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The gospel lesson for today recalls the baptism of Jesus. We just read Mark’s account. We could’ve just as easily read from Matthew, Luke or John. The fact that all four gospels include the baptism of Jesus indicates just how important it was to the early church. It was important because it linked Jesus directly with John the Baptist and the prophetic witness of the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 11:2); as importantly, it provided a visual symbol of the humility of Jesus who, in Paul’s words:
“ …existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7)
Looking back, Jesus’ baptism served to inaugurate his ministry: When he came up out of the waters of the Jordan, he went out into the wilderness to endure the temptations of Satan. Ultimately, he would be lead to Jerusalem and to the Cross. In this sense, the baptism of Jesus is that seminal moment in which all of the anticipation and hope surrounding his birth and all of the formative experiences of his early life come together in an epiphany in which we see clearly that he is the Son of God. As Mark puts it:
“Immediately coming up from the water,
he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
A voice came out of the sky, ‘You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’
Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:10-12).
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Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we have the opportunity to reflect upon what it means for us to be baptized in his name, and in this particular service, you’ll have the opportunity to come to the Baptismal Font and renew your baptism and so, reaffirm God’s claim on your life as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me begin by asking: Are you baptized? I suspect that most of you would say yes. Perhaps some of you were baptized as youth or adults. Like me, many of you were baptized as infants, and that’s a practice our Baptist friends don’t quite understand: How can a baby who’s only a few weeks old possibly know what’s going on?
Years ago, a couple of pastors in Missouri got into a debate with a noted liturgical scholar named James F. White. They asked Dr. White, “What if the child slept through the entire service? Wouldn’t this nullify the experience?” Professor White answered,
“For all I know, I may have been asleep for my baptism, but God was not. More often than not God acts without our knowing it. God’s love is, in no way, contingent upon our understanding or our awareness.” (The Circuit Rider, Jan. 1981)
Baptism is not about us, it’s about God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. Every time we baptize an individual, whether it’s a nine-week-old baby or a ninety-year-old adult, we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which we are saved.
I like to think of infant baptism as the perfect symbol of our covenant relationship to God. That is, we allcome before God as infants in his sight, regardless of our age, abilities or accomplishments. None of us can possibly comprehend the scope of God’s grace or claim to be worthy of God’s love. Yet, God claims us anyway and invites us into a loving, trusting relationship with him, not because we’re deserving, but because, well, that’s the nature of God.
Think of it this way: You love your children, don’t you? You loved them long before they were able to love you in return. You’ll love them no matter how much they disappoint you and fall short of the mark. Doesn’t it stand to reason that God, like a loving parent, loves us long before we’re able to love him in return? Jesus said,
“Or who is there among you, who,
if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father who is in heaven
give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
Infant baptism is an important symbol of our relationship to God in another way, and that is, it’s not the infant who asks to be baptized, it’s the parents who ask on behalf of their child. Acting in faith, they claim a place in God’s kingdom for their child, and the child is made a part of God’s great family of faith long before the child knows what’s going on.
Parents often ask, “Shouldn’t be just wait and let the child grow up and decide for himself?” I like to say no. You don’t wait for the child to grow up before giving him/her a name. You don’t wait until they prove to be responsible before making a place for them in the family. They belong from day one, and they learn to appreciate what that means as they get older.
The same holds true for the country. Children don’t grow up before they become citizens of the United States – they’re citizens at birth. Sure, we teach them to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and to sing the Stars Spangled Banner, but they’re full citizens long before they know the words or the music.
Experts tell us the basic traits of children’s personalities are formed by the time they are five years old! By the time they get to be teenagers, their faith – or lack of faith – is already decided, if not by you, by someone else. And that’s scary!
When I lived near Texas A&M, I saw parents teaching two and three-year-olds some of the great Aggie traditions. They’d dressed them in maroon and white and take them to yell practice. Why, I bet children around here learn can call the Hogs before they can say the Lord’s Prayer.
The point is we want our children to know, from the start, that God loves them. That’s what baptism is all about – to know, beyond all doubt, that you belong to God.
