• The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the defining trait of all Christians. Whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelical or Reformed, all Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
• Baptism is, for Christians, what circumcision was for the Jews – the mark of the covenant. It’s what sets us apart as the people of God and disciples of Jesus Christ.
• There are two essential elements used in baptism – water and the Spirit. Water symbolizes cleansing of sin. Along with the Spirit, it also symbolizes the death of our old nature as we are born again in the image of God.
• It makes no difference whether we baptize by sprinkling, pouring or immersing. It’s not the amount of water that’s important or how it’s applied. What’s important is the love of God, who gave his only begotten son to redeem us and reconcile us to himself. That’s what baptism is about – reliving the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
• Baptism is not an inoculation against sickness and death, accidents or other misfortune, but it is a reassurance that, come what may, God will be with us to give us the grace we need to overcome all adversity.
• Baptism assumes a profession of faith, one youth and adults make for themselves. In the case of an infant, the profession of faith is made by the parents and affirmed by the congregation. The child then grows in the strength and knowledge of his family’s faith – and that includes the whole church family – until he/she is old enough to make his own profession and confirm his own faith in Jesus Christ.
• Finally, we’re baptized only once. Yet, we’re invited to renew our baptismal vows often – when someone else is baptized and, in services like today, that are designed specifically for this purpose.
By renewing our baptism, baptism becomes a living sacrament, much like the covenant of marriage. When a man and a woman get married, they exchange their vows before God and then they spend the rest of their lives living out the promises they’ve made to each other.
Every once in a while, I’m asked to conduct a service of renewal of the wedding vows. I did this for my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary. I’ve done it for others on their 25th anniversary. When I’ve taken groups to the Holy Land, I’ve invited couples to renew their wedding vows at the chapel in Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned the water into wine. As far as I’m concerned, it’d be a good idea for couples to recite their wedding vows to each other every year on their anniversary day. You don’t need a minister for that.
Renewing your promises – whether as a husband or wife or a child of God – is a good way to reaffirm your commitment and get a fresh new start toward fulfilling your vows.
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When our Book of Common Worship was revised in 1993, it included a Service of Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows to go along with our celebration of the baptism of Jesus on the first Sunday after Epiphany. That’s the service we’re using today.
In just a moment, I’ll invite you to come forward and stand at the Font and renew your baptism. Just so you’ll know what to expect, I’ll dip my thumb in the water and make the sign of the Cross on your forehead and say the words, “Remember your baptism and be thankful, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” You can add to that your own personal prayers of gratitude to God and commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
But, before you come, let’s take a closer look at the gospel lesson for today and ask a basic question: Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized in the first place? He didn’t have any sins to be cleansed of. He didn’t need to repent and turn back to God.
The common practice of baptism in Jesus’ day was for proselytes who wanted to become Jews to be baptized, but not Jews themselves. William Barclay points out,
“No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism.” (Barclay, 52-53)
Yet, according to Matthew,
“In those days, John the Baptizer came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ …Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:1-6)
Clearly, something was up. A new day was dawning. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Jews of every stripe and from every corner of Judea were coming to be baptized. But that’s not all. Matthew says,
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” (13)
Why? Evidently, John wondered the same thing. Matthew says,
“But John would have hindered him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’
But Jesus, answering, said to him, ‘Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.” (Matthew 3:14-15)
Jesus came to John to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness, to take the next step in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself. Commentator John MacArthur puts it this way. He says,
“Jesus’ baptism was the first act of his ministry, the first step in the redemptive plan that He came to fulfill. He who had no sin took His place among those who had no righteousness. He who was without sin submitted to a baptism for sinners. In this act the Savior of the world took His place among the sinners of the world” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew)
He humbled himself, to use Paul’s words, in obedience to God:
“…who, 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)
He became as one of us so that, by God’s grace, we might aspire to become more and more like him.
This transformation from sinfulness to righteousness begins with baptism and it goes on as long as we live, as we continue to grow in the knowledge of God’s grace and love.
And so, whether as an infant, youth or adult, first we’re baptized, then we renew our baptismal vows time and again as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
So, do you remember what you promised – or what your parents and congregation promised on your behalf – when you were baptized? There are three vows. The first goes like this:
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce all evil and its power in the world?
How do you define sin? That’s can be a slippery slope. You could say that sin is breaking one of the Ten Commandments or committing one of the “seven deadly sins.” But then, we all know that sin often sneaks up on us in subtle ways. For example, it’s one thing to tell a bald-face lie, to lie under oath; it’s another thing to tell a white lie.
When Jimmy Carter was running for President, there was this female reporter dogging his mother trying to get some smut on the candidate. So, in her gracious Southern style, Miss Lillian, as they called her, invited the reporter to her home for an interview. She met the reporter at the door and invited her in. The reporter wasted no time going for the jugular. She asked, “Has your son ever told a lie?” “Never!” replied Miss Lillian. “Never?” the reporter asked. “Never!” Miss Lillian responded. “NEVER???” the reporter persisted. “Well,” said Miss Lillian, “maybe just a little white lie, every once in a while.” “A WHITE LIE?” said the reporter, “And what, pray tell, is a white lie?” Miss Lillian took a sip of her coffee and said, “Well, you know when I met you at the door just now and told you how nice it was to see you …?”
Do you turn from the ways of sin? That’s the question. Sin is whatever separates us from God and each other, no matter how innocent and harmless it may appear on the surface. To pursue a life of righteousness is to walk a straight path and speak the truth in love. It’s also to turn from evil. The Psalmist says,
“Depart from evil, and do good. seek peace, and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14)
I first committed that verse to memory in Mrs. Spark’s 8th grade English class. It’s served me well ever since. Don’t’ hang out in places where trouble breeds. Keep company with those who share your values. Keep your distance from those who want to lead you astray. The second vow is this:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
To turn to Jesus is first to acknowledge the fact that he died for your sins. He bridged the gap between you and the righteousness of God. Because Christ died for your sins, you’re counted as righteous, even though you’re not. That, in itself, is reason enough to turn to him.
But there’s more. To turn to Jesus is not only to accept the sacrifice he made for you; it’s also to follow his teachings and example.
• While the world still believes in the age-old doctrine of revenge – an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – Jesus taught his disciples to forgive: “but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
• While the world still believes in a doctrine of reciprocity – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – Jesus taught his disciples to give to those who couldn’t give in return and to love their enemies, as well as their friends. (Matthew 5:44)
• And while the world still believes in looking out for Number One, Jesus taught his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
To turn to Jesus is to trust the leading of his Holy Spirit, to speak and act in his name, to live in such a way that others may see the very image of Christ in your face and hear the very voice of Christ in your words. Finally, the third baptismal vow is this:
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
To be a disciple is to be disciplined, and to be disciplined is to be subordinate to a higher authority than your own. In the army, it’s to get up when the bugle sounds reveille. In football, it’s to execute the play sent in by the coach. In the orchestra, it’s to follow the conductor’s baton. In the Christian faith, it’s to ask yourself, in every situation and circumstance you face, “What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?” then do likewise.
Let’s sum it up. You’ve been baptized. You bear the mark of the covenant. You belong to Christ and to God’s great family of faith. Today you have an opportunity to renew your baptism and affirm once more your commitment to live as a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The questions are before you. I invite you to answer them in the affirmative, not only with your lips, but with your life; not only today, but throughout the coming year.
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 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.