January 11 2009
Imagine the scene from today’s Gospel reading.
There was a man, a crazy passionate man, dressed in rough clothing made out of animal hair and leather. A wild rough looking man who had been in the wilderness a long time. He was not like the other religious leaders who dressed and ate well and lived in comparative comfort. This man, the one many called The Baptizer, lived like the prophets of old and his words sounded like the prophets, too. He was calling people to repent. To Metanoia. To literally turn around and go the other direction. This John the Baptizer called the people of the Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem to repent to prepare the way for the coming Lord. He called them to turn their lives around and be baptized, to hear the news that one more powerful than him was coming. That man would be truly holy, truly powerful and would truly baptize, not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit as well.
And then Jesus comes to be baptized. Some say that John told Jesus, ‘Me?? Baptize you?? Surely, it should be the other way around!’ But baptize him he did. And what a site to behold! Jesus, drenched in water, sees the very sky split apart and the Holy Spirit descended upon him—just like a great dove. He hears the voice of God say, ‘you are my beloved Son, and in you I have such Joy!’
Baptism wasn’t an uncommon practice during that time. In fact, ritual cleansing to rid oneself of sin was a frequent practice in some Jewish groups. Archaeologists have discovered some communities which had many large baths designed for just such a thing as this. It was a ritual repeated often during one’s lifetime and some may have even engaged in this practice monthly or weekly. However, while there are some similarities with what we do today, it was definitely different from out baptismal practice in its meaning.
So what do we believe about baptism? In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism we read that in baptism God forgives our sins, delivers us from death and the devil and gives everlasting life. In our baptism service we hear these words: “In Holy Baptism our gracious heavenly Father liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity. In the waters of Baptism we are reborn Children of God and inheritors of eternal life. By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the Church which is the Body of Christ…..
……In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. By the baptism of his own death and resurrection of your beloved Son ans set us free from the bondage oto sin and death and opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life. He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and re birth. ….
….Pour out your Holy Spirit so that those who are baptized may be given new life. Wash away the sin of all those who are cleansed by this water and bring them forth as inheritors of your glorious kingdom. …” (Lutheran Book of Worship, Baptismal Rite)
After the child or adult has been baptized with water, the pastor often marks the forehead of the new Christian with oil and says, “child of God you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And as the gathered community we recite these words: “we welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as fellow members of the body of Christ, children of the same heavenly Father and workers with us in the kingdom of God.”
But here’s the question: if baptism is a washing away of sins, entrance into the Christian community and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and all his gifts, then why did Jesus have to be baptized? Jesus did not commit sins and did not have original sin. The Christian community was formed around him. And, well Jesus is God, so I do not think he was really every separate from the Holy Spirit at all. So why? Why did he have to be baptized?
Anytime we start with God HAVING to do something, I think we may have the wrong end of the question. Jesus is God and, as such, does not NEED anything. He is complete in himself. One of the perks of being God. We, on the other hand, are incomplete. We do need. We need God. Jesus allowed himself to be baptized not because He needed it but because we need it.
Now we turn to us and what we need. For us, it is not just about the water. Let’s look again at the Small Catechism. Luther writes, “It is not water alone but water and God’s Word.” When Jesus, the Word of God, stepped into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized he made it something more than just a ritual for washing away ritual sin. In our baptism we are connected to his life, his death and his resurrection. It is the Word that makes the difference. Baptism transforms us because Jesus transformed it and through those waters transforms us. The sinner in us, the old Adam and Eve, is drowned in our baptism and we are reborn into a new life as brothers and sisters in Christ. The apostle Paul writes that because we are united with Jesus in baptism, we are also joined to his death on the cross and his resurrection to new life in him. Baptism is no longer a ritual washing we do of our own volition and choosing but a rebirth to new life and gift of God’s grace and love given to us.
What does this mean for us? We all know that post-baptism life is not perfect or worry free. We need only look around or, perhaps, look in the mirror to see evidence of this. As it has been said many times before, the old sinner in us may be drowned but Adam and Eve are good swimmers. Each day we may remember that we are recipients of the gift of baptism and are able to follow Jesus rather than following in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. So what does it mean here and now? What does this baptized life look like?
It looks like brothers and sisters in Christ living and working together in the name of Jesus, gathering to study the word of God in the scriptures each week. It looks like reaching out to those in need in this community and even around the world, giving and caring when there is a need and loving when there is a hurt. It looks like giving of the time and special gifts that God has given each of us for the betterment of the lives of others. It looks like quilts made with loving hands to ward off the winter cold, extra time spent working hard for someone else’s sake when one would rather be watching TV at home, a listening ear on the phone or over lunch. It also looks like failing at every one of these things and more but being reminded by friends, in worship, in scripture and prayer that we are baptized children of God and as such we try again. It looks like being fed on the body and blood of Christ at the table and being strengthened for this life. It looks like loving others because we have been filled, even drenched, in the love of God.
Living this baptized life gives us the courage and strength to live a life filled with the Holy Spirit and marked by the Cross of Christ and it guides us into areas we may never have dreamed we would go. Areas like ordained ministry, service on a church council, assisting at the altar during communion, leading the people of God in song. It makes us courageous enough to admit our sins and mistakes and ask for forgiveness, as well as making us brave enough to forgive others. It makes it possible for us to reach out to a stranger in need, be a role model for others, invite someone else to church, share our faith journey with someone else and help them remember their baptism when they may have forgotten just how loved by God they really are.
Where is God calling you? Where is God calling us at Shepherd of the Hills? What are the new ways Jesus will lead us in the coming months and years as we walk together in this baptized life? Jesus calls us to follow him into those waters and it is and will be amazing to see where he will lead us next.