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Baptism of our Lord Cycle C (2)
Three pastors got together for coffee one morning. Much to their surprise they discovered that all their churches had problems with bats infesting their belfries. The bats were making a terrible mess. “I got so mad,” said one pastor, “I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling, but did nothing to the bats.” “I tried trapping them alive,” said the second. “Then I drove 50 miles before releasing them, but they beat me back to the church.” “I haven’t had any more problems,” said the third. “What did you do?” asked the others, amazed. “I simply baptized them,” he replied. “I haven’t seen them since.”
It is such a common occurrence. So often, I see married couples come to Church and then they tell me or it is obvious that they are with child. It is understandable that sometimes during pregnancy they will miss Mass. Then the baby is born and I know it is difficult to adjust to a newborn and understand when they miss Mass. They have their baby baptized and then disappear. It is so easy in military chapels to fool the priest into thinking that they will really raise the child in the Church because we priests come and go on a regular basis.
People come to the church desiring Christian baptism and church membership, but sometimes it is just for show or to please grandparents. We welcome them into our fellowship, and then after we welcome them into our fellowship, we don’t hear anything of them. What does it mean? Or parents and godparents stand at the altar to present a child to God. They make promises to bring up that child in the household of faith and then they disappear. We rarely see them again. What did those promises mean?
On this second Sunday of the New Year our lesson from the Gospels focuses our attention on the place of baptism in our lives.
Jesus came to be baptized by John. It was an interesting act of contrition. John the Baptist admitted that he wasn’t worthy to lace up Jesus’ sneakers, and yet Jesus joins the crowd that is being baptized by John. It was a dramatic moment for John and even for Jesus. For there came a voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”
Baptism has always been at the heart of the Christian faith. It is sign and symbol that a person belongs to Christ. It is a requirement for membership in the church. It is a sacrament,” a means of grace. Why, then, do so many Christians take baptism so lightly? Perhaps we need to consider what baptism says to us.
FIRST OF ALL, BAPTISM SAYS THAT IT IS GOD WHO HAS SAVED US. Certainly it is not the water. Water is but a symbol.
We are not washing the child. If the hope for cleansing was based on the efforts of the water, there was going to have to be a whole lot more water used! It is not water that saves us. Water is but a symbol. Water itself has no saving power. And to be frank about it, neither does the strength of our belief.
The focus in baptism is not on the believer, but on God. Grace is not something we earn, but something we receive as a free gift. Baptism symbolizes a turning from sin, but it is God who delivers us from the power of the Tempter. If you visit Rome, you can see the old baptism place. At the bottom of the pool there is a serpent. The person to be baptized is anointed with oil. Because this is the last time the devil can get ahold of them. It is not a our victory but God’s. That is why we always come to Christian baptism in an act of total humility. Baptism is a symbol of God’s grace freely given.
In Vienna, Austria, you will find a church in which the Hapsburgs, the former ruling family of Austria, are buried. It is said that when royal funerals finally arrive at the church for the burial rites, the mourners leading the funeral procession knock at the door to gain entrance.
“Who is it that desires admission here?” a priest asks through the locked door.
“His apostolic majesty, the emperor!” calls the guard.
“I don’t know him,” answers the priest.
A second knock follows and a similar question is asked. This time, the funeral guard announces the deceased as, “The highest emperor.”
Again, “I don’t know him,” echoes throughout the vaulted burial chamber.
Finally, a third knock is heard. “Who is it?”
“A poor sinner, your brother,” comes the final answer. Then the door is opened and the royal burial completed.(2)
That is the proper attitude for baptism ” total and complete humility. It is not the water that saves us. It is not our own noble intentions that save us. It is God acting out of total and complete self-giving love that accepts us just as we are. That is the first thing we need to see. It is God who saves us.
Here is the second. IT IS GOD WHO CALLS US. Baptism is a free gift from God, but the purpose of baptism is to give us a new identity.
The word baptizo was a term that was used in the first century for dipping a light-colored garment into a dye. Once the fabric was dipped into the dye, it would be changed in its identity from its original color to a new color. The act of dipping it, resulting in changing its identity, was called baptizo. It is the Greek term from which we get our English word baptism. (3) “Once we were no people,” says the Old Testament writer, “but now we are God’s people.” As the prophet Jeremiah wrote of God: “I will be your God and your will be my people.” Baptism is a sign of God’s call to us to be new people. That is why we are given a new garment to wear. The alb that the priest wears is symbolic of his baptismal garment. Baptism underlies all of the priest’s ministry.
