Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
January 11, 2009
Today is the day we think about the Baptism of Jesus. That’s not as well known a liturgical day as Christmas or Epiphany or Palm Sunday. But I’d like to start thinking of it that way. As I said last year, I’d like to take this occasion, to have us think about and remember our own baptism, even though we may not have any actual memories of that event. I’d like us to make this a Sunday where we remember the beginnings of our faith. And here, at the beginning of a new year, I’d like us to have the opportunity to renew our faith, and recommit our lives to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. What better way to start a new year?
Let me start by reminding us a few things about the sacrament itself. We Presbyterians recognize Baptism in two forms. Infant Baptism, and Adult Baptism. (Sometimes called “Believer Baptism.”) And as good Presbyterians, I hope that we can see the value of both. In infant baptism, we emphasize the beginning of the process of Christian nurture. At that time, the parents are asked to state their faith in Jesus Christ, and they pledge themselves to raise the Child in the faith. The end of the process is that child coming to their own faith, and stating that faith at the time of Confirmation.
In Adult Baptism, the person receiving the sacrament is asked to state their faith. And Adult Baptism would be given to someone whose parents chose not to have them baptized as an infant. Some parents take that “option” so that the child might experience the sacrament first hand later on. Another time we see Adult Baptism is with someone who was not raised in the faith. That’s becoming the case more and more as the generation X children come back to the church after their parents went away.
Now, even though those two forms of Baptism seem different, they are very similar in that they are both thought of as “entry points” into the household of God. In other words, Baptism is something we do when a person comes into a specific congregation – either as an infant or an adult. It used to be the case that the baptismal font was kept at the back of the sanctuary. It represented the entry point into the life of the congregation. That’s also why as Presbyterians don’t have “private baptisms.” Along with the Lord’s Supper, we consider the sacraments to be “community events.” They are events of the whole congregation.
As a good Presbyterian, I do see the value in both forms of baptism. But the one problem I see with Infant Baptism, is that those who have received the sacrament at that point in their lives don’t tend to remember the event as they get older. Because of that, some ministers include in the baptism ceremony an invitation for all of the people present to “remember their own baptismal vows” or the vows taken on their behalf. In just a little while, I’m going to give us a similar opportunity.
If you look on the back of your bulletin, you’ll find the vows we use in the baptism ceremony. I had Donna put them there so you can remember those words. If you don’t remember your own baptismal vows, perhaps you remember those spoken by others, or the ones you spoke at the baptism of your own children. If not, maybe you remember your “confirmation vows.” The questions and answers in that ceremony are very similar. And that makes sense, because in confirmation, we “confirm” those vows that were taken for us at our baptism. Those vows are a public acknowledgment of that faith in which your family – and your Church family – pledged to raise you. I’d like us to consider these words again today, and again, I’d like us to think of them as a renewal of our commitment to Jesus Christ.
As we consider these words, I want to remind us again about what it is we do in this sacrament. It used to be in Baptism that we gave a great deal of emphasis to the idea of this thing called “Original Sin.” People believed that, as sinners we carried within us, from the moment of birth, the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Infant Baptism developed from the need to deal with that belief. People felt the need to make sure the child’s soul was “taken care of” – just in case something were to happen. A lot of that understanding is preserved today in the Roman Catholic tradition.
We Presby’s don’t emphasize “original sin” in that way. We think more in terms of Baptism being the beginning of the process of Christian nurture. We think of it more as the entry point into the “Household of God.” We emphasize the congregational nature of what we do. When you stand and answer the final question about helping nurture the child, I hope you realize how important that is!
Now, I know there are still some of those other feelings here. And I don’t want to discount those feelings. What I do want us to understand here, is that Baptism is not just something we “get done” for the Child. Too many parents have thought of it that way. They’ve thought of baptism as something you do to a child – for their protection – like giving them their immunizations. Too many parents have thought in terms of “getting the child done” and that’s it. And not enough thought has been given to the process of Christian nurture. But for us Presbyterians, that’s the most important part! It’s important that we don’t see the waters of baptism just as being an “inoculation” against sin or its consequences. There is so much more in this sacrament! I can’t emphasis that enough!
Now, at the same time, I don’t want you to think that the water we use here has no importance. On the contrary! This water takes on a mystical nature that we can’t begin to fathom. (It’s much “deeper” than just this shallow bowl!) In fact, I think anyone who believes they have the “full understanding” of the waters of Baptism, had better think again. There is more here than we can ever possibly understand! Yes, the biggest part of this ceremony takes place in the vows. It is the “belief in our hearts, and the confession with our lips,” as Paul says, that makes the difference. It is our trust in God, and our confession of faith in Jesus Christ, that establishes our relationship with him. But the waters are deep, and they are mystical, and they are spiritually important!
The waters of baptism are a symbol of that commitment made. As one liturgy book explains it, the water is an “outward sign of an inward change.” And what we do here with water is we establish a “place of remembrance” of that change. Jesus did the same thing with the elements of communion. He established a place of remembrance. That word is right here on our table! And he went on to say, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you (do… what? You) remember…” So baptism is the experience in which we remember the time we stated publicly that we belong to God. Because of that, David Willis, one of my professors at Seminary once said, “We should use a lot of water!” “We should make this experience memorable! – perhaps even traumatic!” I’ve always remembered that. And I think he was right. Maybe the adult should get quite wet. Maybe the baby should cry! Baptism should be something we remember!
Throughout our Christian lives, we celebrate again and again certain events. Every year, we celebrate the time God came into this world as a man, Jesus. We remember his life. We remember his death and resurrection. We celebrate the beginnings of his Church on Pentecost. God recognized that such remembrances are important to us humans. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We celebrate New Years Day, Columbus Day, and Groundhog Day. God recognized that such celebrations are important to us. In fact, it was God who created us that way in the first place.
If you think about it, though, the one part of our faith that we don’t remember and celebrate all that often, is the part that is perhaps the most important to us. We don’t celebrate on any kind of regular basis that time when we first came to our faith. So, I’d like this occasion, the Baptism of Jesus, to be that time. And may it be a good start to the new year to remember that “new beginning” in our lives. As we think about the kind of people we are going to be in the new year, (as we make resolutions!) may we remember that “if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old is finished and done, behold the new has come.”
So invite you, to remember your Baptism today. I invite you to reaffirm your baptismal vows with me. And I’d like us to continue this tradition every year on the Baptism of Jesus Sunday. So turn with me now to the backs of your bulletins. As we do this, let us remember the beginnings of our faith in God through his son, Jesus Christ. Then I’m going to “reintroduce” you to the waters of baptism.
Renewal of Baptism Vows (Please stand)
Q: Who is your Lord and Savior?
A: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.
Q: Do you trust him?
A: I do.
Q: Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love?
A: I do.
Since we are baptized into a congregation, we ask this last question.
Q: Do you the people of this Church recognize that you are body of Christ and individually members of him, and do you promise to share together the good news of the gospel, to learn together and encourage one another to follow all that Christ commands, and by your fellowship, to strengthen each others ties with the household of God?
A: I do.
Eternal God, we thank you for creating us in your image, and for making us your children. Help us to move forward in our faith, remembering the joy of our salvation and our new life in you. Help us to know your presence, now and always. For this we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.