Text: Matthew 3:1-17
In our scripture this morning, Jesus goes to John out in the wilderness and asks to be baptized. This text is full of meaning, and it’s an especially appropriate scripture for us, because – why? We are Baptists, and our name comes from the rite of baptism. “Baptist” was actually a pejorative term – a putdown - given to these separatist churches that arose in England insisting on baptism for believers – those old enough to know what they were doing. The word Baptist stuck and was taken as more or less a badge of honor.
Since it is in our name and our history, we might as well talk about baptism every once in a while.
A number of years ago there was an Ollie class – that’s life-long learning at Iowa State – about different congregations in town. Each week the class visited a different place of worship and one week they were here at our church. I talked about our church and tried to make it interesting, I even had a Who Want to be a Millionaire segment with questions about Baptists, but I was losing the crowd. I was bombing. There was a short break, and when we came back together I was in the baptistry and talked about baptism. And suddenly, people were really engaged. They found it fascinating and I thought, “Maybe we will be more interesting than the Lutherans after all.”
You may have noticed that we have the curtains open on the baptistry today as we think about baptism – Jesus’ baptism as well as our own.
Some of you were baptized here in this church. For some, that may have been quite a few years ago. We actually have one member, Pat Johnson, who was baptized in the old church downtown. Some of you have been here early on a Sunday morning, filling the baptistry with water. Some of you have been present to assist baptismal candidates get in and out of the water. And I imagine that a good number of you have never seen the inside of our baptistry.
We actually have a huge baptismal pool. The architect made it much larger than it would need to be – we could have big old hot tub parties in there.
John did not have a nice hot tub sized indoor heated baptistry. He baptized in the Jordan River. And I suspect there are those of you here who were not baptized indoors either. How many were baptized in a creek or lake or river or ocean –or even a swimming pool?
It is a bit more domesticated and certainly easier when you have indoor plumbing. I remember John and Elaine Anderson talking about breaking the ice in winter to have a baptism in northern Minnesota. Fred and Dianne Borgen may have some of those memories as well. But the fact is that wherever you do it, in the Jordan River or a Minnesota creek or here at First Baptist, it is still a bit odd. As a testimony to our faith in Jesus, we get dunked in a pool of water while friends and family watch in anticipation. Someone who wasn’t familiar with the idea would surely scratch their heads and ask, “What’s up with that?”
What is up with that? Maybe a good place to start is Jesus’ baptism.
We are now in the gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, and we will be in Matthew through Easter. But to step back just a bit, the very last words of the Old Testament, right before Matthew, come from the prophet Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” A cheery way to end a book, right?
The gospel of Matthew begins with genealogies, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod. And then Matthew skips ahead in time - nothing about Jesus’ childhood or adolescence. The next thing we know, here comes John the Baptist. John fulfills the role of Elijah, the one who would be sent ahead. He is in the mold of a wild Old Testament prophet, out in the wilderness.
John does not have an especially comforting message. Like the prophets of old, he calls down judgment. “You brood of vipers! … even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”
To be honest, it doesn’t seem like this would be all that popular. And yet, everybody wants to come out to see him. Even members of the establishment, folks with power and position came for baptism – and John confronts them with judgment. But here is the thing: while John comes across as this wild-eyed prophet, wearing camel skins, eating honey and locusts, and giving these turn-or-burn sermons, his message is actually reasonable and doable. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What counts is the way you live. Righteousness is not about historical identity or the group you belong to, but about the way you live your life in relationship to God.
John calls for repentance. A call to repentance can be heard as a harsh demand to change. (And if you are called a brood of vipers, I guess that does add to the harshness.) But a call to repentance can also be heard as an invitation. Repentance can be not just a turning away, but a turning toward. “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance is not just leaving behind the past, leaving behind our sin, not just changing our ways, it is claiming and moving toward a new future – toward God’s coming reign. Baptism is a symbol of that new life.
So the crowds come to hear John, many are baptized, and then Jesus himself comes to John for baptism. This is puzzling for John. “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he says. But Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is baptized to show us what righteousness is like, and in his baptism he identifies completely with us in our need and in our humanity.
The passage ends not in judgment and not in fire, but with love and affirmation. The Spirit descends and there is the voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
What exactly is God pleased with? Jesus has not actually done anything, not yet. He has simply been baptized, and God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Baptism has to do with who we are – with our identity as beloved children of God. Following Jesus in baptism is a choice we make, but it is not about anything that we have earned.
John’s baptism was not exactly the same as Christian baptism, but it certainly anticipates it. As practiced in the New Testament, baptism is for those who have accepted God’s gift of grace and chosen for themselves to follow Christ. As Paul describes it, it is a symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.
I know that many of you grew up in other traditions – some of you were baptized as infants and then at a later point professed your own faith in Christ. We actually have folks who have come from a lot of different traditions in our church and we honor and celebrate those different traditions. Whether you were baptized in a Baptist church or Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Christian Church or Catholic, in all of these various traditions, baptism is a sign of God’s grace and God’s claim on us as beloved children.
Jesus’ baptism points out for us a dimension of faith that we need to take seriously, and that is, authentic, vital faith is both individual and communal. It is deeply personal, but it also happens in community and involves the community.
At his baptism, Jesus decides for himself that this is the path he will follow. And as he rises from the water, there is a voice from heaven: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
And yet, it happens in community. Jesus doesn’t go to John after business hours, he goes like everyone else; he goes with the crowds to the Jordan River where John is doing his thing and he is baptized in the midst of all of those who have come to be baptized by John.
Faith is deeply personal for all of us. We cannot scoot by on our parents’ faith or our church’s faith or anyone else’s faith: it has to be our own. And God says to each of us, even as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved child.” At the same time, we are baptized into the Church, into a community of faith made of those flawed, imperfect, yes, sinful people who are seeking together to follow Jesus.
The Church is a community where we encourage one another and challenge one another and support one another and teach one another, a place where we remind each other who we are – God’s beloved children.
Baptism isn’t magic – it doesn’t transform a person just by virtue of getting wet. The faith that is present and the commitment that is made and more than that, God’s love and grace toward us are what really matters.
There is something very powerful about entering the waters of baptism as people have over the centuries, back to Jesus himself. There is something about having the waters wash over you and experiencing this very tangible sign that we have been made clean, that we have risen to new life. As we seek to follow Jesus, we follow his example in the act of baptism.
I happened upon a news story a while back. It was about a Baptist church in Oklahoma. The pastor is seen in a video of a worship service telling off a member who has fallen asleep before chastising another member for missing services. He says to this second man – in a sermon – “I noticed on the calendar I’m supposed to marry you all. What makes you think I would marry you? You’re one of the sorriest church members I have. You’re not worth 15 cents.”
Well, you see why this caught my attention. This was said in a sermon, captured on video, and what was most shocking is that the church actually put it online.
The pastor’s comments were just unfathomable. He later defended his words as a kind of “tough love.” I didn’t buy it. This was miles and miles from the spirit of Jesus.
No, God says to each of us, you are my beloved child. You are of great value. You are so important and I love you so much that I took on human flesh. In Isaiah, we have God’s words, “Do not be afraid, I have called you by name, I have redeemed you, you are mine.”
Of course, we are not perfect. Of course, we fall short. But God loves us and offers us grace and invites us to make new beginnings. God sees us as beloved children.
And that, really, is what baptism is about. Following the one who loves us. Which means that as Christians, we spend our lives living out our baptisms – following in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Saturday, January 7, 2023
“You Are Mine” - January 8, 2023
Text: Matthew 3:1-17