This past Sunday began a four-week sermon series called “Phanatics.” It’s focusing on the four major Philly sports teams, beginning with the 76ers and their motto, “Trust the Process.” The sports are just an entry point into the main focus of each sermon, though, so even if you’re not a phanatic, these are still for you! This first sermon is on the Baptism of Our Lord as told in Luke 3. Enjoy!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Trust the process. It’s a phrase I heard a lot in seminary. Trust the process. When my classmates or I would worry about where in the country we’d be assigned, about whether there’d be a church for us, or jobs for our spouses, about what it meant to be answering this call in a changing church landscape, we’d hear the familiar refrain: trust the process. Trust that God is at work in this process and go where the Spirit takes you.
We said it again and again at our synod gathering last spring, as we elected a new bishop. Trust the process. As five hundred voting members from the hundred and fifty congregations of Southeastern Pennsylvania wrote down the name of a pastor—any Lutheran pastor—on a blank piece of paper: Trust the process. The Holy Spirit is at work and will raise up a new leader for us. And sure enough, after two days and five votes, we had a new bishop—the first black female bishop in our denomination’s history.
Trust the process. I’d heard it in church circles for a while, so when the Sixers took it up as their motto, I stopped to listen. This was not the normal sports process that they were talking about. In the years since Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala had left the team, we’d gone from good, to middle of the road, to pretty bad.
When a new GM comes aboard, you expect them to talk about how we can be good again. How we can win. Instead, Sam Hinkie talked about a process. A process that started with absolutely destroying the team. Trading away our only All-Star player. Tanking. At one point in 2015, the Sixers lost a league record 28 games in a row.
And still Hinkie, the coaches, the players all said to trust the process. By being so terrible, we were able to get great draft picks. A new team started to emerge from this absolute mess. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz. Trust the process. Last season the sixers finished third in the conference and made it to the second round of the playoffs.
Sometimes death is the thing that leads to new life. What exists must die so that something new can be born in its place. Today is the day when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord. And what is baptism but a process of dying and rising again?
In baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. We are drowned in the waters of baptism so that we might be reborn to a new life in Christ. Usually most of our focus goes on the second half of that process—the rebirth. But in order for that rebirth to happen, our old self must die.
We die to sin and are made alive in Christ. What does that mean? It means change, which is never easy, or comfortable, even if the end result is good. It means that God is seeking to wash away, to get rid of, to put to death the things that keep us from fully living as God intends. Maybe that’s a harmful mindset, where we’re constantly looking down on ourselves or others, or being judgmental. Maybe it’s prejudiced ways of thinking. Maybe it’s things that we do that are hurtful to ourselves or to other people in our lives. Dying to sin means self-examination, prayer, and change.
That’s not necessarily a fun process. It wasn’t fun when the Sixers were losing 28 games in a row. It’s not fun to get to that rock bottom place where change finally begins to happen. John the Baptist speaks of God coming with and baptizing with fire, which is a scary image, but fire both destroys and purifies. The wheat and the chaff? Those are two parts of the same head of grain. The chaff dies in order for the wheat to be able to be harvested. It’s not a fun process, but it’s one that leads to new beginnings and new life.
And, it needs to be said, this is not a process that we’re in on our own. It’s God’s process. Notice when Jesus is baptized, in Luke’s account, it doesn’t actually say that John baptizes Jesus. We skipped some verses where we learn that John is actually imprisoned by Herod. So, who baptizes Jesus then?
God does. The Holy Spirit does. The same Spirit that baptizes us. Pastors are just here to say the words out loud. It’s God who does the baptizing. It’s God who washes away our sin; it’s God who reforms and reshapes us. It’s God who claims us forever, who says to us, just as the Spirit said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved.”
We do not go through this process of dying and rising on our own. We do not go through the difficult times in our lives, the agonizing times alone. As God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: when you pass through waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. You are mine.
When we are baptized, we are marked with the cross of Christ. Marked as God’s forever. We do not do this alone. When Katelyn is baptized (at the second service/in a few minutes), it will mark the beginning of a process. A process of dying and rising. Of being washed and reborn.
It is only the beginning, because even though we are baptized once, it is an act that we live into for our whole lives. As Martin Luther explained in his Small Catechism, “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness.”
It’s a process. A process initiated by God because of God’s great love for us. A process that makes us see ourselves as God does: precious, favored, wanted, and beloved beyond all measure. Trust the process. Trust in God who brings new life out of death, who brings resurrection out of the darkness of the tomb. The God who creates in us new beginnings and new life. Amen.