a sermon on Acts 10:34-43 and Matthew 3:13-17
preached on January 12, 2014 (Baptism of the Lord), at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I think Baptism of the Lord Sunday that we celebrate today is simultaneously one of the most important Sundays of the church year—and one of the most difficult to explain and figure out. All four gospels tell a story about Jesus meeting up with John the Baptist—that’s two more than that talk about his birth!—so this event that we celebrate today had to be pretty important to the early church, but what does it mean for us today anyway?
The story itself is challenging enough, really. First of all, as Matthew tells the story of Jesus, his baptism is a bit jarring. We move directly, without interlude, from Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his exile in Egypt to escape the evil King Herod, and formative years with his parents in Nazareth to this strange scene with a bizarre messenger named John washing people in a muddy stream. There’s no real transition here—no story of the boy or young man Jesus, no tales of his exploits working in his dad’s carpentry shop in Nazareth, not even the familiar tale from Luke’s gospel where a twelve-year-old Jesus stays behind talking to the scholars at the temple while his parents head back home.
We skip nearly thirty years of Jesus’ life—and then move into a story that just doesn’t always make sense. When Jesus shows up at the Jordan River and asks John the Baptist to baptize him, I find myself asking much the same question that we heard John ask in our reading this morning: Why?? Why does Jesus of all people need to be baptized? To even start thinking about this means that we have to think a bit about what this baptism means. The baptism that John offered in those days had a considerably different meaning and understanding than the baptism we celebrate in the church. For us, baptism is a sign and seal of God’s grace, a mark of how much God loves us and how we are welcomed into the community of faith and a reminder of our cleansing from sin that comes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For John the Baptist, though, baptism was a ritual washing following on long-standing Jewish tradition that was a public and visible mark of a personal commitment to repentance and a different way of life.
Why would Jesus need to do this? We certainly understand him to be without sin, fully human and fully divine, from the beginning of his life following in God’s way, so there seems to be little point for him to make this statement of his commitment to a new and different way. John was the first to ask this perfectly reasonable question—he knew who Jesus was, and he knew that God had great things in store for this one who would follow him to open the pathway of new life. Yet Jesus approached John and asked him for this moment of blessing, telling him that it needed to happen in order “to fulfill all righteousness” and to make space for the new thing ahead for him.
Once John finally agreed to baptize Jesus, the story actually gets even more strange and wonderful. After Jesus’ baptism, God’s presence was made abundantly clear.
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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Ultimately this was a big deal, bigger than even Jesus himself had even thought. While he had gone to John knowing that this baptism was the right thing to do, in this moment he found a much deeper encounter with God than he had ever expected. As the heavens opened, the Spirit flew down like a dove, and a voice thundered from the cloud, Jesus found the confirmation that he needed to step out into something new, the affirmation of his ministry that he had been waiting for before beginning his work in public, the great proclamation of God’s love for him and God’s call upon his life that would define the days ahead in his life and ministry. Now it’s not clear from Matthew’s telling here if anyone else even heard or saw any of this—“the heavens were opened to him” and “he saw the Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him”—but it is clear that in this moment something happened for Jesus that he would never be able to forget.
For us, baptism should be this same sort of of unforgettable moment even though so many of us experience it at a time when we can’t remember anything. Just as Jesus did, in our baptisms we see the depth of God’s love for us combined with the breadth of God’s call upon our lives. In our baptisms, we see a sign and a seal of God’s grace that gives us the strength and the encouragement to walk with Jesus each and every day. In our baptisms, we receive the inspiration we need to not only speak about our strange encounters with God like this one but also to respond with actions that “fulfill all righteousness” in the world as Jesus did. And in our baptisms, we get a little glimpse of the new and different and wonderful world that God offers us, much like what Peter described in our reading from Acts today, where “God shows no partiality,” where all are welcome to the fullness of life made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and where God’s grace is so abundant that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to [God].”
The incredible gift of baptism comes not even so much in its initial moment but in the ways in which this sacrament that we can only receive once can renew us and restore us time and time again. It doesn’t make sense, really. A small amount of water applied once in life ought not to make that much difference, right? Even if we participate in the tradition of baptism by immersion, how can a near-drowning change things for us? This is why words are so difficult to find for this story—ultimately baptism (and the Lord’s Supper too, both sacraments) is something that cannot be explained, but it instead must be experienced. The meaning of these things comes not in the theoretical concepts behind them but in the personal and communal encounter with God that come to us in them. When we think and talk about baptism, ultimately words and understanding will escape us, but somehow we know and we trust that God is somehow present in this strange and wonderful moment, transforming us and our world.
But as much as we can’t understand our baptism, we can never forget it, either. It makes us new people by water and the Spirit. It confirms the wondrous grace of God in our lives. And it challenges us to help others make their way to this place so that they can know the grace, mercy, justice, and peace of God and join us in working to make these things more real for all God’s children everywhere. So today, as we reaffirm the promises of our baptism in the past or look ahead to a future encounter with God in these strange and wonderful waters, may we always remember that in these waters we meet Christ himself, we go where he first went, we find the love that he offers us poured out in great and wondrous abundance, and we share that grace and mercy and peace with our world each and every day until he comes again. So remember your baptism, and be thankful, each and every day. Alleluia! Amen.