Baptism of the Lord 2018
In our continuing year-long quest to explore significant words of scripture and faith, today we encounter the central word of our text, “Baptized.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I was baptized on Sunday November 16, 1980 by the congregation of Pt. Loma Presbyterian Church in San Diego California. I keep that date in the back of my mind each year so I won’t forget. I was nineteen years old. I’ve moved 3,000 miles away and lots of the folks there that day have gone on to be with the Lord, some, like the Simpson’s I spoke about last week, dear to my heart. They’ve left me to live out my baptism. While I know they celebrated an adult baptism, I suspect they had no idea how being baptized into Christ would make such a difference in my life. It has defined my life!
The ritual of baptism is a lot like the ritual of a wedding. It says something that is already true. God doesn’t wait to love you until you are baptized. Couples don’t wait to fall in love on their wedding day. The wedding ceremony solidifies their commitment to each other. The ritual of baptism solidifies God’s commitment to us, our commitment to God, and our commitment to one another as a baptized community.
When I was a seminary student, I spent a summer as a chaplain at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. My duties included being on call overnight once a week. One late night, or early morning rather, I was called to the NICU. A young mother was distraught over the premature birth of her baby. The child survived only a few moments, then died.
It was a sacred moment. Here I was, early twenties, still a student and asked to care and comfort a mother and offer a prayer for a baby that survived but a few minutes. The child was so small she fit in the palm of my hand. As the mother wept, I held the child and gently asked for God’s presence for mother and to care for the child in God’s eternal home.
After several moments, through tear-filled eyes, she asked, “Father, what about my baby, she wasn’t baptized?”
Working-class Catholic neighborhoods surrounded the hospital, so I had become accustomed to being called “Father” even though still a student, and a Presbyterian at that. What I had not thought about was her question. And there was no time to check my notes from my Theology 101 class.
I stalled for time, “Are you worried about your baby being in heaven?” “Yes,” she sobbed and nodded.
I shot from the hip and replied, “If God doesn’t receive your child because she wasn’t baptized, maybe we’ve got the wrong God.” I was pretty pleased, it seemed like a nice Princeton answer. She wasn’t buying my non-answer answer. She asked me again, “Is my baby in heaven?” This time, I knew the answer, “Yes, your daughter is in heaven with God.” That young mother made me a priest that night. “Say the words. Be the priest.”
God doesn’t wait to love somebody until they are baptized or we would have to say that God has conditional love. Baptism says something that is already true in the same way a wedding does. It’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
So what if we lived everyday with an awareness that we are baptized? What if we consciously lived with the sense that we belong to God, in the same way spouses live with the consciousness that they are married? They aren’t just living together, they are married. They took vows to love each other,
…in plenty and in want;
In joy and in sorrow;
In sickness and in health;
As long as we both shall live.
And in case you forget that, there’s a ring on your finger to remind you.
You don’t say, “I was married.” You say, “I am married.” You don’t say, “I was baptized.” You say, “I am baptized.” It’s who I am. I belong to God. It shapes my identity.
Martin Luther said, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.” In times of distress and anxiety, he comforted himself by repeating the phrase, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” In saying this he was affirming that he belonged to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So regardless of the circumstances around me in the particular moment, “I am baptized. I belong to God.”
What if you were to look into the mirror every morning and say “I am baptized.” I wonder how that would change the course of our days.
How could you live a profane or empty life if you belong to God?
How could you judge another human being, be prejudiced or hold a grudge if you belong to God?
How could you hate or foster greed if you belong to God?
How could you worship power, fame, or materialism if you belong to God?
How could you give in to your addictions, rationalizing or defending them, if you belong to God?
How could you fail to take care of your physical body or the earth and its resources if you belong to God?
As human beings, we are prone to all of these things and more, but we do have the option not to surrender to them. In baptism, we live in covenant with God. Like a married couple, we live with “limited freedom” – by choice. Our Brief Statement of Faith begins:
In life and death we belong to God. Everything else falls within these parameters.
At the baptism of Jesus, the normal routine of life was interrupted by the voice of God proclaiming: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” How often do you think Jesus recalled those words of identity throughout his life in ministry? Do you think he thought of that when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil? “I could go this way, but I belong to God.” Do you think he thought of those words before Pilate and later when he hung on the cross?
Jesus was baptized. It wasn’t the water or the amount that made the difference; it was the identity, the claiming of life in covenant with God and with the community of faith that made the difference.
There is a prayer often used in our Service of Witness to the Resurrection, a memorial service for those we love:
Especially we thank you for your servant whose baptism is now complete in death. We praise you for the gift of their life, for all in them that was good and kind and faithful, for the grace you gave them that kindled in them the love of your dear name, and enabled them to serve you faithfully.
Your entire life is lived under the covenant of baptism. It’s who you are. It’s who you will be.
Start this New Year with this resolution: look into the mirror and remind yourself:
“I am baptized. I belong to God.”