Even for Jesus, baptism is a lot more than just a little water poured over the head.
One of my favorite baptism memories involves a little boy who was about 6. His parents had waited until he was old enough to speak for himself. They had brought their son to practice the day before, so he could see the font and stand on the little footstool next to it. On the morning of his baptism, when I asked him if he wanted to be baptized, he said yes. As he bent his little head over the font, something happened. He looked up at me and said quite loudly: This is the best day of my life. The entire church heard him!
All by himself, that child is a good argument for waiting a few years to baptize our children. It is the best day of our life – and so often we do not remember that!
We have in today’s gospel reading a fine example of the baptism-driven life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus steps into the water of the River Jordan and everything changes.
In the gospel stories, there is little mention of Jesus’ childhood. It was probably quite normal. He was fully human, so he was probably a regular kid. Measles, potty training, etc. In the eyes of the people who witnessed his baptism, Jesus was just another Jewish man accepting baptism for purification from sins.
(We can make a mental note that the possibility of Jesus bring baptized for his sins was a serious issue in the first two centuries after the Resurrection – and that is a sermon for another day!)
But for Jesus, this is not just a baptism. It is the beginning of the most important work of his life. It is the beginning of the vocation of which he must have known for a while, if there is any truth to the gospel story of his remaining for three days in the Temple with the priests after his parents left Jerusalem. A twelve year old Jesus called the Temple his Father’s house.
Today’s gospel describes Jesus’ experience after his baptism. Jesus sees a dove descending on him – the Holy Spirit in a physical form. (The Spirit is not an abstraction in this gospel). And Jesus hears the voice of God telling him You are my Beloved – with you I am well pleased. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, there is no indication that anyone else hears this – the words are directed to Jesus. He hears them during prayer.
It was the best day of his life. Suddenly everything was clear.
What Jesus knows, sees, and hears changes everything. His public ministry begins, driven by the knowledge that is confirmed by his baptism.
What would change in our lives if we had such a dramatic and wonderful memory of our baptism? Instead of a few fading photographs, what would happen if we remembered that God reached out to us as beloved children, and the Holy Spirit descended on us to empower and strengthen us?
It might be like being Mom’s favorite, but infinitely better. Because the love of God is infinite, we are each the Beloved without having to compete for attention. As deeply loved children, we can know that we are beloved – irrevocably, without exception, for ever – and we are able to do great and wonderful things in the name of the God, who has adopted us through the pouring of water.
All this language of love, adoption, and power is not metaphorical. It is very real. Sacraments are real and effective actions that bring the power of God into our human lives. Baptism changes us. It is not just a cultural rite of passage or a relic of ancient times. It is a moment when we are marked as part of God’s Communion of Saints. It is a moment when we are made part of the Body of Christ. People who follow Jesus Christ are different creatures, called to live a baptism-driven life.
We have a young friend in Michigan, who was still in school when he realized that his baptism had made a difference in his life. Paul was a regular sort of guy, balancing classes at the state university and part time work. He managed to squeeze in some time for volunteer work, also. He tutored kids in the after school program and collected food for the local food bank. Finally one of his teachers asked him if he were a Christian. Paul was taken aback, largely because he never spoke of his private life in school. He wanted to forge his own identity separate from his mother’s religious devotion. He was doing good things because they meant something to him. His teacher was a Muslim man from Pakistan. How did he now? It was then that Paul realized that he had his own relationship with God and his own sort of ministries. When he finally admitted to his teacher that he went to a Christian church, the teacher smiled. I knew it! I knew you had to be a Christian. You Christian kids are different!
Baptism is a lot more than just a little water poured over the head.
What would change if we could hear the words of God whispered in our ear – you are my Beloved – with you I am pleased – as we renew our baptismal promises? Imagine coming to see our true identity and vocation – through the eyes of God. Imagine living a baptism-driven life: commissioned to continue the ministry that Jesus began. Imagine what that would mean in this parish and in the world.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on January 13, 2019, for the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. The readings for the day, which can be found here, were:
- Isaiah 43:1-7
- Psalm 29
- Acts 8:14-17
- Luke 3:15-17, 21-22