They Danced With All Their Might

“They Danced With All Their Might”

Preached at Newtown Congregational Church, in Newtown, Connecticut on July 15, 2018, on the occasion of the Baptism of Chloe James Buckley

I am not a dancer. I can, if pressured, not embarrass myself for short periods of time on the dance floor. This usually happens at weddings, and after a drink or two, or sometimes three. I did make it through the dancing at my own wedding last year, somehow.

So, it’s kind of surprising that one of my favorite songs, especially from a theological point of view, is an older song, that some of you might know, by a soul singer named Sam Cooke.  The song is called “Twistin’ the Night Away.” For those of you who don’t know it, it was the Uptown Funk, or Get Lucky of its day.

I believe it’s one of the most pure expressions of togetherness and joy across differences of race and age and social class ever put to music. I think it might even be a vision of heaven, as it describes a diverse group of people, crossing barriers to celebrate with one another.

So when I came across this reading from Second  Samuel, that’s where my mind turned.  An image of dancing in pure celebration of joy.  The Israelites , led by King David, had just defeated the evil Philistines- yes, the same David and Philistines of David and Goliath fame, and just recovered the Ark of the Covenant.

Yes, the same Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones, which hosted the presence of God on earth.  It journeyed along with the Israelites during the Exodus, dwelling in a tent, but having been recovered, it was going to go to a new, more permanent home.

So David, this mighty warrior king, gathers the “chosen host” of his people- 30 thousand people.  During this time period, a group of 30,000 people would have been together only in the biggest cities in the world, or for an army. But this is no army.  This is a procession to celebrate God.

In leading this procession, David’s royal dignity is not to be silent, one of the frozen chosen. David is not like a British Monarch greeting the crowd with a dignified wave.  No, David begins to dance. Not just to wiggle, to cabbage patch, to whip and nae nae, but to dance with all of his might.  This is the sort of dancing that most of us only do when no one is watching, if ever. And David does it in front of all of his people.

This celebration helps to deliver God, into a (somewhat permanent) home on earth.

But Shane, we might ask ourselves at this point, what could the Ark of the Covenant have to do with the baptism we just witnessed? Well, I’m glad you asked!

Just as the Ark of the Covenant was a visible sign of God’s love for the chosen people of Israel, so too is baptism a visible and physical sign and seal of God’s love and grace for the chosen of God today.

Let me start with a very brief history of baptism. Baptism is a descendant of Jewish water cleansing rituals. Ancient Judaism had a strong sense of what was clean and what was unclean.  We find this in the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews today call the Torah. Some of these things make sense to our modern ears and sensibilities: blood, especially animal blood, was considered ritually unclean, for example.

Unfortunately, other things were also included under the category of unclean that aren’t so friendly to modern sensibilities.  For included in the category of unclean was not only animal blood, but also the blood of women who were menstruating.  Women during menstruation would be forced to sleep separately during their periods, and then be reintegrated back into the life of the community after a ritual cleansing.

That’s a key point- that these cleansings served as physical signs of reconciliation whether rightly or wrongly separated between the unclean and the community. These rituals became more spiritualized as time went on, with less physical cleaning and more spiritual cleansing happening, culminating in John the Baptist, who, as his name suggests, baptized people.

John’s own work proceeded and presaged Jesus’ ministry- in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “ he made straight the path for it.” His most famous baptism, was of course, of Jesus Christ, who when baptized, a booming voice from the heavens said, “This is my son, with who I am well pleased.”

In the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters, our guide to the history of the early church, baptism is noted as an important rite of initiation, a key part in God’s plan of salvation.  It appears that baptisms were probably mainly of adults, but probably included children as well- The book of Acts refers to entire households being baptized.

Fast forward to today, and Baptism, particularly of smaller children, doesn’t appear to make much sense anymore, especially to liberally minded individualist American Culture.

“Shouldn’t children get to pick their own religion?”

“What about the agency of the child?”

These concerns might bear real fruit, if we believe that the primary actor in the sacrament of baptism was Chloe, Kayla or even me.

After all, I firmly believe that as they age, children, should have increasing privilege and rights in forming their own identities, including religious ones. And yes, it was Chloe’s mom and her godparents who got her up and fed and looking strong and happy this morning.  Nor do I want to underplay the role of the gathered church in public baptism, performed in the company and witness of a community of believers.

But I believe these criticisms fundamentally misunderstand the nature of that plan of salvation, the heart of Christianity as it is practiced in our protestant and reformed traditions.  The plan of salvation is not ultimately about individual choices made, about sexual morality or who donates the most money or is the most progressive or the most faithful.  The plan of salvation, as our reading from Ephesians outlines it is “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Salvation is not about us moving ourselves closer to God, but allowing God to draw us in ever closer.  To put it another way, the primary actor in our relationships with God is not us, but God.  Thus, baptism is not about our rational choice of God, but about God’s infinitely merciful and grace-filled choice of us.

Yes, Baptism is about God choosing us. Let me say that again.  Baptism is about God choosing us. Today, the primary act that we witnessed was God placing a sign and seal upon Chloe James Buckley’s heart, a public notice that she is adopted into the family of God.

I will say that being baptized into the family of God’s chosen people will not make her better than anyone else, will not make her smarter, more loving, or more likely to go to church when she’s older. Nor was she chosen because she is better, smarter, stronger, more faithful or more beautiful than anyone else.

Indeed, her being chosen by God tells us very little about her, just as our being chosen by God actually says very little about who we are. To find out why she was chosen by God, we must not look not to the how wonderful she, her parents are, or how great this church is, but over there, to the cross.

For it is through the painful work of reconciliation Jesus performed on the cross, bridging once and for all the gap between humanity and divinity, defeating death and ensuring eternal life through reconciling creation unto creator, that tells us why God chose Chloe today. Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and especially the work of the cross, let us know with Blessed Assurance that not only is Jesus ours, but most of all, that we are Jesus’s.

It tells us about a God who in the specific person of Jesus Christ, and more generally in the world, is present both in things spiritual and things physical.  The work of the cross, the actual suffering of Jesus upon the Cross, reminds us that God uses physical objects and real experiences to signify and declare spiritual truths.

It reminds us that our God is present in tablets made of stone and dry bones, in the bread and the cup of communion, and in the Ark of the Covenant that David and the people of Israel danced before, as a physical sign and seal of God’s promises and faithfulness made physical and real and manifest.

It tells us that our God is not just a transcendent God existing outside of space and time, an absent watchmaker who set the universe but then retreated, but a God whose true delight is to dwell with us, his most beautiful creation.

The work of the cross tells us about a God who dwells in the human heart in our pain, comforts us in our sorrows, and dances with us in our delight and joy. This is a God who in the sacrament of baptism, uses our human hands and water, to bless Chloe and to signify the presence of God that already exists within Chloe’s heart.  It is God who has chosen Chloe, working through the Holy Spirit and our friend, savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, who has placed a seal upon Chloe’s heart.

And that, I believe, is worth dancing for.