January 13, 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“I will be with you”

I love remembering my baptism. Next year it will be 30 years since I was baptized, and I still remember it as such an important moment in my life of faith.

I remember standing up at the front of a church very much like this one. I remember reciting the words of the Apostles’ Creed that I had studied and memorized in my preparation. I remember the droplets of water on my forehead. And I remember the choir turning and singing over me: “The Lord bless you and keep you…” just like we sing to one another each Sunday here at First Church.

On this Sunday, when we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism by John, we are invited to remember our baptism and give thanks to God.

Of course, you may not literally remember your baptism. You may have been an infant or a young child when you were baptized. It was your parent, or guardian, or grandparent who made a public profession of faith, and promised to teach you about Jesus and nurture you in the Christian way of life.

But regardless of whether or not you literally remember that moment, you are invited today to remember your baptism… to remember its meaning and significance, and to remember how it continues to shape your life and faith today.

When we got talking about the meaning of baptism in our Bible study earlier this week, I pointed out that it means more than one thing. I said that baptism means at least five things, and maybe more.

I remembered studying an important ecumenical document from the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, called “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” In its first section, that document outlines a broadly-shared Christian understanding of the meaning of baptism, which includes five meanings.

First, there is the one that I talked about with the children this morning – “The gift of the Holy Spirit.” One person said this week that when she was baptized, she was a little disappointed that she didn’t actually SEE a dove coming down from the sky.

But we do believe that like Jesus, we receive the gift of the Spirit at our baptism. And that Spirit comforts, encourages, and helps us in our mission to follow the way of Jesus and share God’s love with the world.

When I was baptized as a teenager, the most obvious meaning to me was that I was joining the church in an official way. This is what the WCC document calls, “Incorporation into the Body of Christ,” and I experienced it as a sense of being welcomed and belonging both to God and to the Christian community.

A third meaning of baptism is a little more dramatic. Baptism is also “Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection,” meaning that we are dying to our old life and being raised into a new life as children of God and disciples of Christ.

Christians whose baptism followed after a dramatic turn away from sinful lives towards conversion to Christianity may be more in tune with this meaning. But it is true for every one of us (even if we were baptized as tiny, innocent babes) that baptism signifies the beginning of a new life in Christ, free from the power of sin, and with God’s promise of hope and everlasting life.

The next meaning is one the one that I tend to forget when listing the five from memory, but it is a wonderful meaning. Baptism is a “Sign of the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus preached a lot about the coming of the Kingdom of God, declaring that it had come near in his life and ministry, and inviting his followers to participate in its fulfilment. Our Christian faith and service is grounded in Jesus’ promise that the Kingdom will come, and that the whole world will be made new.

Well, baptism initiates the reality of that new life given in the midst of the present world. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God and the life of the world to come.

Just as we experience a foretaste of the great feast in the Kingdom of God when we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we get a glimpse of God’s loving, embracing community of joy whenever someone is baptized into the family of God.

Finally, baptism means “Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing.” The water used to wash us physically, points to the spiritual cleansing from sin which God accomplishes for us.

The WCC document describes it this way: “The baptism administered by John was itself a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The New Testament underlines the ethical implications of baptism by representing it as an ablution which washes the body with pure water, a cleansing of the heart of all sin, and an act of justification. Thus those baptized are pardoned, cleansed and sanctified by Christ, and are given as part of their baptismal experience a new ethical orientation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

So, I wonder which one of those meanings you especially need to remember today.

Remember that you have the gift of God’s Holy Spirit in your heart to comfort and encourage you, and to equip and send you out in service.

Remember that you belong. You belong to God as God’s beloved child. And you belong to the Body of Christ that is the church.

Remember that you have died to your old life and been raised to your new life in Christ.

And remember that even while we wait for the completion of God’s Kingdom on earth… your baptism, your identity as God’s child, your new life of following Jesus… these things are all glimpses of God’s Kingdom coming here and now.

Finally, remember that your sin is washed away in the waters of baptism. You were forgiven, cleansed, and justified by the gift of God’s grace, and God’s mercy never comes to an end.

Each year, in early January, we read again one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, and we remember our own baptism. In his story, we see the Spirit coming down on him like a dove, and God’s voice assures him of his identity as a beloved child. Jesus’ baptism was the event that kicked off Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching about the coming Kingdom of God, and it foreshadowed Jesus’ willingness to die and be raised in order to show God’s love for the world.

But, as the Salt Project Lectionary Commentary points out, it should never cease to surprise us that Jesus is baptized at all. Luke explicitly frames John’s rite as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” – and yet Jesus, the Son of God, the sinless one, gets in line with the rest of us.

The late, great master preacher Fred Craddock once called attention to the extraordinary, stunning power of two little words in Luke’s account: “JESUS ALSO.” These words are used in verse 21 when we are told: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when JESUS ALSO had been baptized and was praying…”

“JESUS ALSO” is an expression of the astonishing humility and solidarity of the Incarnation: in Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal… even though he was the one without sin who didn’t need to repent.

But it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion? Indeed, following him means setting out with him on a path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is “well pleased.”

Remember that your baptism is not just something that happened to you 30 or 60 or 90 years ago and was finished. Remembering your baptism today means living into the meaning and significance of your baptism, and following the way of Jesus in your life, work, family, and service day-by-day.

The amazing promise we hear today is that God came among us in Jesus Christ. He got in line with the rest of us and was baptized, and then he invited us to follow him as he lived and ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And God promises to go with us through everything that life throws at us. As the prophet Isaiah expressed it, God says: “I have called you by name, and you are mine… You are precious in my sight… and I love you… Do not fear, for I am with you… I will be with you.”

Remember your baptism, and give thanks.