January 7, 2018

“Claimed by Water”

Mark 1:4-11


Today is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, when we celebrate the good news of Jesus’ baptism. This story of our Lord’s baptism tells of the new beginning of Jesus’ mission and reminds us of new beginnings for those who are baptized in his name. Both our Lord’s baptism and our own are rooted in God’s new beginning for humanity in the birth of Jesus and the focus on the Christmas story of a couple of weeks ago. As we leave Christmas behind, we begin a journey toward Lent, when we remember the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.                                  

Today’s passage begins with John the baptizer preaching about repentance and baptizing his followers for the forgiveness of sins. Many who were out in the wilderness questioned if perhaps John himself was Messiah. (This is much clearer in Luke’s account of this story.) John sets the record straight letting the crowds around him know that one more powerful than himself was coming, who would baptize, not just with water, but also with the Holy Spirit.


This becomes an issue for John and his followers later, as John wants to know while he is in prison if Jesus really is the promised Messiah. John’s expectation was in part that Messiah would be a bringer of judgment and bringer of fire. At the beginning of his mission in Luke, Jesus shows much compassion for those around him, preaches we are to love our enemies and not to judge others. John sends a group of his followers to Jesus (Luke 7:18-23) and asks, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  Jesus tells John’s followers, “Go and tell John what you see and hear. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on my account.” Jesus’s message to John is that he is indeed Messiah, although with a bit different ministry that John imagined, and for him not to fall away because of his expectations.



So in verse 9, we read that Jesus was baptized by John. One question which Christians have pondered for a long while: Why did Jesus have to submit to a baptism through John? The answer: he didn’t have to, but he chose to accept this baptism on our behalf. For Jesus to submit to being baptized by John was a way of identifying with us sinful human beings. He entered the Jordan River in our name and foreshadowed the bearing of our sins upon a cross at a later date. Jesus was not baptized for the remission of His sins. He was baptized into our sins as He in baptism became one with all of humanity.



Upon his baptism, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven upon him like a descending dove. Then God spoke out loud to those who had gathered and proclaimed, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased...”  Jesus was glorified by God at the very moment of his taking on the humiliation of identifying fully with humanity. So we have an understanding now of the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. By John’s act, Jesus identified with us, was blessed by God, and now ready for the rest of his earthly mission.


This is also a day for us to understand the meaning of our own baptisms, and how they have affected our lives as well. Here is a picture of me on my baptism day, June 10, 1962. I know the date because my mother, who is on the right in the Jackie Kennedy style outfit wrote it on the back of the photo. My grandfather Archie is holding me. I was just under 6 months old when the Rev. Eugene Nelson baptized me. I don’t remember anything of course about that day, but I am told that I spit up a bit on the pastor’s shoulder just prior to being baptized. Fortunately, that didn’t matter very much in the overall scheme of things.


What truly matters in our own baptisms is what they signify about us, and about God. It is said of Martin Luther that when he was feeling overwhelmed by the challenges and his own inadequacy and sinfulness, he would remind himself, "I am baptized." I keep the picture of my baptism day in my office to remind me of my baptism on similar such days. I believe it was Luther, also, who spoke of drowning the "old man" in baptism. The only problem, Luther said, was that the "old man" was such a good swimmer!  Just like Jesus, we are claimed as God’s own in the waters of baptism, and in time of struggle a reminder of who we are and whose we are can bring strength to resist temptation. So the first thing we receive from our baptism is this:  Baptism gives us a new identity as beloved children of God.


