Remember Your Baptism, Matthew 3:13-17
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, January 12, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
A lot has happened as we’ve worshiped in these past few weeks!
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and we were told of his birth by hosts of angels and bright stars. The child and his mother and father were visited by three wise men who brought them gifts. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus fled to Egypt in terror of King Herod and his murderous rage. The family settled in Nazareth and Jesus grew up.
In the same way that our children’s growing up years seem to speed by (at least in hind site!), so, too, have we sped by Jesus’ growing up years: the childhood laughter shared with his brothers and sisters in their village, the adolescent angst and the carpentry lessons, the studies in the temple when he learned and when he taught.
Now Jesus and his cousin are grown men—about 30 years old. We have no record that they actually knew each other at all, but since we know that Mary went to Elizabeth—John’s mother—after learning of her pregnancy, and spent time with her, it would seem a reasonable thing that these two men would have known one another as cousins. But today, as they come together at the river’s edge, they meet as prophet and Messiah.
John has created an interesting life for himself. He’s his own man: he lives off the land—simply, even crudely—focused entirely on the message that he has been commissioned by God to bring. Honestly? People like John usually scare us. They are intense, focused, convinced of a divine calling, and on the edge of being—or at least seeming to be—a bit crazy. He talks in pictures of fig trees and axes, threshing floors, stones, fruit and fire.
John’s most prevalent message is about turning. He wants people to stop, to examine their lives, to turn their heads to see what is coming as a result of how they’re living. John wants people to stop and identify what is twisted or askew in their values, priorities and actions; and then he wants them to turn and live in a new way. John wants people to live with open eyes, alert minds, softened hearts and humble spirits. In order to do that, most of us—in fact all of us—need to do some turning. In more traditional or religious language, the word for this turning is repentance. Repent is an action verb. It’s not about feeling sorry. It’s not wishing things were different. Rather, it is about turning around, walking in a new direction and living a changed life.
People took great interest in John’s message. Some might have been drawn to him because of his strangeness. They wanted to see the spectacle. Some were perhaps drawn by the prophesy and the rumors that surrounded John from his birth to Elizabeth and Zechariah. (Do you know how old they were when Elizabeth became pregnant for John? How his father was unable to talk for months while his wife was pregnant for him? What do you suppose that was about??) Some were perhaps drawn by a strange tugging inside that told them they needed to turn away from one thing and toward something else, though they weren’t quite sure what that meant. But for whatever reason, they came. Their eyes were opened, their minds were sharpened, their hearts were softened, and their spirits soared as they humbly allowed John to baptize them and let God clean out their lives.
Wherever John was, there were crowds of people and John preached with passion and confidence. One day on the banks of the Jordan River, there is someone in the midst of the usual crowd –someone different from the others. He blends in, mills about, watches and listens. The carpenter from Galilee stands on his tiptoes to try to see John over people’s heads as he listens to his booming voice: “I baptize you with water but one coming after me, whose sandals I am unfit to carry is coming. And he will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” The man from Galilee weaves his way through the crowd, making his way through shoulders and elbows until he reaches the shore and lets the water lap at his ankles. John’s roaring voice stops mid-sentence when he sees him. The crowd becomes silent.
The man from Galilee—the gentle, hard-working Nazarene doesn’t say anything—but walks toward John his cousin, as countless others have—arms outstretched, ready to be baptized. But John doesn’t respond with his own arms open. Instead he says “No, we need to trade places. I need to be baptized by you.” But the Galilean says, “No, let it be this way for now. It’s right and good, according to God.”
John is confused, but he listens: he opens his arms and supports the man as he lowers him into the waters of the River Jordan and baptizes him. When the two men come back up out of the cool, rushing water—perhaps laughing and sputtering—the heavens open.
The crowd, with straining necks and open mouths, look up at the sky with fear and wonder. They know from their childhood Sunday School lessons of Moses and Elijah—that when the heavens open up, something amazing is about to happen—and it does. They expect fire and thunder perhaps, but what appears instead, is like a dove. The Holy Spirit alights gently, serenely upon this man from Galilee. Accompanying this beautiful Holy Spirit of God, a voice can be heard, “This is my Child, whom I love. With him, I am well pleased.”
