Four words: “Once upon a time.” Once upon a time. It doesn’t even have to be those exact four words. It could be “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” Or it could be "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Whatever the words, they signal us that an epic tale is about to begin. Once upon a time… and we’re off and running. Human beings are hardwired for stories. We have told them to each other for centuries, around campfires and at bedtime, in families and among friends. Our need for stories is so persistent that even though only about 8% of published books are fiction, fiction accounts for 23% of all book sales. Our attraction to stories is so strong that it can be exploited by misleading memes that imply some scandalous narrative that never happened. Our love for stories is such that even when we’ve read them or binge-watched them once already, we go back and do it all over again.
"Once upon a time.” “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” Or, as we heard today, “In the beginning.” In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. It’s a great opening line, and it kicks off what, if you are a Christian, is meant to be your epic tale, the story that provides the in-jokes you make, the characters you compare yourself to, and the illustrations you draw on to make sense of the ups and downs of life. Since we’re hardwired for story, people don’t know how to use this story gravitate to others: The Crown or Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings or the Hunger Games.
But each of those stories – every story – in one way or another derives from the real story, the one God gave. The good things in them, the way they make us cheer when the hero’s risk pays off, or hold our breath to see whether the villain gets his comeuppance – all of that attracts us because it’s derivative of God’s story. He designed us for this. We’re hardwired to be attracted to the pattern God wrote into his narrative, the most thrilling and meaningful narrative in existence. Just the way we are attracted to beauty in say a painting, in the long run, because it resembles God’s beauty. Just as all the human beauties are reminders of God’s truer beauty, all the human stories have in them echoes of God’s truer story.
The great Anglican writer and English professor C.S. Lewis recounts how grasping this truth was a lynchpin in his decision to become a Christian: He wrote that through a conversation with JRR Tolkien, he had come to see how the power of narrative and the themes of myth “push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire… [you see] just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you to go further. …In Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound, and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now [I understand:] the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Real things from today’s first reading. God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. Real things. Or, from today’s Gospel: John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A real place. A real person. Real things. In those days, the Gospel goes on, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee – a real town at a real time – and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Now this is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, which is why we read this particular snippet of the story today and why Rosalind is being baptized today. And I want to say a little bit about this habit we have of choosing particular snippets of the one great story on particular days. In Christianity, we believe that as Lewis said, God’s story is meant to work on us. It is meant to enter in and become our nourishment, our life framework, and the source of a sort of mysterious alchemy that changes us into it. Let me say that again: the story God tells in Scripture has the power to change us into it.
But it’s so earthshaking and beyond our grasp, this story, that we need to take it in small doses. So we move through it, bit by bit, all year long. The most concentrated and potent moment is the three days of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. The next most important is Christmas, which just ended yesterday. But even the smallest snippets of this story have the power to work on you, as Lewis calls it, and the God who has imbued them with that power is so determined to have you for his own, that any exposure to any snippet of his story could at least possibly turn your life upside down. It’s almost too strong to bear, so we take it in small doses, spread out over the year. And today’s dose has something special about it: the story of today is the story of you how get into the story. You get into the story by doing exactly what happened in today’s story: by Baptism. Until that initiation, you either don’t have a story, or you have some watered down version of the stronger story. But in Baptism, you are plunged into God’s story and marked as his own forever.
All Sacraments are like this in one way or another, but the one we hear about and engage in today is how we get in. Jesus submitted to the water in a sign of death; you submit to the water in a sign of death. Jesus came out in a sign of resurrection; you come out in a sign of resurrection. The Spirit descended on Jesus; the Spirit descends on you. Jesus is named as the Beloved child of God; you are named as the Beloved child of God. All of these are real things. They could be taken out of myths and Netflix series, because they are the stuff of myths and Netflix series, but this water and this Holy Spirit and this adoption as a child of God are not poetic inventions, but real things. Something Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen and all the rest can only dream of. They really happened, and they really are still happening if you agree to be in the story.
This is why all of us renew our Baptismal vows at Baptisms; because the work God does in this story is still going on and is urgently needed by every one of us in an ongoing way. The level of attention and commitment you bring to renewing your vows will play at least some role as a channel God can use to work on you with his true myth. Rattle the promises off with your mind on brunch, and I can’t promise you a healing or a sense of call or a renewed love of life; make them a conscious choice and who knows what might happen?
And this is also why, after we Baptize Rosie, we will pass through the nave sprinkling everyone with water. We do this to help you engage, even more deeply, with the work the story is trying to do in you today. God gave us bodies, and so we touch our bodies with his story -- again, in all kinds of ways, but today specifically with this water that God uses to do in you exactly what he does in Christ. You can always find ways to avoid what he’s trying to do, but you could also open up and see what he has in mind for your life with this potent piece of his story today. So all of you have a choice to make this morning, and it’s the same choice we would ask Rosie to make if she were old enough to speak for herself, the choice her parents are making on her behalf along with the commitment to raise her in a way that she will soon be able to affirm it herself: Do you desire to be Baptized? Are the words of the Creed the backbone of how you see life? Are the vows we’re about to reaffirm the way of life you think the universe is designed to work by? Are you willing for this true myth to be your main story? Do you desire… that?
Some of you may have noticed as we’ve talked through this that you’re not so sure. That there are other stories than this one that you refer to more naturally, quote more frequently, or get excited about more spontaneously. So there’s a reality check for you. Christianity would say that there is a true myth that’s better and richer than whatever other stories you are turning to, something that can work on and in you much more powerfully because it involves real things. Whatever stories preoccupy you more than the story of what God has done in Jesus aren’t bad; no, they’re good. They’re good because they derive from and point to the true myth. There is nothing wrong with enjoying all kind of tales and sagas. As Christians, blessedly, we can see good and see God all over the place. But life works better when we treat what we were made for as what we were made for; when we treat God as more ultimate than all our lesser priorities, real things as realer than made-up ones, and true myths as truer than fables.
In the beginning, God. That’s how our story starts, and Baptism is how you get in the story. Let’s invite Rosie to take her place.
(The beginning gesture of this sermon is borrowed from the Rev. Sammy Wood of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Nashville Tennessee; the quotes from Lewis are from his correspondence with Arthur Greeves and are set in context here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/85-years-ago-today-j-r-r-tolkien-convinces-c-s-lewis-that-christ-is-the-true-myth/)