Baptism is also a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul tells us in Romans 6:3-5- “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live new life.”  This is aptly illustrated from a story by Rev. John Westerhoff III, as he described a baptism in a small church in Latin America. The community of faith had gathered; they had recalled God’s gracious acts; they had proclaimed the Gospel. And now they were about to make a response. The congregation began the mournful sounds of a funeral hymn as a solemn procession moved down the aisle. A father carried a child’s coffin he had made from wood; a mother carried a bucket of water from the family well; a priest carried their sleeping infant wrapped only in a native blanket. As they reached the chancel, the father placed the coffin on the altar, the mother poured the water in the coffin, and the priest covered the wakening baby’s skin with the embalming oil. The singing softened to a whisper. The priest slowly lowered the infant into the coffin and immersed the child’s head in the water. As he did so, he exclaimed, ‘I kill you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!’ shouted the parents and the congregation. Then quickly lifting the child into the air for all to see, the priest declared, ‘And I resurrect you that you might love and serve the Lord.’ Immediately, the congregation broke into a joyous Easter hymn."(From Interpretation (July 1993), pp. 295-296.) What this story tells us is that in baptism, we fully identify with Christ’s death, and that our old self dies and is buried with Christ. Then we are raised to a new life in the power of the resurrection, confident that we are one with him. So, the second thing we learn about our baptisms from Jesus’ baptism- Baptism brings new life to us.





So when we are baptized we are pardoned, cleansed and made holy by Christ. There was a story recently about a congregation who installed a new baptistery-that is a tub in their sanctuary as part of an extensive remodeling project. But as the county building inspector went through the remodel, he stopped at the tub and would not okay its installation. “I can’t,” he said, “unless it has a separate septic tank.” The church board could not understand why a septic tank would be needed for a baptistery. The building inspector saw their puzzled faces and explained, “It’s to avoid pollution in the ground.” One of the church board members finally said with a grin, “I guess it would pollute, with all of those sins washed away!“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, having our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10:22 tells us, Thirdly, Baptism cleanses the heart of all sin, and justifies us, that is makes us right before God.


Fourth, the gift of the Holy Spirit comes upon those who are baptized as well. Every time I have had the privilege of baptizing someone, I have felt a presence of the holy, a sense of God’s Spirit being anointed on that person. At a church I served many years ago in Sacramento, I had the privilege of taking part in the baptism of an 86 year old man, who had been coming to church for more than 30 years. When the spirit came upon him, he smiled and rejoiced, and wondered aloud “why he had waited so long.” His faith was much more than it had been before, and it grew. It is that gift of the Holy Spirit that nurtures the life of faith in us, until that time when this earthly life is over.


A brief aside about the Holy Spirit- Rev. Roger Hull shared a story with me in regards to the Spirit from the King James translation, published in 1611. In the King James, the Holy Spirit is often called the holy comforter, which sounds quite nice- except this concept is based upon the British army in the 1600's, in which a comforter would be at the end of the long line of soldiers with a big stick, in which he would “comfort” the troops by smacking them with the stick to keep them marching. It is true that at times the Spirit does prod us into action...Just this past week, the Spirit prodded me to stop grumbling and be kind to other drivers while on the road.


Fifth and finally, in baptism, we also are united into the family of Christ. Baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship, and becomes a basic bond of unity. As Ephesians 4:4-6 reminds us, “There is one body and one spirit…one baptism and one God of us all.” In a very real sense, we become part of one extended family through baptism.


Into a hopeless time in the life of Israel, Jesus was sent by God. By the last in a long line of Old Testament prophets Jesus was baptized and revealed to the world. It had been over 400 years since Ezra, the last prophet before John came on the scene, had held forth in Israel. Ten generations had passed without a Prophet to proclaim the Word of the Lord. It was time for a new beginning, and that new beginning continues here and now, as we remember and give thanks for our own baptisms.


You and I have been given new beginnings. Like Jesus, we too have been baptized. We too have died to our old selves and arisen to new life. We too have been made right before our God, justified in the waters of this sacrament. We too have been given the gift of the Spirit to guide us in this life of faith. We too have been united with Christ, and given a new family. So as you leave the sanctuary this morning, there is a bowl of water out in the narthex. There is a small bit of river water from the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus thousands of years ago. I encourage you to dip your hand into that water, place a bit on your forehead if you would like, feel the new beginning and new life it symbolizes and give thanks for being baptized.


On this day, as we remember Jesus’ baptism, may you remember your baptism, a new beginning for you, whether you were a child or an adult-when God claimed you as a son or daughter, that you might receive hope, and remember who you are, and whose you are. Alleluia. Amen.

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