January 8, 2017
“Remember Your Baptism”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
What do we do with the baptism of Jesus?
This is question followers of Jesus have been asking basically since it happened. Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe it happening in very similar terms. John doesn’t say it outright but the details are very familiar.
The accounts go something like this: Jesus comes from Nazareth to John the Baptist, his cousin and a man he would have known his whole life, where John is baptizing in the Jordan River and he is baptized by John.
And something remarkable and miraculous happens, something that sets this moment apart, a moment of revelation where the sky changes colors and there is a movement of wind and wings, and God’s voice is heard, and God’s Spirit is seen, and God’s Son is in the water.
It is a Trinitarian moment, and therefore a mysterious moment.
And everyone who writes about Jesus’ life feels that this moment is very important to include in his biography.
But Matthew struggles with this moment.
Why does Jesus need to be baptized? If Jesus is the greater and John is the lesser, why does John baptize Jesus rather than the other way around?
If Jesus is the sinless Son of God, why enter the water at all if baptism is for the forgiveness of sins which is what John was shouting all over the wilderness.
Matthew includes a conversation between John and Jesus.
John wants to halt the baptism but Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus is saying that this temporary and a way to faithfully submit to God’s will.
What do we do with the baptism of Jesus?
If his baptism is not about the forgiveness of his sins, then what is it about?
Some theologians suggest that Jesus’ baptism is an act of solidarity with us, broken and sinful humanity.
We pass through the waters of baptism, and so did Jesus.
We need cleansing and rebirth and so Jesus walked that path as well.
Or perhaps Jesus was demonstrating a practice for us that would become bedrock for the Christian faith.
As Jesus did, so we continue to do to this day.
Or perhaps there was something more.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan points out that John was not baptizing in any old pool of water; he was baptizing in the Jordan River which carries with it memories and history and the longing for freedom for Israel from the oppression of the Romans.
The story of the Israelites arriving on the soil beneath their feet begins in the Exodus out of Egypt, through the parting of the Red Sea, the wandering in the wilderness and finally crossing the Jordan River into a new land, home at last.
The crowds who were coming to the river were longing for one thing: for change.
John was telling them to come to river and change their lives. Repent, he told them, literally turn yourself around and change direction in your life.
Change direction and go back to God.
Change was in the water – cleansing and rebirth and new life and forgiveness were in the water.
Change was in the water – that water represented a desire for the world to change – for the oppressors to be overthrown, for God’s kingdom to come, for justice and peace, for the poor to be lifted up, for restitution, for healing of the nation.
And we know what it feels like to long for change.
We long for a change in the world.
We long for a change in our nation.
We make resolutions this time of year because we feel like something has to change.
The Wednesday women’s faith study is reading a book called ‘A Year Without Purchase” and the author begins by telling the story of how he and his wife were both working long hours and longing for something different.
So they quit their jobs and sold their cars and house, and went to serve as yearlong missionaries in Guatemala with the PCUSA’s young adult volunteer program.
That was a change and it was life-changing.
Then they returned back to jobs and to have kids and the change faded away, as change has a habit of doing.
But the longing for change returned.
The author writes how he and his wife realized their lives became defined by their schedules and their possessions.
So they decided to try to change their lives to be defined by God, rather than by things (we just started the book so I can’t tell you yet how the story ends).
Jesus enters the waters of change to be baptized by John, perhaps not for the forgiveness of sins, but for something else entirely.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe a moment where God is heard and seen. God says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It was a moment of revelation, something Jesus needed to hear, something that told him who he was and what was most important.
Baptism is full of meaning.
For a baby, baptism is a promise that God’s grace always goes before us, that this baby is loved by God before he or she learns to say “I love you” back.
Baptism is dying and rising with Christ – a complete change of life.
Baptism is being washed clean, representing a complete change in our state before God.
Baptism is adoption into God’s family, marked as Christ’s own forever, a complete change in our identity.
This kind of change stays with us all our lives, but we need to remind ourselves of our baptism.
When I was in seminary there was a story told about a professor who used to splash in puddles on rainy days, shouting “Remember your baptism.”
This works with all kinds of water. Remember your baptism in the bathtub or shower, when you wash your face or hands. Remember that you are beloved, you belong to God, God is well-pleased with you.
Jesus enters into the water of baptism and is given identity and purpose.
And I think what I find compelling is that he needed to be told these things.
He needed to be told that he belonged to God.
He needed to be told that God loved him.
He needed to be told that he was God’s servant, that he would serve humbly in God’s name.
He didn’t simply know these things.
And we don’t simply know these things.
We do not always know where we belong and we do not always know who we are and we do not always know what we are supposed to do with our lives or how we are supposed to live.
I sometimes catch the podcast “On Being” on my way to church on Sunday mornings, and one morning Alain de Botton was being interviewed.
He is what I would call an “appreciative atheist.”
Alain’s Jewish family wanted nothing to do with religion after the horrors of World War II, and so he grew up believing that religion was not only wrong but stupid, and then he had a crisis of faith of sorts, and he has become appreciative of religion.
And he says that secular society might lead us to believe that all we really need to learn is things like reading and writing and arithmetic, but that we don’t need to learn how to live because how to live is fairly obvious, along the lines of: “All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, all these easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.”
So Alain says that the fascinating starting point of Christianity is that it starts from the idea that we don’t know how to live, that we start out imperfect and that only God is perfect, and so to make our way through our lives we need to seek something outside ourselves, we need to seek God’s revelation, in Jesus Christ, in scripture, in God’s community lived out in the church.
Jesus sought God and found revelation in the waters of baptism, he found identity and meaning and purpose in the waters of baptism, and so do we.
In baptism we are reminded to seek God and to know God, and in so doing we will learn what it means to truly live.
So remember your baptism, friends.