As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Compared to the experience of Jesus, my own baptism was rather ho-hum. The biblical description reads like the best of Hollywood special effects. As Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and God voices approval!
When I was baptized as a 23-year-old, I wasn’t expecting magic. Though I did not rent a fog machine, strobe light, a mechanical dove or hire Morgan Freeman to speak as the voice of God, I did have a small unspoken hope that I would somehow feel different. It was a lovely experience. The pastor said a nice blessing and sprinkled so little water that my 90s politician hair wasn’t even messed up. My family had a lovely brunch after, but not a single dove descended. On Monday morning, I took the 38 bus to work and journeyed down the long hallway to my cubicle at One Market. I had the same stack of projects, the same bills to pay, and as many questions as ever.
Today we’ll consider why in the world baptism matters. On the church calendar that many congregations including Calvary often follow, today is considered “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. While Epiphany is the day the church remembers the magi or kings visiting the infant Jesus, today we mark the official start of his ministry as an adult.
The origin of baptism pre-dates Christianity. From the basic desire to wash, to Jewish rituals of purification and conversion, some versions of baptism have been practiced for millennia. The focus often seems to be on washing away of sins or salvation. This led to some questionable behavior. In the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE, Constantine, considered the first “Christian” Emperor of the Roman Empire, waited to be baptized until just before his death. Though he was a key to the spread of Christianity in his time and the cross became a symbol of victory under his reign, Constantine was not a nice dude. He was ruthless, even ordering the execution of his eldest son, his second wife, and his brother-in-law. Constantine was baptized—at the end of his life—because it was not believed that one could be forgiven after baptism. Some religious leaders endorsed this practice because public duties required dirty work (and likely because they knew they would be executed as well).
Though not prevalent, a sense of baptism as guarantee of salvation is alive and well today. Every once in a while, I receive an urgent call or e-mail. The most frequent caller is a new mother, who has just been called by her grandmother or mother-in-law, who has lost sleep worrying about whether the new baby is “saved” because he has not been baptized. I try to calm the nerves by saying what I believe with all of my heart. If something terrible were to happen to your baby, no God that I could worship would condemn your child because some pastor hadn’t sprinkled water on him yet.
Whether or not a pastor has baptized us does not mean we are any holier than anyone else. When we baptize babies, we proclaim that God loves us before we even know how to respond. Whether you are 8 or 23 or 101, God loves you too. Baptism is not a magic ritual.
So why do we bother with baptism?
If Jesus was the Son of God and did not need to have sins washed away, why did he insist on being baptized by some guy named John who wore a hairy shirt and ate locusts?
When it comes to baptism, there are entire books and enough material for several weeks’ worth of sermons. Today I will focus on three aspects that applied to Jesus and to us.
At the most basic level, baptism can be understood as an outward sign and seal. Zwingli, the leader of the reformation in Switzerland around 1500, (and one of the leaders on the paintings in the chapel at Calvary) argued that baptism was a sign of a promise, a covenant. As circumcision was the sign of the old covenant, baptism marked the new. When Jesus came for his baptism, he was embodying the promise, but wanted to be clear it wasn’t solely about him. This is linked to why we typically require membership for people of any age to be baptized. The sacrament of baptism is about a covenant made in community. When it’s a baby, the congregation is promising to support the child and family as the young person grows and asks questions and makes faith her own. Adults are promising to be part of the community, and grow in faith together.
John the Baptist was a charismatic guy with quite a following of his own. In fact, he was considered so powerful that King Herod later arrested and executed him. At the time he was at the river baptizing, many were placing their bets that John was the messiah who would restore Israel to prominence. John understood that his job was to prepare the way. Part of the reason the scene in Scripture is so moving is that both John and Jesus are acknowledging that greater power is required. Jesus humbled himself, and modeled the action required of us.
Drawing from Karl Barth (considered one of the great theologians of the 20th century), Lee Barrett of Lancaster Theological Seminary explains, “God’s claiming of Jesus in this story summarizes the essence of the gospel: the astonishing claim that God does not will to remain hidden in the heights of heaven but descends to the depths of earthly life in order to be seen and heard by us finite creatures.”
While God certainly is a mystery beyond our ability to full comprehend, our Creator does not wish to remain a distant domineering figure in the sky. The humble birth of Jesus is the opposite introduction one would have expected for anyone important. The baptism of Jesus carries the theme of humility into his adulthood. Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are not alone. We are not forsaken, but sometimes it can be hard to feel God’s presence.
Whether you are new to the church or have been around a long while, it is important to remember what happens after the baptism of Jesus. After the amazing event, the very next line of Scripture says: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12). It doesn’t appear that Jesus went to a nice brunch or anything. He went into the desert of the world, tempted to choose power, prestige and privilege over God.
Jesus refused, accepting the humble road all the way to the cross.
The true power of baptism isn’t power in the worldly sense—it’s transformation. As we humble ourselves, covenant with each other in community, and experience the presence of God, we are equipped to face the realities and temptations of the world.
Thinking back to my own baptism and the reality that I didn’t feel as different as I hoped initially, I must warn you: this transformation business takes time and can disrupt your life in ways you won’t always love. You will be called to take selfless risks for others in Christ’s name, but you won’t do it alone.
If you or your children have not been baptized, I would be honored to meet with you and discuss the possibility of following this step modeled by Christ.
In any case, I invite everyone here today into a time of silent reflection to remember the meaning of baptism, and to ask for God’s guidance as we navigate life’s deserts . . .
 John W. Riggs, Baptism in the Reformed Tradition: a Historical and Practical Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 23-24.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, ed. G.W Bromley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1958), 167, referenced by Lee Barrett in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown Bartlett, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 239-40.