Sue Monk Kidd, in her book, ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE, says that so often when she opens a newspaper she finds herself reading a depressing headline ” words in big letters shouting about a world threat, a crisis, another crime. There is surely a lot of bad news to read about these days. One day she opened her town’s paper, however, and read a remarkable headline printed in half-inch letters. The headline read like this: “I Asked Jesus Into My Heart.” This story followed:
“During the night dogs had begun to bark furiously around the home of a local couple. Usually the dogs’ barking signaled something amiss, that perhaps prowlers lurked nearby. But the next morning, the couple discovered that nothing had been taken. Instead, something had been returned. Outside the front door were two car speakers that had been stolen six weeks earlier. A note attached to them read like this: `I’m sorry that I took your speakers, but now I have repented my sins and asked Jesus to forgive me. I hope you will forgive me too. I no longer take other people’s belongings…God has changed me. I’m a new creature since I asked Jesus into my heart.’ It was signed simply, `Saved.'” (4)
It could have been signed, “Baptized.” In fact, I like “baptized” better. “Saved” connotes that we have been delivered from the power of sin, but baptism is more than that. Baptism means that we have put on new life in Christ. As we pray in the baptismal rite from St Paul. All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
It means that we have not only given up old, unsavory behavior, but that we now walk in the footsteps of the One who gave his life for us. How, then, can we come for baptism or confirmation and then disappear from the life of the Christian community?
When you walked into Church some of you made the sign of the cross with Holy Water. This is not just a reminder of your baptism but is a renewing of that commitment.
When I was in Ukraine on the Feast of the Theophany (God is manifested as a Trinity) at the Baptism. They go to the river and the priest blesses the water and throws in the hand cross. People jump in to bring up the cross. (The water is very cold). The boy arising from the water with the cross represents Jesus who at his baptism by John the Baptist publicly accepted the mission the Father had set for him, a mission that would end with the cross. After our Baptism we go out into the world with the mission to make Christ present to one another by our lives.
Baptism signifies that it is God who has saved us. It is God who has called us.
FINALLY, IT IS GOD WHO GOES WITH US. Just as we do not come to baptism trusting in our own merits but in God’s gracious love for us, neither do we live the Christian life trusting in our own strength.
If you feel that you are being tempted point out to the temptor that you are baptized. Baptism is a reminder to us that we are not alone in the world. Just as Jesus heard those words at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased,” so we too hear God’s voice: “You are my own child. I am with you. You are not alone.”
Everyone in the small town called her Grandma Richardson. One late afternoon Grandma Richardson looked out of her window to see a group of men on her porch. It was a familiar sight in a coal town. She knew what had happened before the men told her. Her husband had been killed in a mining accident.
Years passed slowly and with great difficulty. Grandma Richardson was admired by everyone in town for her courage and unwavering faith. She and her children attended church almost every week. Then there was another knock on her door. Her older son had been killed in another mine accident.
Grandma grew older and weaker. In the spring and summer, when the weather was warm, she would sit on her front porch, rocking in her rocking chair, softly singing hymns of faith that she had learned by heart. Children would gather and listen to her tell Bible stories. Then it happened again. Another son was killed in the mine. After the funeral Grandma Richardson was again sitting on her porch rocking in her favorite chair, softly singing hymns of faith. One of the children who saw her sitting there asked her, “Grandma Richardson, aren’t you sad today?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I am sad, very sad. It’s hard to say good-bye to someone you love, and I have had to do it three times. But,” she told the children, “I have something more than sadness inside of me.” She then spoke of her faith.
“Can you give us some,” one of the children asked.
“Why children,” Grandma Richardson answered, “I have been giving it to you for years now. It is knowing that God loves you and that He has made one promise that is a gift, the most valuable gift in the world. God promised that no matter what happens, no matter how good or bad things may be, regardless of your joy or sorrow, God will not leave you alone.” (6)
That is God’s promise to each of us. It goes part and parcel with our baptism. To understand that baptism is to become a new person. It is God who has saved us. It is God who calls us into a new life of service. It is God who goes with us. What good news! “I have been baptized.”
” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ” ”
Leewin Williams, editor, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WIT, HUMOR AND
WISDOM (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1949), p. 248.
James W. Cox, THE MINISTER’S MANUAL, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).
Charles R. Swindoll, THE GRACE AWAKENING, (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990).
- R. Gibson Co., 1988.
James L. Henderschedt, THE LIGHT IN THE LANTERN, (San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, Inc., 1991), pp. 63-67.
How many of you have ever watched a movie about some exciting place and wished that you could visit there some day? A movie is a good thing, but it could never be as good as being there yourself. Movies are substitutes for adventure and they do a good job, but the adventure itself is the thing that everyone likes the best.
What is the substitute for sugar? For Coke? Going to a concert and hearing music?
