But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”
– Matthew 3:15
(Preached on Sunday, January 8, 2017)
The husband of the new minister opened the door of their home one Saturday afternoon. The young couple that greeted him giggled a little and then said, “We were having a party with the folks next door, and they said a lady reverend lived here. We thought it’d be kinda sweet if she could pop over and baptize our baby.” The lady reverend’s husband tried to explain that baptism was a very serious business, but he could tell they weren’t really listening. “If you’d like to leave me your phone number, I’m sure she will call you to arrange a time when you could come and talk about your child’s baptism.” “Nah,” they said. “No sweat. We just thought it’d be cute.”
What do we expect when we baptize someone? Or when we ourselves are baptized? Now, I’m sure none of us would approach any baptism as just something that is “kinda sweet” and “cute.” But I know we have baptized infants because it was primarily something which Mom or Dad or Abuela wanted done.
But beyond that, do we ever expect that the heavens will be torn open by the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove or a voice heard from the heavens? Do we ever think that what we are doing as a gathered people is announcing to the world God’s view of the newly baptized person as a beloved child of God? Do we ever think about the long-term impact of this momentary act of baptism? Jesus’ baptism was the inauguration of his public ministry, of proclaiming the good news of God’s love and acceptance and spreading God’s healing presence. Do we, too, regard baptism as an ordination of sorts, creating a call to the vocation not just of lay ministry but of proclamation of the good news of God’s love and of healing?
Baptism is not just a once and for all time, mission accomplished sort of action. Yes, the moment of baptism is a saving moment, but it is not a destination. Baptism is a beginning. It is a recognition and celebration of God’s love and forgiveness in our lives. It is also a moment of change – not a once and for all time change – but the setting of our lives on a new path. It is the first step on a journey of transformation.
That is what baptism was for Jesus and that is what baptism is for each and every one of us. Immediately after this story in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is lead into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and experiences great temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he is. Undoubtedly it was by remembering his baptism and the message he received through that event of God’s presence and blessing that he was able to confront those temptations successfully.
It is said of Martin Luther, the great Reformation leader, that when he grew anxious and struggled through the lonely months of his safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle and that he would remember his baptism. “I am baptized,” he would scribble on his desktop. Notice he did not say “I was baptized,” remember a ritual from a distant past, but “I AM baptized,” affirming that God works in us continually by the Holy Spirit.
It is good that it is God working in us by the Holy Spirit tobring about the transformation of our lives, because it is such a difficult process. The level of transformation God intends is way beyond anything we can remotely bring about in our own lives. United Church of Christ pastor and author Matt Fitzgerald begins to get at the true extent of this transformation God has in mind for us and for the world in a Stillspeaking Devotional published yesterday. He reflects on the transformation suggested by the beautiful vision of Isaiah 11:6 which describes “the wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid.” He points out the complete irony of a “vegetarian leopard.” “Remove her hunger and who is she?” He suggests she “is like a sophisticated liberal who loves Ted Nugent.” He continues that “God wants coastal progressives to dance down the aisle of a heartland Wal-Mart singing ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ with anti-choice evangelicals who think global warming is a hoax.” Could you do that and still be you? is the question. So often our vision of heaven and peace is of something as bland as “toothless, harmless anthems written by Kenny G.” (No I like Kenny G, but I have to admit that there are times I prefer to listen to George Strait, Alabama, and Brad Paisley.) That is because we assume God must fit our categories. But God is wholly other. That is what Jesus came to show us: just how radical is God’s love and God’s vision for the world.
God doesn’t fit our categories. She upends them! We resist, because as theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has made plain: “How will I know who I am without my enemies?” We should ponder that question because God is going to make leopards vegetarians. Which means radical, limitless transformation such as only God can bring about. It means change so profound that the categories we use to define ourselves break down.
That is why baptism is a necessary first step in that transformation. It is because baptism is an act of obedience. John is out there baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sin and suddenly there stands Jesus, waiting to be baptized. John is so surprised that he blurts out, “I need to be baptized by you!” But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” This is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus speaks. That makes this a very important statement. It sets the tone for the entire gospel story. When Jesus speaks, he speaks about his obedience to God’s plans.
By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is showing the entire world the movement towards life in God’s realm – a downward submission to the will of God. This is an especially difficult idea for us, as citizens of the United States of America in the 21st century, to wrap our minds around. If there is one value we all agree upon it is freedom. We cherish, zealously guard, and exercise our freedom. So it is difficult for us that Matthew’s gospel opens not with a declaration of freedom, or might, or power, but with an act of obedience and submission. Instead of Jesus coming into the world with power and might, in such a way that convinces the world that God is supremely powerful and in control, we see Jesus willingly getting down in the water, standing knee deep in the Jordan with the rest of us human beings. To be divine is here defined as submission, obedience. Jesus’ baptism is a sign of his total, complete linkage to the will of God – to the fulfillment of God’s plans for the world.
So, if we are going to take our own baptisms’ seriously then we must understand that, because of our baptism, we are no longer our own. We belong to another. We belong, body and soul, heart and mind, to God. As such, God’s will should be the most important thing in our lives – more than our will, more than our families, our children, our spouse, our company or job or business, our political party, our alma mater, even our nation. IN our baptism we have been claimed by God as children of God and brothers and sisters to one another. That is our identity, and it is “sealed by the Holy Spirit.
That identity brings with it privilege and responsibility. The privilege is to know, just as Jesus knew, that we are “beloved of God” and God is pleased with us. The privilege is to know the affirmation of God in our own hearts and lives.
The responsibility is to seek to submit our lives, emptied of all our wants and desires, selfishness and greed, fears and prejudices, so that we are able to be filled with grace. The responsibility is to a life of obedience, taking seriously the teachings of Jesus and allowing those teachings to bring about in us the transformation of our identities and our lives that God desires.
None of this is easy. Such a radical transformation as it appears God desires for us is scary. But it is not impossible, because we have Jesus to show us the way and because we know we are truly beloved of God. The absolute best thing we can ever know in life is that we have lived in such a way that it brings God great pleasure. Remember, “You are baptized!” Take it seriously and please God.