“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). Most scholars believe this line used by St. Paul is part of an ancient baptismal hymn. You can imagine it being sung out by a gathering of the people of God as the newly baptized rises from the water. Its poetic words form a call to a new life, a life free from the terrors of the grave, free from futility and aimless wandering. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, awake for Christ shines on you. Baptisms are such beautiful things. They are so simple, so quick and deceiving from the outside looking in, but they are life changing moments. Moments we would do well to remember in times like these; times where there is a great loss of liberty, where fear and worry seem to define our world and the specter of death grinds our lives to an abrupt halt.
This morning amid the quarantine, fear and worry, my good friend and colleague, Joel, is performing a baptism at his congregation in Chicago. He is taking a child in his hands, unsuspecting and unknowing, a child that is warm and comforted in the soft blanket she is wrapped in and moving into the ceremony and beauty of the moment. There is the lighting of the baptismal candle, the reciting of the Creed, and the naming of the child. But in the end, it is a simple thing. Simple water is poured over her head while the pastor says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the whole congregation responds by saying, “Amen.” In that moment God does His great work. The connection is made between the unsuspecting little sinner and the death and resurrection of Christ. She, according to the promises of God, dies with Christ and is promised to live a new life in Him… all in that lowly, simply act of water and Word.
Baptism does something truly powerful to the people of God. It is a gift received, something which is their own possession, something not dependent on their ability or effort or desire or ingenuity. Such a radical gift, a dying and new birth, creates a spirit of strength and courage in the heart of the believer. So, from the most unsuspecting of places, from small and weak frames you find incredible boldness. I have been in the room where a saint was near the end of their days. The ventilator is turned off. The tubes of support are removed and for a few moments’ speech and cognition return. There they are with their loved ones gathered around. There is weeping, doubt and worry, but for the one who is dying, for that saint of the Most High, there is courage. There is a defiance in the face of death. Why? Because they are the baptized. Because this life is not all there is. Because they have a promise in something beyond this age.
Though I have seen it, though I have been there to witness the daring faith of the baptized, I must admit there are times when I have my own doubts. There are times when I wonder about all of it. Paul calls us to walk in the light of our baptism, to reject the unfruitful works of the darkness, but when I look around it is only such works I see. I see sin and unbelief all around me and even staring back at me in the mirror. I have those moments where my faith is shaken, not where I wonder about some little point of doctrine or some minor technicality of translation, but I wonder about the big stuff. I question the care and protection of God, about the assurance of life everlasting, about the freedom of the Gospel and the gifts of Jesus Christ. There are times when that boldness and courage of the baptized fades from me, and to be honest, it is terrifying when it does.
And then there is this pandemic and I wonder about the effect on the baptized. There is death and disease on our doorsteps, in our homes and at the grocery store. There is the fear of running out of hospital beds and overburdening our health care system. With it all, of course, comes the desire to serve our neighbor and protect the most vulnerable in our society. But the one thing which rises to the top, the one thing dominating all the news, the conversations and the actions taken by our government is fear. Above all things there is fear. Fear that robs us of our boldness and confidence. Fear that removes us from pursuits beyond this age and focuses us only on the immediate future, on the here and now, where the temporal becomes the most important thing we have.
The danger with this, the complication for the baptized in a time like this, is that rather than being awakened we are often lulled to sleep. Fear and confusion do not lead us into the light but seduces us into the darkness, into a place where the temporary things of this age become the most important. In the darkness we begin to believe the lie we were born into. We fall into it so easily because this is how we first understood the world. Perhaps it is the belief that we are the dictators of our world, that we shape it and give it meaning. It could be the desire to control what is uncontrollable, to dictate to the creation the parameters we desire for it. So, when thing go awry like they have in these days, we redouble our efforts, we dig deeper to get through on our own means and so make the crooked places straight. We hoard toilet paper and stockpile food. We watch the endless stream of bad news flooding into our homes with fear and trepidation as the numbers of those infected continue to rise. We look to the doctors and the health care professionals. We cry out for a solution, an answer that surely must be within the reach of mankind to discover. We long for the light as we prepare for the darkness. Instead of prayer, repentance and bold assurance we turn inward and try to figure it out on our own. And it is dark in there. It is weary in there. It is where we go to fall asleep.
But today the voice of the Church sings its song again; a song for you, a song for the baptized. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Awake for you are the children of God. Awake for the darkness is not your home. Awake for this age is not all there is for you. You will not avoid death by evading this virus. You will not get out of suffering by hoarding resources. You will not escape judgment by your own strength or merit. Awake to the light that is yours in Christ Jesus. Awake to the hope promised for every one of you. Awake to the assurance that even when you doubt, even when you fear, even when you are consumed with the cares and desires of this age the love and forgiveness of Christ has never ceased to reach out for you, never paused to call you again and again into the light. The depth of the love of God is beyond your sin, fear and worry. He will hold you when all else fails, He always has.
Who knows what reason God has allowed this virus to hold our society so firmly? Who knows why any of this is happening? What we do know is how the ancient people of God sang with boldness in the midst of suffering and trial. They sang with confidence these very words, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” So, now you sing it, but you do not sing it for yourself, you sing it for your neighbor. You sing it for those being lulled by the darkness. You sing it in the face of temporal concerns that dominate our lives. You call them again to the promise of their baptism, to the hope of something beyond this age. You call them to live in the bold assurance of the light of Christ.