Thursday, January 13, 2011
Matthew 3: 13-17
January 9, 2011
There is a series of three photos that hang in a single frame in my office. These are pictures of three baptisms. The top picture is of the first baptism I ever performed. I remember distinctly wading down into the waters of our baptistery with Cheyenne Williams. Cheyenne wanted a smaller baptism so we planned it for a Sunday evening. Many of you were there. Friends from church, Elders of the church, her parents and grandparents, her basketball coach- so many were gathered that day to hear her make her commitment to follow Christ. The friends gathered up in the choir loft so they could see her well. They watched her go under the water and come up a new woman. Cheyenne and I were equally excited that day- and it is a moment I will never forget.
The bottom photo is of Jake Huitt’s baptism. Another day I will never, ever forget. This was the first baptism I ever participated in at the lake. Before moving to Livingston I had never seen a baptism that wasn’t held in a church baptistery. However, the lakes and rivers are so important to this community and so beautiful that I have come to truly treasure a lake or river baptism. None of us that were there will ever forget that day for a number of reasons. Two brothers and a cousin were set to be baptized and we weren’t sure if the weather would hold. It looked stormy, rain seemed imminent. Somehow (and I think we actually know how) the torrential rain held off long enough for Josh, Jake and Major to experience the changing waters of baptism. Of course another reason I will never forget that day is that I fell in the lake. Dee and I held hands and waded into the water. We’d been warned, “there’s a drop off there.” But somehow I missed it. I dropped right off that ledge and had to dog paddle back to ground where I could stand. It’s a wonderful thing that God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our human mess-ups. There is no way I could have ruined that day. I do remember that as we finished the baptisms and headed to shore it did start to rain; a reminder to each of us of the waters of our own baptism.
The middle picture of the three is one my grandmother allowed me to make a copy of. She proudly showed it to me a few years ago when we were talking about ministry and some of the exciting things I would get to do. The picture shows a tiny baptistery at the Baptist Church where my family attend in Springfield, Missouri. The preacher is round-faced and smiling, with his eyes closed and his hand raised over the boy he is about to baptize. That boy is my uncle Charlie. He looks like a cherub in that picture- which my dad will tell you was not a typical look for him. My uncle died of cancer when he was 55. That was one of the hardest times in my grandmother’s life. But this tiny picture, taken so long ago was and incredible comfort to her after Charlie died.
My grandmother asked if she could give me a piece of advice for my ministry. She’s the smartest person I know so I agreed, of course. She said, “Always take a picture when you baptize someone.” I have thought a lot about that, and tried to honor her advice. I have also thought a lot about why that picture of my uncle’s baptism is so comforting to her after his death. In rereading the story of Jesus’ baptism this week, I think I have a few ideas.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ baptism is the first time we see Jesus as an adult. His first public act before he does any teaching or healing is to seek out John the Baptist, so that he can enter into the waters of God’s love.
Baptism has several different meanings. In our tradition we practice a believer’s baptism. This means that the person getting baptized is mature enough to make the decision on their own that they are ready to be baptized. Being baptized is the natural follow up to making a profession of faith. After sharing with others, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and I accept him as my Lord and Savior,” the next step is to do as Jesus did and to enter into the waters of baptism. As the Christian tradition developed it was understood that being baptized is a symbol of being in solidarity with Christ, becoming a part of his body. Just as Jesus would die and rise again, we submit to being submerged under the water and rising up again. In this way, we symbolically die and rise with him. It has been said that in baptism we die to sin and rise to Christ.
When we come up out of the water we try to make good on our promise of living a more Christ-like life. That doesn’t mean we can actually attain Christ-likeness and we’re not expected to. We are human, we can only attempt to follow Jesus the best way we know how and accept God’s love and forgiveness when we mess up, as we inevitably will.
So why in the world did Jesus need a baptism? This is a topic debated for centuries by scholars much wiser than me but here a few reasons why I think Jesus’ public ministry began with baptism.