The reason that I have told you this is that there was a man by the name of John the Baptist who did a lot of baptizing. He knew what he was doing, and it was a good thing. He kept talking about how he was preparing the world for Christ who was coming. He told them that what he did was just a substitute for the real thing that was going to happen when the Christ came. He said that his baptism was only a baptism of water, but when the Christ brought his baptism, it would be a baptism of the Spirit of God. In other words, John’s baptism was a substitute baptism until the real baptism of Jesus could take place.
Baptism of our Lord Cycle C (1)
Once when I was baptizing by immersion a young lady in a baptismal pool in the chapel. When I laid her back under the water. Suddenly her body stiffened and her eyes popped open. The look on her face was a mixture of excitement and surprise.
I wasn’t sure what had happened, but something definitely had. As I pulled her up from the water, she put her hand on the back I had smacked the back of her head onto the baptistery steps!
Probably that is one sacramental event this woman will never forget. (1)
Today’s story from Luke’s Gospel is about an unforgettable baptism. It is the baptism of our Lord. We return to it year after year so we won’t forget. Why? Because it partially defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Every one of us who is a member of this church has been baptized. It is the one indispensable rite of every Christian congregation.
Our Lord was baptized by John in the wilderness. In doing so, Christ set a precedent for every person who would follow him. We were baptized because Jesus was baptized. Being baptized doesn’t mean we are perfect. Being baptized doesn’t mean we’ve got our life all together. Being baptized doesn’t even mean we have our theology all worked out. Being baptized simply means that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and we have committed ourselves to walk in his footsteps as God grants us His grace.
Luke’s version of the account is more condensed than the other Gospel writers. He begins with a brief description of John the Baptist’s ministry. Luke tells us “the people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.”
John answered them like this, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Luke tells about Jesus’ baptism a few verses later. He writes simply, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
Wow! Wouldn’t you love to have been there that day? I’m glad that people who were there thought to record the day for our hearing. “Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
This event of Christ’s baptism is important to Christians for several reasons.
It reminds us, first of all, of Christ’s humility. It is an amazing truth. Christ humbled himself and was baptized by a mere mortal in our behalf. Whereas you and I would be tempted to enjoy the perks of our relationship with God, Christ humbled himself and became a servant. St. Francis of Assisi had that kind of humility. St. Francis wanted to be as much like Christ as possible.
In a story known as the Legend of Perugia there is a very revealing example of Francis’ humility. Hidden in a description of Francis’ practice of traveling and preaching in churches is this wonderful sentence concerning St. Francis: “He brought along a broom to clean the churches.” (2) I love that. “He brought along a broom to clean the churches.”
There is much being written nowadays about “servant leadership.” There is no better example than Francis of Assisi. Of course, Francis was simply seeking to emulate his Lord.
F.B. Meyer used an analogy for this kind of leadership: “I used to think,” wrote Meyer, “that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other; and that the taller we grew in Christian character, the easier we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other. It is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower; that we have to go down, before we can go up!”
Humility, in a biblical sense, is not to be confused with false modesty. It is not allowing yourself to be walked upon because you lack the courage to stand up for yourself. Jesus was not like that at all. Jesus’ humility was an act of courageous obedience to the will of God. He was baptized not because he was a sinful person, not because he was swayed by John’s preaching, not because he was a sinner. Indeed, the Bible teaches us he knew no sin. He was baptized because of his obedience to his Father. He did it to set the pattern for us. For you see, what God desires from us more than anything else is that we might be obedient, too. That’s what humility is all about.
I love an analogy the old television series “The Lone Ranger.” Some of you remember that long-running series. the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. Silver was the perfectly trained companion for the Lone Ranger. But Silver wasn’t always obedient.
In the first episode of “The Lone Ranger,” the Lone Ranger was one of a group of Texas rangers. One day, however, his band of rangers got ambushed and he was the lone survivor. He was left for dead, but recovered. When he began to get his strength back, he heard in a canyon below him the sound of a horse, the horse that would come to be known as Silver. He surmised that Silver could help him escape a difficult situation. The only problem was that Silver was a wild stallion. The whole first episode was about Silver being brought under the control of the Lone Ranger. Silver would throw him off; the Lone Ranger would get back on, only to be thrown off again. The Lone Ranger rode Silver until Silver got the message that he was no longer in charge. When that happened, Silver became an amazing horse. (3)
Here’s the point. God created you and me to do amazing things. But we will never be all God created us to be until we humble ourselves and become obedient to the vision God has for our lives. Christ’s baptism is important, first of all, because it shows his humility, his willingness to submit to his Father’s authority.
