Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 9, 2011

2011.01.09 “What Strange Rite?” The Baptism of the Lord – Matthew 3: 21 – 22

Central United Methodist Church

“What Strange Rite?”

The Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3: 21 – 22

January 9th, 2011

“Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit — it looked like a dove — descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

– Matthew 3: 13 – 17, The Message

       Each year, as Christmas recedes in the rear view mirror and we progress into a new year, the next stop on our spiritual journey is out on the banks of the River Jordan, where a wild and wooly character named John the Baptist is preaching. There, we witness the next most significant moment in Jesus’ life after his birth, which was his baptism by John. Each year, the occasion of Jesus baptism provides us the opportunity to revisit, reflect upon, and renew our own baptism. 

        Actually, it’s a good time of the year to do it. At the beginning of a new, when we are making lists of things to do in 2011 and perhaps already revising new year’s resolutions, what better time to be reminded of our most fundamental commitments as Christians: those made at our baptism?

        If we had been there that day at Jesus baptism, what would we have seen and heard? We see and hear what the Gospel writers such as Matthew want us to see and hear, as they tell the story.

        John is baptizing, out in the wilderness east of Jerusalem, and many have gone out to hear him. He is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for a kingdom which he believes is about to appear. What do you think? If you had been there, standing in the crowd, would you have gone into the water to be baptized?  Or would it have been too strange, too fanatical; better to stay dry on the bank, in the back of the crowd, and seek God quietly.

But in this crowd is an unknown young man, John’s cousin, Jesus.  John’s preaching agrees with him, he enters the water, and asks John for this baptism of repentance.  Recognizing his cousin, John initially refuses: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”  And Jesus says, as Nike would say, “Just do it.”

As Jesus came up out of the water, Matthew describes what happened:

“The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit — it looked like a dove — descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

        For Jesus, it was both an affirmation of his identity, and a commissioning to the work to which God had called him. No wonder each year on the day we read the story of Jesus’ story, we back it up with God’s call of his suffering servant, from the ancient book of Isaiah the prophet, the meaning the Gospels writers gave to the event, and the message they give to us:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations . . .

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,

I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,  

a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness.

– Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 (selected)

        Fast forward now, some 2,000 years, to baptism as we commonly practice it. We’re not usually standing on a riverbank, but sitting in church. During the service, a couple with a baby comes forward. While friends and family beam from the pews, the Pastor takes the baby, and to the baby’s great shock, puts water – not a lot of water, but a little water – on the baby’s head.  What is this strange ritual? We call it baptism. Does it bear any resemblance to what John was doing out there on the Jordan?

        The Scriptures say it does.  Not only is it the initiation ritual into the church as a follower of Jesus Christ, it is a time when we are affirmed as God’s Beloved Child, and commissioned to the work to which God calls us.

        To the uninitiated, maybe even to us, if we think about it, it does appear strange, putting a little water on someone’s head, speaking of a few words. A human being is not a plant that needs to be watered, nor are we necessarily in need of a bath, especially in church (although there might be a few sitting in the pews for whom a little cold water would do them good).  But it’s the sacrament we have been given, which we still observe.

Let me remind you, it could be worse. At least it doesn’t involve any cutting, or bodily mutilation, like some religions we know (like Judaism, Islam, or African rituals of scarification).  We got off easy; a little water I’ll take!

And did you know that in the early church, Christian converts were baptized naked, putting on a white robe only afterwards? Now that might make for an interesting Sunday morning? Or maybe not, depending how old your congregation is.

Personally, I for one am glad we are Methodists, giving people a choice, of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, and not Baptists, who believe in adults only baptism (would that be the kind without clothes)? And also full immersion (all the way under) For example, the preacher on the radio show Day 1 this week is the Rev. Dr. Bill Richard, a Baptist pastor, who at 5 foot 6 inches tall, tells of wading into the water for a baptism only to realize that the man he was about to baptize was over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.  He said:

“I looked out in the congregation and saw my wife put her hand in her hands, and I knew I was in big trouble.  Yet down he went, with the name of God spoken over him.  And down I went, too, staggering under the weight.  Somehow we got back up, both grateful for grace and unexpected adrenalin, all to a congregation that broke into spontaneous applause in celebration, relief, and good humor.” (The Rev. Dr. Bill Richard, Day 1, The River, January 09, 2011, http://day1.org/2540-the_river)

        To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “we go with the ritual we’re given,” and for us as Christians, baptism is it. 

        Can I explain it? No more than you. Like the other sacrament of the church – Holy Communion – baptism is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” If we could explain it in words, we wouldn’t need the sign. There is Water and there is Spirit, and in baptism the two meet.  I can’t explain it, but like Jesus arising from the waters of the Jordan, I’ve seen baptism make grown men and women cry.  We experience it, as Jesus did with John, and then we spend a lifetime understanding it, living into our identity and calling as beloved sons and daughters of God, the followers of Jesus the Christ.

In the new lectionary commentary, Feasting on the Word, Rodger Y. Nishioka provides perspective, by sharing a story too familiar, regarding not only how we think about baptism, but what often happens afterward.

Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade, Pastor Nishioka tells us. The family attended sporadically, but Pastor Nishioka asked Kyle and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class, and they said yes.  When the big day – Pentecost Sunday – arrived, since Kyle had never been baptized, he was not only confirmed, but baptized. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, their mentors, and the congregation.

And then, as happens too often, Kyle and his family disappeared, to be missed by everyone.  As Pastor Nishioka said, “That is when I knew we had done something wrong.” 

When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them.  “I distinctly remember his mother saying, ‘Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?’” (Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting On The Word, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, pp. 236 – 240)

No matter how long ago our baptism was, no matter if the water has dried and the church is gone and we do not remember, we are never done.  At least not as long as we live, and not even then, either. 

For Jesus, baptism was not the end, but the beginning.  It was his launching, his commissioning for the ministry for which he was uniquely created and called. 

As with Jesus, our baptisms are not the end, but the beginning.  At our baptisms, we claim our identity as created in God’s image, as God’s Beloved Child belonging to God forever. But through our baptism, we are also reminded of our purpose: to live out our identity through the ministries for which we have been gifted and to which we are called, through all the new days and new years of our life. 

Let us remember our baptism, and be thankful.

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