I had a lot of comments before I even preached this sermon. It’s amazing how vividly people remember their baptisms. Do you remember yours?
SCRIPTURE – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with[c] water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
“Remember Your Baptism?”
Jan. 10, 2010
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
I remember the first baptism I performed as a student minister. It was for Billy, who was a member of my junior high youth group. I’m sure there was something good about Billy, but I had trouble finding it. He was the kind of kid that when he sat in the back pew during worship church, you knew trouble was brewing. Billy was not really into church, he only came to youth because his parents made him, and he was a constant thorn in my flesh. Based on his behavior there, I think God was using Billy to prove to me that there really is a Devil.
And yet, when the time came, much to my surprise, Billy presented himself for baptism. He came into the water and placed himself in front of me, and after I made up a few nice things to say about him, I slowly lowered Billy into the water. What a wonderful opportunity for me to teach Billy the love of Christ! Moved by what I’m sure was the Holy Spirit, I held Billy under there for just a few seconds longer, figuring God needed the extra time to do some work. I’m happy to report Billy is now an Eagle Scout and is going to college on full scholarship. I’d like to think those few extra seconds had something to do with that.
Does baptism have that kind of power? Can it change an evil spirit into an Eagle Scout? Baptism is one of the most meaningful and controversial practices of the Christian church. There are multiple understandings of when to do it, how to do it, and what it means when it’s done. The Bible is crystal clear in some areas and frustratingly vague in others. Our own denominational tradition has tried to sort things out, but we are still left with widely different views that serve to distinguish between different kinds of Christians instead of uniting them together.
Our denomination practices a specific type of baptism called “baptism by immersion,” which means we hold people under water until they give their lives to Christ. But we accept and recognize all forms of baptism. I’m really thankful for that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you as your pastor, because I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church.
That’s always been a bit of sore spot for me. My struggle started when I went to a friend’s baptism while growing up. After his baptism, the preacher invited everyone to come forward to the baptismal. He then dipped his hand in the waters and made the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads, and quoted Martin Luther’s line: “Remember your baptism, and be glad.” And that upset me, because I couldn’t remember my baptism, and I felt cheated out of this important experience. I wanted to give my life to Christ, I wanted to make the conscious choice to believe, but that decision had been made for me, and there was nothing for me to remember.
You may have been baptized as an infant, too. Or maybe you were baptized after a Pastor’s Class or as an adult. Or maybe you haven’t been baptized at all. If that’s the case, let’s talk. Because the more I have studied and thought about baptism, the more I have learned the significance of what Jesus did that day in the Jordan and what it represents for us.
A good question to ask with this passage is, “Why did this happen in the first place?” If one of the predominant understandings of baptism is that it cleanses us of our sins, and the essence of Jesus’ humanity was sinlessness, then why did he need to be baptized? As John says to him in Matthew’s version of this story, “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around!”
But Jesus did need to be baptized, although maybe not for the same reasons as you and me. In our denomination we don’t talk a lot about sacraments because that sounds a bit too Catholic. But we do observe two sacraments: communion and baptism. We understand a sacrament to be an outward expression of an inward belief. So, when we come to the communion table, we are simply taking what we believe inwardly (our faith in Christ as our savior) and expressing it outwardly through the symbols of the bread and the cup. Same thing with baptism. We are taking an inward belief (a desire to commit our lives to Jesus Christ) and expressing it outwardly by passing through the waters of baptism. In a sense, baptism is confirmation of our inward belief, that we are God’s children.
So I wonder, by being baptized, if Jesus wasn’t doing the same thing. I believe he was simply expressing outwardly and publicly what he already knew inside, that he was the son of God. Not only does his baptism make a public statement about how essential it is to be baptized, but it confirms who he is and what he is called to do. It’s an authentication of his identity as the Messiah and the son of God. But Jesus’ baptism is more than just a confirmation. It’s also an adoption and a calling. In essence, God is saying, “Here’s who you are, and here’s what I want you to do,” and He gives Jesus the Holy Spirit to accomplish that in the form of a dove.
One of the most memorable baptisteries I’ve ever seen is in North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., where I served in seminary. It is set in a little alcove outside the sanctuary, and is remarkable in its simplicity. My favorite feature can only be seen when you are standing in the waters. If you stand there and look straight up, there’s a beautiful silver dove hanging down. It’s the first thing a newly baptized person sees when they emerge from the waters. It’s the first thing Billy saw as he started his new life in Christ.
That dove is a reminder that the words spoken to Jesus at his baptism were also spoken to us at ours. When we were baptized, we were welcomed into God’s family. We were adopted by God as His child. While our human family is flawed and can cause pain and disappoint, God our parent will never leave us or stop loving us. We are God’s, and our baptism is an outward reminder of that.
Through our baptisms, we are named as children of God. We are claimed by God as God’s own. Does this mean we’ll always remember that? No. Does it mean we’ll always live our lives with this in mind? Unfortunately not. But it is true, nonetheless. This not a promise that gets revoked. You are a child of God, God’s own beloved. We can renounce it. We can ignore it. We can run from it. But we can never, ever change it.
Do you remember the scene in “Toy Story” when Buzz Lightyear realizes he is not an authentic Space Ranger, but just an insignificant, plastic toy? He thinks he’s not unique, that he’s just one of a million mass-produced products that all look and act the same. His cowboy friend Woody consoles him by saying, “You must not be thinking clearly. Look, over in that house, there’s a kid who thinks you’re the greatest, not because you’re a Space Ranger, but because you’re a TOY! Because you’re HIS toy!”hen Buzz lifts his foot and looks at the bottom of his shoe. Written there, in permanent marker, he sees the name of his owner: Andy. The name of the one who loves him is written on him forever. Through baptism, God writes his name on us, claiming us as God’s own, marking us as God’s most loved creation with whom God is well-pleased.
So through baptism we are claimed, but we are also called. We come up out of those waters a new person with a new purpose. Paul says in Romans, “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Through our baptisms, we are made clean and anointed to serve. Whether we are ministers or mathematicians, accountants or attorneys, stockbrokers or stay-home moms, pilots or professors, consultants or cashiers, God has placed a call on our hearts through our baptism, a call to live a life of service to God and love for others. We are identified as God’s beloved, and sent to do holy work in this world. Because of our baptism, we are made new, and that fact should influence every thought and decision in our life.
So we are called to remember our baptism and be glad. I used to resent that phrase, because I can’t remember my baptism. But I don’t think Luther meant to remember the act itself. I think he meant to remember the meaning of the covenant made and then live your life as what you have been claimed to be: a child of God who has died to sin with Christ in his death and been raised to new life with him through his resurrection. If you have been baptized, rejoice! You are a new creation, you have God’s name written on your heart in permanent marker. And nothing can take that away from you. Remember your baptism, and be glad!