One thing Jesus’ baptism accomplished was showing his commitment to the will of God. Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of something. This ritual performed by John was the first thing Jesus did that we read about in the gospels. He was baptized before he called disciples, before he traveled around announcing the kingdom of God. Before he preached, before he healed, Jesus came to be baptized in the Jordan River. For us, baptism is also the beginning of something. That’s why it is sometime said that you are “born again” after you have been baptized. Baptism is a new start- the beginning of your journey with God. The scene reminds is of other biblical beginnings as well. Who can forget the dove that Noah sent out after the floods to make sure it was safe to go ashore and start over? That same bird is present at this scene and we are aware that something new is going to be built here.
My favorite part of this account of Jesus’ baptism is the disagreement between John and Jesus. John is not a stranger to baptism. He has been baptizing all kinds of people. He has been asking them to turn away from their sin, to repent, for the Kingdom of God is drawing near. The “kingdom drawing near” is exactly what is happening as Jesus is begins his public ministry. Even though it was John’s job to prepare people for Jesus’ coming, he realizes that he is not the one that should be doing the baptizing. He proclaims that he is the one that needs to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus’ insists that it must be John who baptizes him and he says the reason is, “to fulfill all righteousness.”
I often struggle with that word righteousness and one of the authors I read this week had this simple definition: “Righteousness means doing the will of God.” In order to fulfill all that God had planned, John needed to baptize Jesus in the Jordan that day. In that moment, John became a partner with Jesus in acting out God’s saving plans for the world. By allowing John to administer the act of baptism, Jesus shows us what kind of leader he will be. He is not a power-hungry messiah who must do everything himself, but he is a humble servant who empowers others to do God’s will along with him.
Another reason Jesus is baptized at the beginning of his public ministry is so God can name him and claim him. At his baptism the heavens open and a voice says, “this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” There were others gathered on the shore that day and they got to hear what was said about Jesus from heaven. What was claimed that day about Jesus is declared to us as well at our baptisms. When we are baptized into Christ we know that these three things are also true about us:
1. “You are my son” God said of Jesus. While none of us was divinely conceived, we do know that we are children of God. In Paul’s writings we read that Christ was our older brother, and we are all a part of God’s family. At our own baptisms we were claimed as God’s children. Even if you didn’t hear a voice from heaven- know the truth in your heart now, you are God’s son, God’s daughter. You are a child of God.
2. “Whom I love,” that was the next part of the heavenly statement. Not only was Jesus God’s child, but a beloved child. I don’t know about you but there are moments and there are days when I wonder how anyone could love me. Especially after I make a mistake, I use words that hurt others, I make bad decisions. Regardless of how I have messed up I am a beloved child of God. You’ve heard me say this before but hear it again this morning- because of God’s great love we know that, “God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” God’s love is assured to us at the moment of our baptism.
3. “In whom I am well pleased.” God was pleased with Jesus at that moment of his baptism. This may be hard for us to hear or comprehend but God is pleased with us as well. Some of us were taught in childhood to fear the wrath of an angry and vengeful God. The truth is, there is nothing so bad that we’ve done that we can outdo God’s love for us. God is pleased with you, you are his beloved child. I can’t think of any better news than that.
I can’t wait for the next baptisms I got to be involved in. Getting to hold someone as they make that ultimate commitment to God’s will is one of my favorite parts of being a minister. I have often told people that getting to baptize someone makes all those hours of studying in seminary worth it. Even though some are nervous before they go under the water, everyone I have baptized comes out of the water with a smile and a look of peace that passes my understanding. I think it’s because they have been named and claimed by God. What in the world could make you feel better than the knowledge that God says of you, “you are my child, whom I love, and I am well pleased with you?”.
I look forward to stepping into those waters with Harley Dodson and Kolin Webb soon (good thing Jesus didn’t have to wait for the Jordan River to warm up). I will love getting to see their faces as they come up out of that water- but I love to see the faces of those who witness the baptism as well.
I think I understand why my grandmother is so comforted by the picture of my uncle’s baptism. She can’t see or talk to Charlie every day, but she can hold that picture in her hands and understand that Charlie is God’s child, beloved with whom God is well pleased. She knows that he now resides in God’s eternal love and care. That knowledge comforts me, and I know it comforts her.
We all need to be reminded that we are God’s beloved children and that God is pleased with us. Jesus led the way in this important tradition by seeking out John for his baptism, and it is because of him that we have the assurance of eternal life. What an amazing gift to remember that we have as we start this new year together as God’s beloved children. Amen.