the same as in person, but it will have to do while we’re still social distancing. And then, of course, there are the “disco goats.”

Will laughing take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will act as a tonic for your soul. 

Another thing Vaillant said is: “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.”

A friend recently sent me a quiz to determine if you’re more right brain or left-brain. She had scored 50/50: evenly divided between analytic, rational, objective left-brain and the creative, imaginative right brain. My results, however, came out 70/30 on the analytic, rational, objective side. My comment was, “Sigh! I’ve really been trying to engage that creative side more.” My friend wrote back, “I think your analytical side is very creative.” My left-brain response was, “I’ll have to think about that.”

Now I realize that my answer should have been “I’ll have to sing about that.”  

What happens when we sing is that we go down into our hearts where we can find that deep joy. Of course, it’s better when we can sing together. That’s another of our sorrows in not gathering in person. I hear that the technology is being developed so we will be able to sing together on Zoom. And that will be a joyful thing. In the meantime, we make do with singing along with Michael in our own spaces. and there’s no reason we can’t sing out loudly and joyfully. 

One of the things from the laughing yoga video is an exercise at the very beginning. Everyone stands up and brushes off each shoulder. That’s to get rid of all the judges telling you that you look silly or can’t sing well or whatever your inner critic loves to get on you about. Now that they’re gone, you’re free to sing – as a perfectly good spiritual practice. Maybe even dance. Sufi teacher Pir Vilayet Khan asked “Why aren’t you dancing with joy at this very moment? It’s the only relevant spiritual question.”

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OK. I know. Not all of us are singers or dancers. But the message of both quotes is to do something to engage that creative right brain: sing, dance, make art, read a poem, write a song, listen to music, create a new recipe, play silly games that make absolutely no sense. Laugh. I wish we had Dolores here with us right now to do laughing yoga. That would be the perfect thing to do on Joy Sunday.

Again, will this take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. 

And finally, if you just can’t get in the Christmas spirit this year, don’t sweat it. Christ being born is not dependent on our being in the right mood. Some people have very good reasons to not be joyful right now. 

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A relatively new tradition called Blue Christmas is held at many churches, often around the solstice, the so-called “longest night.” It’s usually offered for folks who have lost a loved one at this time of year. But it has also become an alternative for those who have suffered a loss of any kind, for those who suffer from depression especially over the holidays, for those estranged from their families, for anyone who can’t get into the holly-jolly-ness of the season – a place to not have to pretend and perhaps even feel the kind of deep peace and joy that is the true gift of the Christ child. If you are one experiencing something other than joy or peace during this season, I’ve included a prayer below that might be meaningful for you. Or if you know someone who struggles with the season, it might be the best gift you can give them, to let them know you understand. 

We are all in an exile of sorts this year. We may grieve different things, but without a doubt we’ve never experienced a Christmas like this before. The good news of Jesus Christ is liberation from exile – of any kind. We can hold onto that promise even as we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Maybe we can even sing through the tears. Maybe even laugh. Not as denial or irreverence, but as a way to find joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world – your world – will change. 

Amen

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BLUE CHRISTMAS PRAYER 

Around us, O God, the singing can be heard: ‘Joy to the world…let heaven and nature sing.’ This season is to be one of hope to ease our minds, when peace soothes our hearts, when love warms our souls, and when joy comes each morning.

But there are many who do not feel this joy. Some might try, others have given up trying. ‘Where is this joy for us?’ they ask. The world has found joy but some feel as if it has passed them by. Our minds are not at ease…we feel too much doubt. Our hearts are not at peace…there is too much to do. Our souls are not warmed…the chill of death is too troubling. Where, O God, can joy be found? We ask this as we come before you in prayer, opening ourselves to the possibility that hope, peace, joy, and love might still come to us.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find comfort in another’s touch.
We pray for the downtrodden, that they might find relief from their burdens.
We pray for those wrestling with depression, that a light of calm might bring them peace.
We pray for those dealing with stress, that they might find the courage to let go.
We pray for the grief-stricken, that they might experience the newness of life that you bring.

May joy come to the world, O God, and may we grasp some of that. We do not pray for joy that is temporary or fleeting, but a joy that runs deep and sustains us even in moments of despair. We seek this joy in a season that can be less than joyful. O God, hear our prayer.

We wait for Emanuel, God With Us, to come into our hearts once again. May we experience your love in new ways as we in turn love each other. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come. Amen. 

written by coffeepastor, and posted on Philosophy Over Coffee 

*FIRST READING ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

“The Spirit of Adonai Elohim* is upon me, for Adonai has anointed me and has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor;
to heal broken hearts;
to proclaim release to those held captive;
and liberation to those in prison;
to announce a year of favor from Adonai
and the day of God’s vindication to comfort all who mourn
to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.
They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Adonai to display God’s glory.
They will restore the ancient ruins, and rebuild sites long devastated;
they will repair the ruined cities, neglected for generations

For I, Adonai, love justice; I hate robbery and sin. So I will faithfully compensate you, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Your descendants will be renowned among the nations; and your offspring among the people; all who see you will acknowledge that you are a people Adonai has blessed.

I will joyfully exult in Adonai, who is the joy of my soul, who has clothed me with a robe of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom, so Adonai Elohim makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.

THE HOLY GOSPEL John 1:6-8, 19-28

Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. John himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.

Now the Temple authorities sent emissaries from Jerusalem—priests and Levites—to talk to John. “Who are you?”

“I am not the Messiah.”

“Who are you then? Elijah?”

“No, I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

“No.”

“Then who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I am as Isaiah prophesied ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight our God’s road!’”

“If you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing people?”

“I baptize with water because among you stands someone whom you don’t recognize—the One who is to come after me—the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy even to untie.”

This occurred in Bethany, across the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.