We see Christ’s humility, but we are also introduced to the idea of his divinity. It is surely no accident that the story of Christ’s baptism is one of the few occasions in scripture where all three persons in the Trinity are mentioned–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now, that may not get you all that excited. After all, the word “Trinity” does not even appear in the Bible. The idea of the Trinity–that God comes to us in three persons–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–wasn’t formulated by the church until a few hundred years after Christ’s resurrection. And yet, here at Christ’s baptism, all three persons of the Godhead are present. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus (the Son) in bodily form like a dove and then the Father (God) expresses His love and His approval for Jesus, His Son.
This may seem boring, but it is vitally important. The doctrine of the Trinity cemented the idea in the mind of Christians that when we look at Jesus we are looking at an accurate picture of the character of God. Jesus, while remaining a human being, in all ways is a mirror image of God.
a church group visiting a restored ancient village on the Cherokee reservation. An ill-informed youth in their group asked as they entered a teepee, “Do you reckon they will scalp us inside here?” The Native American guide was justifiably indignant. She stated that scalping was the horrendous method of torture used by Europeans to terrorize the Indians. Native Americans merely learned the art of terror with greater precision. Then she shared this insight from her oral history.
When the Christian missionaries came to the Cherokee tribes in the late seventeenth century and told the story of Jesus, the tribesmen were quickly converted. Their chief announced, “Our ancestors have always taught that God is just, merciful, and forgiving. God has compassion for us in our sorrow. We did not know that this God has entered our experience. We did not know the suffering God. But now you have supplied us with the name and personality of the God for whom we have longed–Jesus the Christ.” (4)
That chief was a good theologian. When people ask us what God is like, all we have to do is point them to Jesus. God is like this carpenter from Nazareth, we testify. God is loving, forgiving, accepting in the same way that Jesus was loving, forgiving, accepting. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.
That’s too big of a leap of faith for some people to take and I understand that. And that’s sad. Where else shall we look to determine God’s nature? Shall we look to nature? Nature is grand. Nature is beautiful. Nature sometimes leaves us breathless. But nature is also terrifying, cruel, unforgiving.
Where shall we look to find a God worth worshipping? We can look to nature to show us a God of grandeur and might. But we cannot find there a God of perfect and complete love.
Neither can we look to other great religions to show such a God. These religions are helpful to those who follow them, but none of them speak of a God whose very nature is love. Only within the pages of the New Testament can I find such a God. That is one reason the story of Jesus’ baptism is so important. It shows us Christ humility, but it also shows us his connection to divinity. It is one of the few occasions in scripture where all three persons in the Trinity are mentioned–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism tells me that I can look at him as a perfect picture of the Father’s wondrous love.
And that brings us to the final thing to be said about Christ’s baptism: it helps us understand our real identity.
Christ’s baptism was the beginning of his earthly ministry. He was about thirty years of age. What had he been doing before then? He was probably an itinerant . rabbi supporting himself by carpentry.. All we know about his early years, except for that time when he stayed behind in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph made their annual pilgrimage to the Holy City, was that he was obedient to his parents and that he “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). But now, at his baptism, he has this amazing experience. After he is baptized and while he is praying, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Regardless of what it meant to Christ, it is certainly true for his followers that it is at our baptism that we receive our identity. In some traditions, a person receives his or her name at baptismwe most certainly receive our identity. Baptism tells us we are children of God and the way we honor that baptism is to live in obedience to the will of God as best as we are able to understand it.
Bau Island, a small subset of the Fiji Islands. While there, the chief of Bau Island showed them a small Christian church that housed a large stone with a small cleft in the top. According to the chief, this stone held a significant place in the ancient history of the people of the island. In ancient times, this stone was used to crush the heads of captives. It was a prominent weapon, and a symbol of the violent culture of the island.
But once the message of Jesus reached the people of Bau Island, this rock was employed in a new way. It became a baptismal font, and the cleft that was once filled with blood was now filled with water for baptizing the heads of small children as they were brought into the family of God.
The people of Bau Island wisely concluded that, once they were baptized, their way of life needed to reflect that baptism. So it is with us. Our lives should reflect our baptism. (5) What have we given up or changed that can be our rock.
In our baptism we are given our identity. We are now children of God. We are a part of the body of Christ. Our words and our actions should reflect that great truth. Just as Christ humbled himself in obedience to the will of God, so shall we humble ourselves to live in obedience to God’s will that in all things people may see our good works and give thanks to our Father. This is why each year we revisit the event of Christ’s baptism. We see here Christ’s humility and his divinity. And we are reminded of who we are. We are his body at work in the world today, reminding the world that it is loved. We are the children of God, and that is how we are called to live.
2. John Michael Talbot. Cited in Rodney L. Cooper, Holman New Testament Commentary, Mark: 2 (Kindle Edition).
3. Anthony T. Evans, Tony Evans’ Book Of Illustrations (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009).
5. H. Eddie Fox and George E. Morris, Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So! (Franklin, TN.: Providence House Publishers, 1999), p. 94.