And so, we baptize our children at the earliest age possible. At the same time, we pledge to do everything within our power to help them grow in the knowledge of God’s love, trusting that they will make their own professions of faith as they grow older.
Whether you were baptized as an infant, youth or adult; whether or not you remember the experience; whether or not you have a baptismal certificate to prove it, I’m guessing most of you have been baptized. The question is what does it mean?
What difference does it make whether you’re baptized or not? That’s what I’d like for you to think about in the sermon this morning. And I what I hope you’ll take home with you today is this: It makes all the difference in the world – not because you get to go to heaven when you die, but because God promises to be with you in every situation and circumstance you face to give you the grace you need. Here’s what God said to Isaiah:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name. You are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.
For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).
In the Bible, water and the sea stand for all that which is opposed to God: Chaos, destruction, sin and death. We see this in the opening verses of Genesis:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty.
Darkness was on the surface of the deep.
God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
This is not a picture of Disneyworld! Before God gave the Word, the universe was the most hostile and dangerous place you can imagine. Then God spoke, and there was light. God spoke, and the waters were pushed back so that there was air to breathe and solid ground on which to stand.
But look closely: God didn’t destroy the waters, he merely put them in their place. The ancient Hebrews understood this in an interesting way. Theirs was a three-tiered universe. There was water above and water below and, in between, a thin slice of earth on which we live.
How did they know there was water above? Simple – the sky’s blue. They figured there must be some sort of shield holding it back. Besides, every once in a while the shield would leak, and water would come pouring down.
And how did they know there was water below? Simple – they’d dig a hole in the ground. The next day there’d be water in the bottom. Besides, every once in a while, the water would rise on its own and flood everything in sight.
It didn’t take them long to figure what would happen if the water started pouring down from above and rising up from below and didn’t stop – they’d die. In the meantime, God held the waters back. God keeps the waters at bay, which makes each day a gift of God’s grace.
The ancient Hebrews knew – and we need to remember – the waters are still there; which is to say, the presence of evil is still with us. And that’s what makes Jesus’ baptism so important: He went down into the waters in order to break the power of sin and death. It’s another way of saying, “he descended into hell.”
So that to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ is to share his victory over sin and death and to know that, no matter how deep the water may get, he will be with you to keep you from going under.
Let’s translate that into terms we can relate to:
• A young couple has a few unforeseen expenses and, before they know it, they’re swimming in a sea of credit card debt …
• A middle-aged woman gets a pink slip at work. She’s told it has nothing to do with her age, it’s simply a matter of downsizing …
• A woman’s husband of twenty-eight years dies of cancer, and she finds herself swamped by endless waves of grief …
• A young woman finds herself exhausted caring for two small children. It seems like one of them is always getting sick. She asks her husband to help her, but he says he needs to spend time with his buddies.
• A middle-aged man goes to work day after day wondering to himself, “What’s it all about?” The fire in his belly has long since grown cold, but there are bills to pay and others are depending on him to bring home the bacon …
• An elderly woman gets up and goes to the kitchen. The house is a wreck. Newspapers and magazines are stacked up everywhere, the faucet’s dripping, the carpet’s stained. Yet, it’s all she can do to make a pot of coffee and feed the cat.
I’m not making this up. This is the stuff of everyday life. It goes to show how the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm us, in one way or another, every day. Some days we’re strong and able to withstand the current; other days it feels like we could go under at any moment.
God didn’t take the waters away, but he gave us a promise: “I will be with you.”
The baptism of Jesus is the key – he went down into the waters to break the power of sin and death, so that to be baptized in his name is to know that he’s with you, you’re not alone. His grace will always be sufficient for the need.
I’ll never forget the day of Becky Anthony’s funeral. The old First Methodist Church was packed. Perhaps some of you were there. The whole town was in mourning. How do you deal with such a senseless tragedy as this? I was sitting in the balcony. Florence Hyatt was at the organ. My mother was in the choir loft next to her. And I’ll never forget how, just before the sermon, she stood and sang these words:
“Be not dismayed, whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you.
God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way;
He will take care of you, God will take care of you.”
“When you pass through the waters,” says the Lord, “I will be with you.” Count on it!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.