It is wonderful to be able to conduct a baptism on this particular Sunday in the church year. Today is the day that we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord”. The baptism of Jesus was such an important and pivotal moment in his life and ministry, and reflecting on that moment in Jesus’ life can help us to understand and to celebrate the meaning of baptism in our lives as Jesus’ followers.
In some ways, what we do when we gather to baptize an infant seems pretty far removed from what John the Baptizer was doing at the Jordan River so many years ago. The baptism this morning was marked by family, friends, and Christian community gathered in the warmth of a comfortable church, promises made, water poured, and words of blessing spoken for a child.
John’s baptism took place outside, down in the muddy waters of the Jordan. And it wasn’t so much about joining a community of faith or about receiving God’s blessing. They were adults who came to get baptized, and they did so because they wanted a fresh start, to confess their sins, and turn their lives in a new direction of obedience to God.
The Gospel story today refers to what John was doing out in the wilderness as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. And it tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.
When we baptize an adult or youth in the church today, that emphasis on confession and repentance may come out more strongly. The person being baptized declares that they are turning away from sin and towards God in Jesus Christ, and when the water is poured over them it clearly signifies the washing away of sin and the start of new life in Christ. But our church also baptizes young children and infants like Ellyn when one or more of their parents or guardians are members of the church and commit to teaching and nurturing their child in the way of Christ.
The infant hasn’t done anything wrong, and I find it difficult to think of a baby being sinful in any way. And so, that confession and repentance theme recedes into the background, and the baptism becomes more about God’s blessing, about the gift of the Holy Spirit, and about a child being welcomed into the church and grafted into the body of Christ.
When I think about infant baptism in relation to today’s Gospel reading, I notice that John said that another kind of baptism was coming. In verse eight John says, “I have baptized you with water; but [the one coming after me] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism was simply about confession and repentance, but the one coming after John (Jesus) would institute a baptism that would mean so much more.
We don’t have a lot of stories about baptism in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament. The early Christians certainly practiced baptism as an initiation rite, and Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus instructing his disciples to go out and baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Strangely, we don’t have any accounts of Jesus baptizing people. If he did conduct baptisms, those stories didn’t get written down and passed on through the centuries. What we do have is the story of Jesus being baptized by John. And I think it tells us a great deal about what Christian baptism is about.
Like an infant who is too young to have yet made any mistakes, our Christian tradition holds that Jesus was without sin. There’s no talk of him confessing or repenting before his baptism, and most Christians would say that he had nothing to confess. So what was he doing by going to get baptized by John? If it wasn’t so much about repentance, what was it about?
Like the other baptisms, there was water involved, but there was something new happening as well. For the first time, when Jesus was baptized, God’s Spirit came down to rest on Jesus, and God’s voice had something to say to him. And the voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is God’s great declaration to Jesus that God loves him, that he belongs to God, that God is pleased with him. It’s like a great big affirming hug from heaven! You’re safe. You’re loved. You’re mine.
And I believe that pouring out of love and affirmation is a very important, or maybe even the primary meaning of, our baptism. We have heard God’s voice today saying to Ellyn, “You are my daughter, and I love you, and I am pleased with you.” And as we remember our own baptisms, we are assured that God feels the same way about each and every one of us, God’s children. We are God’s sons and daughters, and God loves us.
It seems to me that a great portion of Jesus’ mission was to get that message across to the people of the world. Yes, there was a call to repentance as well, but not because God was going to smite us, or punish us, or abandon us if we didn’t turn to God’s ways. There was a call to repentance because God loves us and wants us to live in loving relationship with each other and with God.
I wrote an article on baptism recently for the Women’s Missionary Society’s magazine “Glad Tidings”, and in that article I said that I feel very blessed by the fact that there were people in my childhood who made sure that I learned my identity as a beloved child of God. I remember really enjoying the fact that my name (Amanda) means “worthy of love”, and my parents and my church community made sure that I believed it to be true. I was (and I am) worthy of love.
But there are many children and many adults in our churches and in our communities who do not know how deeply they are loved by God. As the church, when we baptize a child, we join with God’s voice in pouring out blessings upon one child who is very special to God. And we commit to keep on telling and showing that child that they are indeed the beloved of God.
It’s easy when they are cute little babies. Their identity as children of God is so obvious! As they grow up, it gets more challenging. They make mistakes. Sometimes they turn away from God. Sometimes they’re not so easy to love. Sometimes WE’RE not so easy to love. But each one of us is God’s child, made in God’s image; God’s beloved, with the capacity to love in God’s way.
The Christian author Henri Nouwen wrote a book called “Life of the Beloved” in which he tried to convey that amazing good news of God’s love for each one of us. Nouwen wrote the book for a dear friend, a man who was a cultural Jew but practiced no religion. This man had asked Nouwen to write something “for people like me” and this was Nouwen’s response. In it he wrote:
“All I want to say to you is, ‘You are the beloved’,
and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you
with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.
My only desire is to make these words reverberate
in every corner of your being.”
You are the Beloved.
May God help us to embrace our true identity as beloved children of God. And may God help us to see and to proclaim and to celebrate God’s unconditional, faithful, and passionate love for each person that we meet. Amen.