Suddenly, the unknown, unrecognized man from Galilee has a name and an identity that is revealed to everyone. He is called “God’s Beloved.” And no matter where he goes or what he does, a claim has been made on him. A claim made and the Spirit given. He is sealed and marked with the power and strength of God’s Holy Spirit.
Unlike others, Jesus doesn’t come to the water for repentance: he doesn’t have anything to repent. Unlike others, Jesus doesn’t come to be cleansed: he doesn’t need to be cleansed. And so our baptisms, through Jesus, become for us, more than just repentance more than just water. Baptism becomes the occasion on which we receive a new name and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
God knows each of us by name before our baptism as well as through our baptism. God knows us through and through: our desire for love and our false securities, our dreams of peace and our failures in achieving it, the hellos we’re saying and the good-byes we’ve said.
God knows us through and through and claims us as God’s own. And in our baptisms, we hear that voice for ourselves.
Once we’ve been baptized, nothing in this world or beyond it can take the power and the strength of God’s love away from us. Our baptisms remind us that God, the Holy Spirit, is constantly sweeping into every corner of our lives: active, alive, rushing like water, blazing like fire, cleansing, purifying, creating, re-creating, brushing out the old and ushering in the new.
Our baptism lends us energy and courage and resources to bring to every new opportunity and every old hurt. Our baptism lends us energy and courage and resources to face every disappointment and every temptation. This is the nature of the Holy Spirit of God, who descended like a dove on Jesus as the water lapped his ankles in the River Jordan.
That same Holy Spirit descends upon us in our baptism.
Jesus was going to need that energy and courage and those resources because his next journey would take him not to river banks, but to desert hills and dry, thirsty days. In the wilderness, he will experience hunger and loneliness, he will be tempted with greed and power. But his baptism and the voice from heaven that speaks, saying “This is my Child, whom I love,” will sustain him and carry him through. The Holy Spirit, whose companionship he receives at baptism, will be his strength and his nourishment and his courage—not just in the desert, but throughout his ministry. Christ is baptized—not at the end of his ministry, but at the beginning of his ministry. Baptism is not the end of something, but it is the beginning of something, this was true for Jesus, and because of Jesus, it is true for you and for me, too.
In the United Methodist Church we baptize babies. We baptize adults, too, of course, and every age in between. But we baptize babies because we believe that it’s not who we are or what we’ve done…it’s not that we have this faith thing all figured out and wrapped up in a neat package—we’re not being rewarded with baptism. Babies can’t believe or recite the Apostle’s Creed, they can’t memorize or obey the Ten Commandments—babies are totally and utterly dependent on the grace of God to do for the baby what the baby can’t do for him or herself.
But we baptize—with promise and expectation—that God will work in the baby’s life. We baptize at any age, anybody, into the same promise. That God claims us and will be with us and won’t let go of us. As the water covers us, so too, does God’s love cover us.
A woman in her 70’s describes the night before her baptism. She remembers…
“I was 10 or 11. On the night before I was to be baptized, I couldn’t go to sleep—for hours it seemed. I just couldn’t. And I was hurting. There were so many questions running around in my head. So much I couldn’t understand.
Over and over I kept asking God and myself, “Am I really ready to be baptized? Old enough? Good enough? Do I understand enough? Oh, I don’t know. How can I be sure? I knew I loved Jesus and wanted to give my life to him, but there was so much about God—about me—that I did not understand.
Hurting fearfully, I kept struggling with all the questions and no answers until—until I heard a still small voice speak to me. Not out loud, I didn’t hear it with my ears. But it felt more real than anything else in all my years. I heard just three words: “It’s all right.” Just like that. But they covered everything for me. Breathing my thank-you to God, I went to sleep feeling enfolded by love, sure that God loves me just as I am and will always love me. And it’s all right. I slept until morning.
I don’t remember telling anyone about it that day, not even my mother. But now, looking back, I know I went to be baptized as if running to meet the sun rising from the depth of the sea.
Now, after more than seven decades, I recall with wonder and thanksgiving, the many other times of fear’s near-despair transmuted into epiphanies for me by the still small voice within. As I grew older, the three words became other words: God is Love. Perhaps they are the same.”
God is love.
God wraps us in the arms of love in our baptism.
May we remember and be thankful.