I'm always going to remember the day when a little girl named Margaret Rose was baptized. It was a memorable occasion for most concerned. It was a day when I was playing the role of father, rather than pastor. I had taken off my pulpit gown for the morning, and put the red diaper bag over my shoulder. I will freely admit I was nervous. The one calming influence was the memory of how well the baptism of Margaret's older sister had gone, some three years earlier. Meg was already wearing a hand-me-down, in this case the same ivory satin baptismal gown her sister Katie had worn. Most of the same family members were present as they had been three years before, and they were beaming the same radiant smiles.
And then came the moment when the heavens were split apart. It was a scene that most people who were present did not see, at least the way I saw it. You see, Meg's baptism was complicated by the presence of her three-year-old sister. I wanted her there, although I wasn't sure she knew what was going on. Katie fidgeted while the preacher spoke the ancient words of scripture. She saw some people in the congregation whom she knew and waved to them. Then she began to talk about what was going on.
It was time for the main event. To maintain a remaining ounce of decorum, I put a gentle vise-grip on Katie's shoulders as water was splashed on her sister's head. Apparently it wasn't firm enough. That's when it happened. No sooner did the baptism happen when Katie broke free with a delighted squeal and moved to her infant sister. She cupped her hands around the baby's head. With eyes as big as saucers, she turned and looked at me. "Daddy," she said in a pre-schooler's not-quite-whisper, "Meg's head is wet. She really was baptized!"
Those of us who take the Christian faith seriously are concerned about the same thing. We want to know that every baptism really happens. What does baptism mean? It means that God claims us through water and the Word. God announces our citizenship in a new dominion before we even know it. God gathers us in a love that precedes all human relationships and family ties. Baptism is the sign that we belong to God. We want to know that every baptism occurs.
Now there's no doubt that the baptism of Jesus really happened. For one thing, all the writers tell us it was accompanied by astonishing signs. When Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water to see the heavens opened. Then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, descended like a dove and landed upon him. And then a great Voice spoke the coronation words from the second Psalm: "This is my beloved Son. I am pleased with him." The actual baptism of Jesus is not described in splashy detail. But the signs confirm that it truly took place.
What's more, there is no way that the church would have dreamed up a story about the baptism of Jesus. Frankly, it is too embarrassing. John was in the Jordan River, baptizing people as a sign of repentance. Then Jesus appeared. We don't know if Jesus came to the river to repent. We don't think so, but it's hard to explain. Jesus took his place among sinners. As people were baptized by John in anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus appeared, apparently to join them. The church couldn't have invented a tale like that. Almost every New Testament scholar agrees: the baptism of Jesus was a historical event. It really happened.
Now, if a three-year-old touches her baby sister's brow at the baptismal font and discovers it's really wet, she knows something special has happened. And when we hear the story of Jesus' baptism, a day when the heavens opened, a dove descended, and a Voice spoke, there is no question that God has broken into human history in a profound and significant way. According to the text we heard a few minutes ago, the baptism of every child of God finds its meaning from the baptism of Jesus. For Jesus and for us, the evidence of baptism is found in the way we live our lives. Baptism is more than knowing that our little sisters' heads are wet. It is an event that guides the way we live. What matters most is how we live after the water has dried.
That's what the baptism of Jesus was all about. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus did not get baptized without an argument. When he appeared at the Jordan River, John the Baptist said, "What are you doing here?" It was a silly question; Jesus came to be baptized. And John said, "Sorry, but you've got it backwards. You should be baptizing me, not me baptizing you." But Jesus insisted. "We must do this," he said, "because it will fulfill all righteousness."
According to Matthew, Jesus was baptized to announce a strange, new kind of righteousness. It began with Joseph, the husband of Mary. He was a righteous man, says the writer, and planned to quietly dismiss Mary when he learned she was pregnant. Then an angel appeared in a dream, calling him to keep Mary and take the child as his own. If he had stuck to the book, he would have dismissed her. But Joseph trusted the living voice of God rather than live by wooden legalism. He was righteous.
Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is righteous," who live with a desire to do the will of God. He also said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness," who suffer because they do what God wants them to. Living as God intends us to live is more important than life itself. Jesus said, "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness," and "the righteous shall enter eternal life," and "the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father's kingdom." There is a life to live, a path to walk. Jesus was baptized to show us the way of God's new righteousness.
And yet, it is a different kind of righteousness, because it means more than merely sticking to the rules and doing the right thing. True righteousness has to do with making ourselves available to God. We are righteous when we give up any vain attempts to win God's approval; in baptism, God has already embraced us in the love of Christ, and said, "You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son." We are truly righteous when we present ourselves among a long line of sinners, hungering for God's mercy and welcoming God's help. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," who know they cannot save themselves. We hear the essence of the gospel when we hear Jesus say, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Let's face it: we are unfinished disciples and imperfect followers of Jesus. Baptism may be the clearest moment when God's claim on human life is announced. But it takes time to see if we're going to live as if we belong to God. We cannot know each challenge or demand in advance. We can only live one day after another as faithfully as we're able, trusting that God is even more faithful than we are. We act as if we are God's beloved sons and daughters. And we grow into the promises of God, and keep growing up until we can claim those promises for ourselves. That's what it means to be righteous. That's what it means to be baptized.
On a Friday night not long ago, I watched my daughters stand up in the front of our church. It was the closing night of Vacation Bible School. Katie and Meg stood with about thirty of their friends in tie-dyed t-shirts. They sang a song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock. They clenched their hands and joined together in a prayer. Then we all joined in a rousing chorus of "Jesus loves me, this I know."
There I was, surrounded by a sea of camcorders, beaming a smile with all the other proud parents. But even greater than the pride in my chest was the gratitude in my heart. For the church was taking seriously the baptism of these children. Somebody was taking responsibility to teach them the stories of the Bible, the songs about Jesus, and the prayers of the faithful. And every morning, I pray that the church will teach all our daughters and sons a gospel worth speaking, a life worth living, and a mercy worth embracing.
After all, they have been baptized. Their lives matter to God. And all heaven waits to see how they, and we, shall speak and live, now that the water has dried.