Baptism: The Beginning. . .

A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord
12 January 2014

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector

 Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17

 The Youth Minister at the downtown Presbyterian church was worried about Thomas and his family.  They had become members of the church when Thomas was in fifth grade and the family had moved to the city.  They didn’t attend church on a regular basis but were seen often enough to be known by the pastors of the church. 

 When Thomas was in 8th grade, the Youth Minister asked him if he would like to be confirmed with the other 8th graders at church.  She was surprised that he and his family were as enthusiastic about the idea of confirmation as they were.  They showed up for the Orientation meeting and agreed that Thomas would participate in two retreats, mission activity, meetings with a mentor, and weekly classes of study and exploration.  As it turned out, Thomas was one of the most interested and inquisitive members of the confirmation class and made a number of new friends. 

 About a month after Confirmation Sunday, the Youth Minister realized that she hadn’t seen Thomas or his family in church which is why she was worried about them.  So she decided to pay them a visit. When Thomas’ mother opened the front door to their home, she looked genuinely surprised when the Youth Minister told her that she missed seeing Thomas at church. “I thought Thomas was all done” his mother said.  “I mean, he was confirmed, right?  Isn’t he all done?” 

 As the Youth Minster turned away from Thomas’ house she was sad and frustrated to think that the Confirmation program she had designed had failed to communicate the reason for baptism and the responsibility that came with the confirmation of it.  (Paraphrased heavily from Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 237-238 Pastoral Perspective by Roger Nishioka).

 Confirmation is the time when 8th and 9th graders such as Thomas explore certain aspects of their faith so that they can answer for themselves the questions that their parents answered on their behalf when they were too young to do so during their baptism.  These days, though, it does seem as if Confirmation marks for young teens the end of something instead of the beginning – the beginning of a life long journey of exploration.  And that is sad. 

 The gospel reading from Matthew this morning describes Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Jesus was not baptized as an infant and then confirmed as a teenager.  He was baptized and confirmed all at once – when he was a grown man.  And that event certainly didn’t mark the end of anything, but rather the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  It was his commissioning to public service and it was endorsed wholeheartedly when a voice from heaven said: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

 What do you think baptism meant to Jesus and why did he feel the need to be baptized?  We think of baptism as initiation into the whole body of the Christian church.  But there was no Christian church in Jesus’s day.  The baptism that John was doing in the desert was a Jewish ritual cleansing which John linked to repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It was a way to prepare for the Messiah.  And John fully believed that Jesus was that Messiah.  John taught his own disciples that someone was coming who was more worthy than he and who would come with “a winnowing fork in his hand (and who would) baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11-12). 

 Yet Jesus approached John with such deep humility that it must have caught everyone there off guard.  John especially seemed stunned by Jesus’ request to baptize him, and immediately said that it was he who needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around.  But Jesus insisted by saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

 So baptism must have represented righteousness for Jesus – a way to be right with God, his Father; a way to do his Father’s will.  I can’t imagine that Jesus was born any other way but righteous with his Father, but maybe Jesus sensed that his life was taking a new direction and needed to be marked by something significant, in the same way that a wedding marks the beginning of a whole new life of marriage.  Whatever Jesus thought at the time he was immersed in the Jordan River, he withdrew to the desert for 40 days to reflect on what would come next for him as he began his ministry. 

 I think for most of us, beginnings are easier to do than what comes next.  That’s especially true this time of year when we all have such good intentions to follow through with our New Year’s resolutions.  Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a parking spot at a fitness center during the first few weeks of January?  Not a problem during the first few weeks of, say, July when many of us have already lost our resolve to get into shape. 

 Jesus never lost his resolve to do what his Father called him to do – no matter how difficult it was for him.  I can only imagine that he woke up every day renewing with increasing fervor what was begun in his baptism. 

 What was begun in our baptism?  Many of us were far too young to remember the actual event of having a minister apply water to our heads in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and of making the sign of the cross on our foreheads to seal us by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and to mark us as Christ’s own forever.  Not until we prepared for Confirmation did we begin to understand our baptism and how confirming it meant becoming aware of the responsibility that came with committing ourselves to following Christ.

 Martin Luther believed that all baptized Christians are “priests” and “spiritual” in the sight of God.  And this belief was based on the 2nd letter of Peter which stated that: “You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.  As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1st Peter 2:9). 

Does that sound as if baptism or confirmation is the ending of anything?  No wonder youth ministers today are discouraged when they see such an obvious decline in their newly confirmed teens.  All baptized and confirmed Christians should feel a responsibility to show others the goodness of God in whatever ministry we choose.  We should want to do that because it will be the source of our greatest joy.  And what better place for our ministry to be shaped and encouraged than in the context of a community where Christ is at the center – which is the Church. 

 Today marks the Baptism of our Lord Sunday which is a good time to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism just as it is every time we baptize and confirm a new member into the Christian church.  In this morning’s passage we heard Matthew describe how the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove and alighted on him.  While it’s tempting to think of the bird which we have associated with peace alighting gently on Jesus, apparently doves swoop and dive like hawks.

 Imagine, then, the Holy Spirit doing that, claiming Jesus as its own in the act of baptism instead of simply affirming it.  If that’s the case, what is the Holy Spirit claiming us to do as a result of our baptism and confirmation?  What does it want from us? (Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XIX, Number 1, pp.56-57). 

 Jesus was baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness.  He commissioned many others to be baptized and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.  We have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to do the same.  So in that respect, how can we ever be – as Thomas’ mother told the Youth Minister – “all done”?