Baptism Made Real

Can you remember your baptism? Are you able to put together the pieces of your baptism? If baptized as an infant, a memory probably comes, if at all, in the form of a preserved paper certificate and/or the testimony of a parent. If baptized as an adolescent, perhaps you did so at the conclusion of a confirmation class in the church. Maybe for you baptism's memory is fresh and new, happening only recently. For still others, baptism is yet to be, if at all. The water may have been sprinkled on your head out of a minister's hand or maybe poured out of a glass pitcher. Some were immersed, dumped under and then raised up out of the water.

One of my favorite images of baptism comes from the Holy Land trip I took a number of years ago. Standing with our group alongside the banks of the Jordan River in Israel, I watched as a tour bus filled with white-robed individuals parked at a nearby site. As they exited the bus, one by one, single-file, each person entered and was immersed by the pastor into the waters of the Jordan. Newly washed believers emerged with wide smiles on their faces.

Regardless of when, how, by whom, or where it happened, baptism is a gift from God. It is a means, a conduit of God's grace signifying our cleansing, our engrafting into Christ, and of our welcome into the family of God.

I'd like to welcome you on this first Sunday in Epiphany to this time of worship. Literally meaning fantasy from the outside, Epiphany celebrates that in Christ's birth at Christmas God enters into our world, the big world and the one that is yours and mine. Where do we see evidences of God in the world, the sacred in the midst of the secular? Every year on this day the Gospel lesson invites us to think about this question as we remember the biblical story of Jesus' baptism and perhaps even our own.

Matthew declares that Jesus came out of the Galilee and traveled to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, who had been preaching to the crowds a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus wanted to be baptized, and John the baptizer resisted. The Bible says that John would have prevented him. Sometimes I wonder what it is that prevents the realizing of baptism in our lives. Perhaps we, too, sometimes resist our Savior. I do not mean just the going through the motions of getting wet. We can all do that pretty easily if we choose. In the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the only requirement--the sole prerequisite I am aware of--to receiving the waters of baptism is a public, personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So if we say we believe, are we really realizing baptism as the sacrament, the means, the conduit of God's grace that is poured into our parched everyday lives like refreshing, renewing, revitalizing water? Where is the evidence of such in your life and in mine?

I wonder with you what it is that sometimes prevents such realization of baptism. Perhaps, first of all--like the baptizer--our understanding of baptism may be a bit shortsighted. For John the waters of his baptism are all about repentance, the washing away of sin's stain, and the receiving of personal forgiveness. What need, pray tell, does Jesus have of such waters? He is God in the flesh, the one who was tempted in every way, just like us, but without sin. Without a doubt, we all are in regular need of a bath; and make sure, for God's sake, to get those hard-to-see spots like behind your ears. Yes, baptism is about getting cleaned up and smelling better. But it does not stop there. If it did, John would have been right in preventing Jesus' baptism realization. But, as it was and sometimes is, John's and our understanding of baptism may suffer from nearsightedness. In response to and overruling the baptizer's resistance, Jesus makes a curious--and for me--perplexing comment. "Let it be so now," Jesus says, "for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

I'm encouraged that at Jesus' command baptism's full realization is a possibility not only then but now; and I can hardly think of a time when the reception of God's refreshing, renewing, and revitalizing grace by any person would not be fitting. But what does Jesus mean when he associates with baptism fulfilling all righteousness? I do not know about you, but this is when my understanding of baptism gets stretched a bit. I've asked you what does fulfilled righteousness mean just like I asked several persons in preparing today's message. "It's just doing the right thing,' someone said. Another suggested that fulfilled righteousness means "justice for all persons." For yet another it means that "the kingdom of heaven is present here and now." People living in mutually healthy relationships came to mind for someone else. Personally, I remember the Bible story about Abraham and how it was said that the old man's faith, his belief in God, was counted as fulfilled righteousness to the Lord.

That sounds like an echo of what I stated earlier about the one requirement of baptism's realization. A public, personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. "Belief in the other," I said to my co-worker John, "belief in the other--that's what fulfilled righteousness is about."

"With that in mind," John replied, "you might want to read again Philippians 2:5 and following and be reminded of what Jesus thought."

"Have this mind among yourselves," Paul states, "which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

"That is the scandal of the gospel," my friend John said, "that the God in whom we believe would in Christ Jesus empty himself in order that we might be filled."

Another co-worker of mine recently gave me a book entitled The Art of Pastoring, Contemplative Reflections written by William C. Martin. Admittedly, the book was written as a source of spiritual refreshment, primarily for pastors who believe in Jesus Christ and who seek to be his disciples and show his love. But isn't that who we all are as followers of Jesus Christ? And thus I share with you that which I received:

Thought #11 in Martin's series of daily meditations is entitled Emptying. Please hear it for yourself:

"It is the invisible center where the spokes of the wheel meet that allows the wheel to move. The pastor becomes invisible, so that the parish may move freely. It is the empty space within that makes the bowl useful. The pastor empties himself of agenda and expectation so that the spirit of God may fill her. It is the space within the walls of the house that gives a family room to live. The pastor creates a space uncluttered by oughts or shoulds where her people may safely live. It is the invisible, empty, spacious pastor who serves the Word. Don't be misled by much ado. Emptying is difficult for the Western pastor," Martin states, "for it is likely that you have become convinced that your work lies in the fullness of your mind, your schedule, and your congregation's programs. Yet if you do not become empty, you will never be whole."

In addition to the shortsightedness of our understanding of baptism, this seeming obsession with what might be called a worldly fullness contributes to the prevention of baptism's realization in all our lives. What can you pour out of your life? Where can you begin to empty yourself as we begin this New Year 2008?

The story is that John the Baptist's resistance to the realization of baptism was overcome by the response of the Christ. Jesus did not need to be baptized, and yet for you and me and for his heavenly Father, he emptied himself of heavenly fullness, took on the form of a humble servant, entered clean into dirty waters of humanity, so that in Him we might emerge refreshed, renewed, and revitalized. Matthew states that some remarkable things accompanied Jesus' baptism, and so they do ours when we are found emptied in him. Jesus emerged up and out of the waters of the Jordan River; some have even reported that there appeared to be fire beneath the water's surface, much like volcanic, molten lava streaming into the ocean. According to the writer, as baptism is realized, the heavens open up. This was and is a revealing event. The spirit is seen descending from above, alighting on Him. This was and is an empowering event, and a heavenly voice is heard saying, "This is my Son whom I love, with whom I am well pleased."

A realized baptism was and always is a powerfully revealing event, a personal confirmation, validation, and affirmation. Hopefully, at some point, this just dawns on each one of us. Maybe it's today, but whenever it does, it's when you and I stop leaning against the powerful pillars of buildings made with human hands and start leaning on the everlasting arms of God.

"I have been forced to go on a journey I did not want to take," the woman told her pastor. She had a terrible cancer and was in the last few days of her life. And yet, she said, "This the worst of my times, has also been the best of times. I am closer to God than I have ever been. Because so many of the things I leaned on have been taken away from me, I have been forced to lean on Jesus, and I have found him trustworthy and true."

Baptism made real. By God's grace may it be so for you. Amen.

Let us pray.

Eternal and loving God, from whose fullness we have all received, our cups indeed overflow, though sometimes with the things of this world rather than with your goodness and your mercy, and thus we find ourselves in a kind of lonely darkness, feeling weak, and without a clear sense of our identity as your children. We acknowledge our emptiness, at least for the moment. Forgive our foolish ways, O God, cleanse us and graft us into Christ and welcome us again into your family. Make baptism real for the sake of Christ who is our Lord and our Savior. Amen.