a sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-23 for Baptism of the Lord Sunday
preached on January 13, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Sometimes you just have to go back to the beginning. In the midst of our very complicated and complex world, it is easy to forget where we began. In the face of changing times and places, we can easily end up someplace that isn’t where we intended to be—and that just isn’t faithful to to the original intentions of our journey. So sometimes we need to remember where it all began and do what we can do to reclaim that beginning once again.
For us as Christians, going back to the beginning means going back to baptism. Now baptism may not actually be the beginning of the story for us—just like Jesus, all of us lived some part of our lives before we were baptized, and some of us may have even begun our Christian lives before our baptisms—but baptism is the official, formal mark of new beginning for us as Christians, the time when we see how God claims us and makes us new, the moment when we are given a sign and seal of how we are made one with Christ in his death and resurrection. So when we think of Jesus’ baptism as we do today, we go back to the beginning of our stories and remember our lives of faith as we remember how the beginning of Jesus’ story in his baptism connects to the beginning of our story in our baptism.
Each of the gospels tells this story of Jesus’ baptism, but the version we heard from Luke this morning is a little different. First, unlike any of the other tellings of Jesus’ baptism, Luke puts this story much later in his narrative of Jesus’ life because of the detail he offers about Jesus’ birth and childhood. Like many of us, then, the Jesus of Luke’s gospel has some history of life and even of faith before he is baptized, so this moment in the water is the culmination of many things that come before it even as it suggests an incredible journey ahead.
But even with this extra detail on the front end, Luke brings the story in line with all the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism by dealing with John the Baptist. Based on the amount of attention that John gets at the beginning of the gospel story, John must have been important to early Christians, and most scholars think that John’s followers were around for quite a while after his death. But John’s message is not easily appreciated these days. He didn’t have much positive to say to anyone and demanded repentance from everyone. He attracted a lot of followers, but I’m not quite sure how. John’s first words according to Luke don’t exactly make people welcome. Would you appreciate being called first “You brood of vipers!”?! Even so, many of his first listeners wondered out loud if he was the Messiah, but John made it clear that there was something and someone greater on the way.
But Luke’s story does make John seem a little different. Only Luke tells us that John and Jesus were relatives of some sort, most likely distant cousins. But Luke also notes that John was put in prison by Herod before he tells us that Jesus had been baptized by him. This all happened in the two verses that were left out of our lectionary reading this morning, because it doesn’t make for particularly good storytelling and complicates an easy passage from John to Jesus. According to Luke, then, Jesus was baptized along with others in the crowd, but strangely enough Luke doesn’t directly identify John as the one who did it.
Amidst all these interesting twists in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism, what really seems to matter here for us as we consider our own baptisms is not who did the the baptizing or the proper order of the story but what happened after Jesus’ baptism. First, after Jesus was baptized, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” What a dramatic moment for Jesus, to have this clear appearance of God in his life at the very beginning of his ministry! Now I suspect that our baptisms were considerably less dramatic than this one, but even so, the Holy Spirit was present and active in our baptisms, too. And just as Luke gets John the Baptist out of the picture of Jesus’ baptism, so it should be with us too, for in the end, God is the primary agent in baptism for Jesus and for us. Baptism is not about the pastor or priest who applies the water, the denomination in which the sacrament is celebrated, the amount of water involved, or even the time in life when it happens—baptism is about how God breaks into our world and steps into our lives to mark us and claim us as God’s own even with a little bit of water.
But after this movement of the Holy Spirit, Jesus heard a voice from God: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Even though he surely knew it beforehand, Jesus’ baptism showed him once again who he was and gave him the strength and hope to face the challenges of the journey ahead. And so it is with our baptisms, too. Just as Jesus began his life of ministry with this assurance of love and grace from God, so we too begin our lives as Christians with the sign and seal of water that shows us that God loves us. Just as God’s claim and call on Jesus’ life was made clear in these words, so we in our baptisms also learn that God claims us and calls us to walk in new life. And just as Jesus found strength and hope in this moment at the beginning of a long and difficult ministry that would eventually lead to nothing less than his death, so we emerge from the waters of our baptisms with the confidence that we are God’s beloved children who are called out of the water and sent into the world to join in what God is already doing to make us and all things new.
In our baptism, just like Jesus, we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah loud and clear, directed at us:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
when [you go] through the rivers,
they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
I am the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, your savior.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
you are honored, and I love you.
I give people in your place,
and nations in exchange for your life.
These are powerful words, worthy of the power of baptism that begins the Christian life. We rarely realize it when we stand at this font at whatever age, but the waters in this bowl are far more powerful than even the strongest waves of Hurricane Sandy. We hesitate to affirm it when we welcome our children into our common life with this sacrament, but even the smallest bit of water on our heads in baptism means that we no longer belong to ourselves, to our families, or even to our church—but to God. And we may not always recognize it or remember it, but God’s claim on us in baptism never leaves us. We can do nothing to wash off this indelible mark. Even when we try our best to deny God’s place in our world or God’s claim on our lives, baptism shows us that “God loves us too deeply and too completely to ever let us go.”
And so as we remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus today, moving from a season of celebrating his birth into more ordinary days, may the baptism of Jesus remind us of our own baptisms, of our beginnings in this life of faith, where we are claimed as God’s own forever and shown that God will go with us through the waters, the rivers, the fire, and everything else that is before us. And so today may we go forth sustained by this unforgettable sign and seal, remembering our beginnings once again, living out this unconditional love from God as we live with others and make it clear to everyone we meet that they too are claimed and loved by God now and always.
So remember you baptism, your beginning, and be thankful, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.