Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of the Lord A
Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon
There is a risk that comes with infant baptism. Not that I am proposing we change our practice, not at all. In fact, I completely believe in infant baptism - to quote Mark Twain, “Not only do I believe it, I’ve seen it done!”
I believe that there is real significance in marking a child long before they can put words to thoughts, marking each child with the sign of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. And reminding all the adults around that infant how true it is for each of us. We are named and claimed by God - before we can think, say or do anything to earn that love and acceptance. A true physical, bodily reminder of our complete acceptance in the eyes of God.
But I think it important to pause and recognize that there is a risk we run with baptizing infants. And that risk is that they are cute little infants, with dimples and curled fists and chubby cheeks and winning smiles. How easy it is for us to focus on the infant portion of infant baptism. And somehow over-sentimentalize this ancient ritual of the church.
The risk in associating baptism with infants is that we lose sight of the first baptism on which we model ours. That first baptism was earthy, full of power, and wholly immersive - and by that I’m not just referring to the water.
Jesus walks down to the river where there is a large group of people gathered. John’s voice - it’s so loud and clear. He not ranting exactly, but he is impassioned. Perhaps his arms are waving about just a little. His camel hair suit is a bit eccentric. But, generally he isn’t nuts, he is simply a man who is used to taking up a lot of space in the world.
So there’s John calling people to repent. Calling out collective sin. Reminding everyone of how far they have strayed as a people from God. John is standing in the river and calling people forward. Calling them forward to be cleansed of their sin and evil. So that they can go forward as true followers of faith.
As John berates and elaborates, people are drawn to him like gawkers at an incident and also because they find themselves oddly convicted by his speech. And among them, is Jesus. He walks up to the water’s edge, bends over to sit on a nearby rock and lets the sun and the words sink in. He slowly bends over and unties his sandals and then he begins to walk toward John - into the Jordan River. The cold water causes his toes to curl and his breath to catch. The rocks are slippery and as he walks out deeper his bare toes sink into the mud. John turns his preaching from the crowd to Jesus and tries to send Jesus back to the shore with his words - repelling him backward.
“No, Jesus, not you. I’m not going to baptize you. What are you thinking? You should be baptizing me. We both know who you are and who I am, and this simply doesn’t make sense.”
He doesn’t really push Jesus. But he would have if he had thought he could get away with it. Through John’s barrage of words, Jesus continues to plod. His robes become heavy and twist up around his legs. If he isn’t careful he’s going to take a nose-dive into the water. And Jesus doesn’t know how to swim, so he’d rather not fall. On Jesus plods, with his hands outstretched - to keep his balance and to placate John. “It’s okay. It’s okay, John. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This will be good in God’s eye. Trust me. I need to do this. Work with me, here, John. Trust me.”
John suggests rather forcibly that Jesus has no need to repent, no need to be cleansed. But Jesus keeps insisting it is God’s will. And as he stands there just before him, John looks Jesus in the eye and sees the passion there.
We don’t know the words that John said over him as he leaned Jesus back into the water, but they were about repentance, no doubt, and about turning one’s life around. About being washed clean in the water and renewed.
Imagine, you are a desert people and for a moment you enter into the waters of the Jordan. You fully immerse yourself in the current that had been a sign for your people for centuries of entering the promised land. As you go down under and the blessed water seeps into every dried up pore and into your nose, and ears and eyes, you really are restored to life - physically and spiritually.
Jesus went down and under and back up. Catching his breath as he came up out of the water. Shaking the rivulets from his hair and wiping his eyes dry.
And the sky thunders open. Rips open. Is torn in two.
And the spirit it floats, soars, spins and wings itself through the air. The energy of the power of God fills the air and everything is electric. Jesus glows from the inside out with the frisson of the spirit alit upon him.
Then God’s voice - resounds off of every rock. Not threatening. But not subtle. “I am so happy in this moment. Here is my beloved child. Before you. Pay attention.
This is what wholeness looks like - this is what being fully born in me looks like. Let us mark this moment. All of you. Together.”
Then the voice quiets and the sky closes back up and the following silence thunders. No one moves, no one speaks, no one dares break the moment they have just witnessed. That they have just felt from the center of their beings.
It was a moment of great power. Of energy, and thrust. “Jesus submitted himself” is the language we use - but this was more like Jesus stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run.
In one shimmering, resounding, wet, and powerful moment, Jesus demonstrates to all who are gathered that being awash in God’s grace is for all. And that this gift can indeed draw us all the closer into God’s tether.
Not because God needs to see us perform the ritual. But because in the act of water upon a forehead, we call ourselves - the child who cannot yet speak and each of us - we call ourselves into a different place of awareness. And a different place of commitment - commitment to participate in this new thing that God is doing in the world. Our baptism is but another portal for God to work wonders here on earth.
This matters to God - that we participate in this great effort. It matters to God that we be diviners of mercy, trumpeters of justice, laborers for peace. Through baptism we are engrafted into the power of God.
That is why we must not over-sentimentalize this ritual. Because, friends, it is packed with power - the power of hope shining when it is darkest, love expanding to meet need, joy ringing with truth and wisdom, peace drumming at the heart of life.
Baptism engrafts us into this first baptism that was full of energy and drama - full of the power of God the Healer, bringing wholeness to every broken place.
This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on January 12, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.