Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
I grew up in a tradition where baptism was VERY important. So did you, at least most of you. Let’s start with a look at how that came to be.
I did a quick search with Google and came across a lot of misinformation. You know that part of the Google search which offers some quick answers at the top of your search results? Well, whoever gathers those questions and answers seems to think that John the Baptist was the first to baptize people, and that Jesus was among the first to be baptized.
Another question: What does baptism mean? Again, they are a long way off: “It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior.”
Was Jesus baptized as a statement of faith in himself, risen? That doesn’t make any sense. He was just beginning his ministry. He had not died, and certainly had not been resurrected yet. So it would seem that this is not what baptism meant for Jesus. And if not for Jesus, then maybe not for us either.
Paul talked about baptism as dying and rising with Christ to a new life. This is certainly a meaningful metaphor. Following Jesus changes a person’s life to the core, just like dying to an old life and rising to a new one. But it seems unlikely to conclude that this is the meaning of Jesus’ baptism.
This whole conundrum presumes that baptism is a strictly Christian rite. It isn’t.
Baptism was also a Jewish practice, at least since the return from the Babylonian captivity. It was part of the Temple purification rites. Baths are also found attached to synagogue archeological sites. A baptism ritual was used by soldiers in preparation for battle. It was used after healing from disease or other forms of “uncleanness.” A ritual bath was part of the practice of conversion to Judaism. It qualified them for full religious participation in the life of the community. As such, it could be repeated as often as one encountered something unclean. Baptism, in this case is for ritual purity.
John the Baptist, scholars believe, was trained in the community of the Essenes. In that community, baptism was a daily practice, only entered upon repentance from evil ways and commitment to live a pure life. Repentance and cleansing were a daily rhythm of life. And so they are for us. But is this what Jesus was doing? Was he repenting from sin and starting over clean? This is what John’s baptism was about.
It is not surprising that John was confused when Jesus came to him to be baptized. Of what are you repenting? Of what do you need to be purified? It would be more appropriate for me to be cleansed by you, Jesus! It was all rather shocking! Why would Jesus need to be baptized, like we are baptized?
In the history of Christianity, there have been a multitude of baptismal practices and understandings. Some saw it as a once in a lifetime cleansing from sin, so they delayed baptism to the moment of death.
By the time of the Reformation, baptism and citizenship and naming were the same act, often called “christening.” In the act of baptism, one was given a name and took ones place in the earthly state. At the same time, one was included in the parish church and held to its rules for the conduct of life, subject to all the practices and rituals for the forgiveness of sin and entrance into the heavenly kingdom of God.
The Anabaptist wing of the Reformation completely rejected this practice. They believed that baptism was the person’s act of commitment to Jesus as Lord and savior, more like the definition I found on Google. It was the entrance into the life of discipleship. Only believers, who understood and accepted the work of Jesus could be baptized, usually not before the age of 12 or so, the “age of accountability.”
Over the centuries, baptism has come to be commonly understood as our commitment to Jesus, our choice to enter the community of Jesus-followers. The evangelical movement of the past century has taken this approach.
Was this what Jesus baptism was? Our Reformed understanding of baptism takes a different tack. Rather than saying, ‘this is what baptism means to me,’ and understanding Jesus baptism in the same way, we say, ‘this is what Jesus’ baptism signifies,’ and we understand our own baptism in that light.
Rather than be confused or shocked that Jesus was baptized like we are, maybe we should be surprised, shocked, scandalized by the fact that we are baptized like Jesus was!
We tend to associate baptism with forgiveness. And so it is. But we protest that Jesus did not need forgiveness. So why was Jesus baptized? Did Jesus need baptism? Was it all for show?
Pastor David Lose wonders whether we have misunderstood forgiveness a bit, or at least the relationship between forgiveness and baptism. Baptism is first about relationship. And this is what we often miss. In baptism, we are named and claimed by God.
We are baptized as Jesus was baptized. And how was that? There are different descriptions of the baptism, but a consistent story of what God did. God spoke from the universe, “You are my Beloved, my child. I am pleased with you.” Because of his baptism? No. Because that is who Jesus was already – God’s Beloved.
We have gotten things backwards. We think we need to be good, or cleansed or forgiven in order to be acceptable to God. It makes sense! – that forgiveness, cleanses us and paves the way for acceptance with God.
But Christianity doesn’t make sense. It is a radical departure from what makes sense by human law and logic. Baptism is a clear proclamation of this truth. God forgives us not to make us God’s children but because we already are God’s children. Forgiveness is a result of God’s love for us, not a condition of that love. Baptism isn’t what makes it possible for God to love and forgive us, but rather the gift of forgiveness because God already loves us and delights in us.
So, yes, baptism is about forgiveness. But it’s also about so much more! It’s about love, identity, affirmation, commitment, promise. In Baptism God proclaims God’s great love for us; calls, names, and claims us as God’s beloved children; gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit;…and then, because of God’s love for us, God also promises to forgive, renew, and restore us at all times.
The miracle of grace is that we are baptized like Jesus was – claimed as God’s own child – just like Jesus is.
I appreciate the wisdom of the creators of the lectionary when they linked the passage from Isaiah we read today with the account of Jesus’ baptism. “Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are mine.” Don’t you hear these words echoed in God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism? “You are my Beloved, my child. I am pleased with you.”
I love the thought of God standing on a ladder somewhere or even better, sitting on a star in the heavens, saying, “Do you see my girl down there? I am so proud of her. She’s not perfect, but she’s mine.” This is the pronouncement of baptism. Fear not, in fact, rejoice – I have called you by name. You are mine.
Preacher Fred Craddock tells a story as it was told to him by an old man he met at a diner. They got to talking and quite a tale spilled from this man. “I grew up around here. It was not easy,” the old man said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused but he did not let me go. I began to be afraid. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance. Now, you go on and claim your name.’ I left church that day a different person. In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”
“Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
“You are my Beloved, my child. I am pleased with you.”
Go out into the world and be proud of your name: Child of God. Life will still be challenging, but remember the words of Isaiah:
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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I have claimed you. You are mine.