Sunday, January 11th, 2015 – The First Sunday of the Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 40:1-3, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
Hymns: “Shall We Gather at the River”, “Spirit of the Living God”, “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove”, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”
“Like a Dove Descending”
So as it turns out, baptism is pretty important in the Christian church. Almost every expression of Christianity practices it in one form or another. Whether through sprinkling or immersion, whether as a baby, a child, or an adult, whether in the form of child christening or baptism of believers, you will be hard-pressed to find a modern, mainstream denomination that doesn’t have some form of baptism as part of its structure of worship.
And its significance plays out well beyond the ceremony itself. Look in almost any hymnal, and you’re bound to find somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty different hymns that are somehow related to baptism. It plays a significant role in contemporary music both secular and religious, from Big & Rich’s “Holy Water”, to Needtobreathe’s “Washed by the Water”, to Alison Krauss’ cover of the spiritual “Down in the River to Pray”. Baptism, as a ritual, has become a representative symbol for the idea of being washed clean of sin, of regret, of one’s checkered past, in circles that extend well beyond the walls of the church.
That’s exactly how it functions for us as Disciples of Christ. We look at baptism as a public symbol that a person has confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and wishes to be reborn to new life. It’s an option, not a requirement, and when somebody decides to be baptized, we make sure that they understand that they should only do it because they want to – they don’t have to do it to be a member of the church or to receive God’s gift of grace through Christ.
The thing is, even when people don’t HAVE to, they very often WANT to. You see, for so many, it’s not just that public symbol – it’s significant for their own personal lives, as well. They go under the water, and they come back up, symbolically cleansed of all that happened in their past, born from beneath the waves of their sin into the new world found in life with Christ.
So then, let’s consider the baptism of Jesus Himself. Here we have the Son of God, God incarnate, human but sinless in nature. Jesus obviously had no sins from which He needed cleansing. He did not need the salvation that His own death and resurrection would later give. He did not need to be reborn from a life of mistakes and regrets to a new one. So, why did Jesus choose to get baptized?
For the same reason that any disciple would, of course.
Let’s start by considering this: Jesus was himself, at one point, a disciple. The term doesn’t refer exclusively to the followers of Christ, but rather to those who follow and learn from another. Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist. John had been preaching and teaching in the countryside for years before Jesus’ ministry began. Jesus, being John’s cousin, would’ve likely followed him as he taught the people, watching the way he worked, learning how to teach and preach, learning how to effectively connect with the people. And you might say, “He was God! He knew all things!”, and true though that may have been, there is a difference between KNOWLEDGE and SKILL. Just because Jesus was the sinless earthly incarnation of God didn’t mean he automatically knew how to rile up a crowd with His preaching – that’s the kind of thing that a person has to LEARN.
And He couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than John. John, who had wandered the countryside for years proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John, who had called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”. John, who told the people of Israel that just because Abraham was their forebear didn’t mean that their ancestry would save them from God’s wrath. John, who prophesied of one to come who would baptize with the Spirit. John, who proclaimed that he was not worthy to untie the sandal of the one whose way he had come to prepare. John, who riled up so much trouble that King Herod eventually had him arrested and subsequently executed.
That’s the kind of person who attracts followers as he wanders the countryside. And Jesus would’ve been among them. He knew who John was – John was His cousin, after all. John was the miracle child, his birth predicted by the angel Gabriel, foretold as the one who would be Isaiah’s “voice crying in the wilderness.” Jesus knew that John was the one who had come to prepare the people for His own ministry.
And you better believe that John knew exactly who Jesus was, too. The rest of his followers didn’t, but John knew. He was Jesus’ cousin just as much as Jesus was his. They almost certainly would’ve heard the stories about each other’s miraculous conception and birth. And when Jesus decided He wanted to be baptized, according to the account of the story in the gospel of Matthew, John said to him, “I need to be baptized by YOU, and you come to ME?!”
John didn’t think that he was any more fit to baptize Jesus than the rest of us would be. He recognized Jesus for who and what He was, and insisted that Jesus needed to baptize him. “No,” Jesus said, “this is what is proper.”
This is what is proper. Jesus recognized that He needed to be baptized, but why?
Probably in part because that was what custom dictated, but largely because it was HIS public sign. This was His public sign that He was embracing His calling, His ministry. This was His public sign that He was no longer the disciple, but was now the teacher. This was His public sign that Emmanuel was no longer the by now thirty year old story of the baby in the manger, but that God-with-us was actually walking among the people of Israel, preaching to them, teaching them, and preparing them to be about His work as fishers of men.
You know, I don’t remember much about my baptism. It was twenty-five years ago, in 1990, and I was in second grade. What I DO remember is that the baptistery was ridiculously cold. Let me tell you right now, on Easter Sunday, when Maverick and whichever other of our children decide to go through baptism class get baptized, I will PERSONALLY be making sure that whoever fills the baptistery fills it with WARM water.
Although, I will admit, the Jordan River was probably pretty chilly when Jesus got baptized.
But I digress.
The other thing I remember about my baptism is that after worship that Sunday morning, I was repeatedly congratulated and “welcomed” by the older folks at the church. As an eight year old, I didn’t have the first clue what on earth they were going on about. “Welcomed”? I’d been in church every Sunday morning for who knew how long, didn’t they know that?
Of course, I understand now. It was their way of saying welcome to new life in Christ. And it was a welcome that was repeated again when I was ordained, when I was installed as minister of this congregation, and when I was married. Acceptance into life with Christ is an ongoing process, not a one-time thing.
And though Jesus was Himself the very person whose teachings were at the root of the faith we as Christians practice today, He too received His own sort of welcome immediately after His baptism – the skies opened, and the Spirit of God descended in the form of a dove. “THIS IS MY SON, WITH WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED,” a voice sounded from heaven. This was no less than God, proclaiming the true nature of this man who had just been baptized by His cousin, sounding throughout the land the beginning of Jesus Christ’s own new life.
For Jesus, too, this would be repeated at times throughout His life, in different ways. When He stood on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured, the same voice spoke the same words as Moses and Elijah appeared to anoint Jesus. When He died on the cross, the earth shook, and the veil in the temple ripped, removing the barrier between God and man – the very barrier Jesus had come to take down. When He rose from the dead, the earth shook again, and an angel of God appeared to proclaim the resurrected Christ to those of His followers who came seeking Him.
And so, when we practice baptism today, it is really for the same reason that Jesus did. We don’t HAVE to be baptized – all we’re doing is going underwater to create a public symbol. And yet, it is such an important thing – it’s an acknowledgment both by us and by the communities in which we live that our lives have changed and will never again be the same.
We are God’s beloved children, and with us, God is very well pleased. May the symbol of our baptism be one that continues to inform our lives for all time.