(This is a sermon I delivered at Grace St. John’s United Church of Christ, on Jan. 13, 2013.)
Jesus is praying immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him in a physical form “like a dove”, and a voice from heaven says to him, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Like many of you, I was baptized as an infant and I don’t have any memories of that day, however, I am reasonably certain that there were no doves or voices from heaven to make dramatic appearances that day! My parents certainly never mentioned anything about it, and I think they probably would have. I should also tell you in all humility that nothing like that has ever happened at any of the baptisms I’ve performed as a priest. God seems to be a little more discreet these days…
At Jesus’ baptism, there was no question whether his baptism filled him with power: he got immediate assurance that his baptism had changed him forever. It’s different for the rest of us because we’re left wondering—especially those of us who were baptized as infants and have no memory of the event—if we really received the Holy Spirit. We wonder if that baptism really changed anything important for us? Was it enough? Did it “work?”
Part of the problem is that many of us aren’t really sure what baptism is. Some are taught that it’s what gets a person into heaven, and that without it, you can’t get in, no matter what. I’ve heard of pastors refusing to have funerals in the sanctuary of their churches for someone who wasn’t properly baptized. Others are so comfortable in the fact of their own (properly conducted) baptisms that they honestly believe that that one-time event serves as a kind of ‘get out of hell free’ card, and they don’t need to go to church or pray or even think about God, because they’ve been baptized and are automatically going to heaven.
( John Calvin, the father of the reformed tradition, believed that the children of believers were “holy seeds”, and that since the NT did not specifically forbid the baptism of babies, it was allowed. The transition from the OT to the NT communities, Calvin insists, does not in any way limit the idea of the “covenanted community”, and that therefore baptism is necessary to establish one’s consecration to God as a part of God’s people. Calvin reminds us that the children of the Jews were called a holy seed. They had been made heirs to the covenant and distinguished from the children of the non-believers. For the same reason, Calvin argues, the children of Christians are considered holy; and by the apostle’s testimony they differ from the unclean seed of idolators(1Cor.7:14). It naturally follows then, that if infants share the covenant status with their parent, it is fitting “to give them a sign of that status and of their place in the covenant community.”)
We continue to debate baptism thousands of years after Jesus’ life on earth. Some insist It has to be done by ordained clergy, others say it can be done by anyone. Some say it must be within a certain denomination, others say that all Christian baptism is valid. Most say it can be done only once, others say it is good to do it over and over, as a sign of renewing one’s covenant with God. Some immerse the whole person, others pour, while some others sprinkle.
And all of this misses the point. Baptism is not about what we do. It’s about what God does.
“You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These are the words God the Father says to Jesus when he is praying after his baptism. God names Jesus as God’s own child, and expresses delight in him. But the thing is, we’re only in the third chapter in Luke. Up to this point, Jesus hasn’t really done many delightful things. He’s born to Mary at a really inconvenient time, forcing her to give birth in a barn. He’s caused his parents to worry when he was twelve years old by going off on his own during a trip to Jerusalem and staying lost for three days while they looked for him. And he’s partaken with everyone else in John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The only thing on that list that might have been particularly pleasing to God was the baptism itself, and Jesus did that along with hundreds, maybe thousands of other people. So why is he singled out for special treatment?
Jesus is not an ordinary person, in case you didn’t notice, and he’s been singled out by God for a larger purpose. Jesus of Nazareth was indeed, as God so named him, God’s own Son. In our reading from Isaiah today, God tells his people, “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the 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.” Jesus himself had no need for a baptism of repentance, because he had nothing for which to repent. He didn’t need his sins forgiven, because he didn’t have any.
Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Word made flesh, didn’t need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but he still joined with all those who did need it, and by doing so God was indeed with his people when they passed through the waters. Jesus wasn’t baptized for his sake, but for ours, and we are joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, and are therefore clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness and life.
And that’s another thing about baptism. Not only is it about what God does rather than what we do, but it’s a statement about who we are now, not about where we’re going when we die. As part of the baptismal liturgy, the newly baptized is called by the name given them by their parents, then renamed “Child of God,” and told, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Those words are not about the address of one’s condo after death, but about one’s identity during life. We are all children of God. Individually created, sealed, and marked, but united together in Christ, through the waters of baptism. Whoever else we are, we are that first, and that part of our identity can never be taken away from us. It is the first word in our lives, the last word in our lives, and the most important word in our lives. Child of God, you are my beloved; in you I am well pleased.
In the darkest times during the Protestant Reformation and Revolution in Germany, Martin Luther often had sleepless nights, wondering if he had done the right thing, worried about the violence his personal rebellion had spawned. He writes that during those times he would then recall his baptism in Christ, and would physically touch his head as a reminder, telling himself over and over, “Remember, Martin, you are baptized!”
We are baptized once, but we are baptized into a relationship and an identity that remain with us for the rest of our lives, constantly renewing us. Water is the basis for all life on this planet: we need it for sustaining and maintaining our physical life. God chooses water as the sign of our spiritual life as well. And every time we encounter it, whether we’re brushing our teeth or making our coffee or washing our hands or even shoveling snow, we have a tactile reminder that we are God’s child, beloved and sealed by the Spirit, marked by the cross of Christ forever. This is the kind of love God has for YOU!
Today, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, let us reaffirm our commitment to be a living reflection of God’s love. Let’s use our lives to be an illustration of God’s adoration of us. And may we never forget that God’s affection, God’s adoration, and God’s commitment to us will never leave us.