Over the years, I have been privileged to participate in many a baptism. With candidates, family members, sponsors gathered around the font, I address them and the congregation, saying, "Hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'" I also invite those present to remember with joy their own baptism as we celebrate the sacrament in the sanctuary. One Sunday I actually decided to take my own advice. I said, "Remember your own baptism and be grateful." But I couldn't come up with a thing. The fact that I had been baptized when I was six months old probably accounts for my failure of memory.
I do remember a five-year old kid in the first church I served as pastor. His parents had wanted to wait to have their son baptized until he would be able to remember and have some understanding of the meaning of the occasion. So one Sunday after worship--the Sunday before the baptism was scheduled--Max, his mom, his dad, and I gathered around the font. I sensed that Max was a little dubious about the whole affair, but I dove in anyway. I took the top off the baptismal font, reached my hand down into the dry bowl, and pretended to scoop up a palm full of water. I placed my dry hand on his dry head and said brightly, "Next week, we'll be doing this with real water." Max folded his arms across his chest, looked me straight in the eye, and announced, "No way, lady. No way." Eventually Max relented, even as my belief in the value of infant baptism deepened considerably.
An ancient Christian catechism describes baptism as a "visible sign of invisible grace." By the grace of God, we are surrounded and upheld every day. The great Protestant Martin Luther was plagued at times by a sense of unworthiness and despair. To drive back those demons, he kept an inscription over his desk that read, "Remember, you have been baptized." Often, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, "Martin, you have been baptized."
Before I prepared this message for you, I had told Luther's story any number of times, but I had never touched my own forehead. I had never reminded myself in a physical way that I too have been baptized--cleansed and forgiven, claimed and sanctified, sealed by God's own Spirit and given my new, everlasting identity in Christ. I recommend that you take a moment, touch your own forehead, and remind yourself that you are a child of God. Baptized or not yet baptized, you are a beloved child of God.
At present, I am a busily engaged pastor, but I am also only days away from being launched into that unknown sea called retirement. I do not know where the tides will take me, but I am sure that whatever the next chapter holds, I will sail with the winds of the Holy Spirit in my sails and with the guiding hand of God holding fast to the rudder of my future. I will be exactly the same person who at the age of six months was buried into the death of Christ and raised up into new life through him. In every season of life--in life and in death--we belong to God.
Let's go for a moment to the banks of the River Jordan where Jesus is being baptized. Here he makes his first public appearance on the stage of human history. John the Baptist, repentance-preaching, fire-breathing John, had prepared the people for a Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. And here he is, Jesus, going under the water and coming up out of the water. While he prays his own post-baptism prayer, suddenly heaven itself opens, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, a voice comes from heaven speaking to Jesus, but in a way that all who are gathered can hear: "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased."
I remember a theater production in Atlanta of Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Gospel. In this production the excellent actor Tom Key played God. Not a bad role if you can get it. Tom stood on a ladder on the stage. The actor playing the recently immersed Jesus stood below him looking up with hope and perhaps a little bit of anxiety in his eyes. But he needn't have worried. God speaks in a voice loud enough to be heard all the way down Peachtree Street: "You are my boy, Jesus. I am so proud of you!"
I could feel in the marrow of my bones the exuberant love and approval in the actor's voice, and I believe that something similar happens between God and us in our own baptisms: "This one is mine!" the Lord exclaims. "I see my image in her! Don't you see my image in him? And here comes my Spirit, my Spirit to sustain and guide as you go about doing what I put you on earth to do."
A poem by James Autry has for a long time been a favorite of mine. It goes like this:
There is something about putting people under the water and raising
them up in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, something
that makes people cry
That makes them want everything to be alright.
That makes them want to leave this place and be better,
to immerse themselves in their lives
And somehow be washed clean of all the things they should not have done
and still should not want to do.
Not the other things,
The star in the east,
The treasures in heaven
Or any of the old stories,
Not even life after death.
It's only to be new again.
Here is the deal. God chooses to bring us into the world. God's grace claims us and reclaims us over and over again. We don't need to get all balled up over whether or not we are adequate or worthy. With the exception of Jesus, we are all unworthy and without hope save in God's sovereign mercy. I love the story about an incident following an infant baptism. On the way home after worship, the brother of the baby who had been baptized cried from the back seat all the way home. Three times his dad asked him what he was crying about. Finally, he answered, "The preacher said he wanted us to be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys."
We who are baptized struggle just like everybody else to be decent human beings. We are no more or less tempted than anybody else to be less than God created us to be, but Jesus our Lord showed us how to beat the demons back, and God gave us the spiritual power to choose a higher and better way. From our baptism onward, we live inside the promise that we will have a strength that comes from another world enabling us to will and to work for God's good pleasure. I love the thought of God standing on a ladder somewhere or even better, sitting on a star in the heavens, saying, "Do you see my girl down there? I am so proud of her. She's not perfect, but she's mine." The thought fills me with joy.
In his book Craddock Stories, celebrated preacher Fred Craddock tells of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. "I am from around these parts," he said. "My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. 'Well, boy, you are a child of. . .' and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, 'Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.' Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, 'Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.' I left church that day a different person," the now elderly man said. "In fact, that was the beginning of my life."
"What's your name?" Dr. Craddock asked.
He answered, "Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper." Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.
Children of God, remember that you have been baptized and rejoice. If you never have been baptized, then find a church and claim your inheritance.
Let us pray.
For the baptism of Jesus, when he was made one with us, and for our baptism when we are made one with him and one another, we praise you, O God. As we enter a new year, help us to remember whose we are, so that we might glorify and enjoy you forever. Amen.