The Heavens Opened – January 19, 2014
Psalm 27:1-14, Matthew 3:13-17
January 19, 2014
This is the Sunday we think about the beginning days of Jesus’ ministry. And specifically this is the day we celebrate his baptism. And I emphasize the word “we” in that sentence, because the Sunday designated to celebrate his baptism was last week. But if you remember we had a bit of a problem with ice two weeks ago and we wisely canceled our services. And since we didn’t want to “forget about” Epiphany, we decided to shift that celebration, and this one, back a week.
So, we’ve now “caught up” with our liturgical schedule. And hopefully Mother Nature will cooperate and we can stay on that schedule as we approach Lent – which is not too far down the road. (Even though Easter is late this year.)
So why do we talk at all about the Baptism of Jesus? Why is it so important? Why not just celebrate Epiphany and pick up the story there? Well, I think this was an important event! And so did the Gospel writers. All of them tell of this event or allude to it, in the case of John. And as I’ve said, when something is told by all four Gospel writers, it should be viewed as having greater importance. All four of them saw this as an identifying event at the very start of the public ministry of Jesus. And I hope we do too. And I hope it gives us pause to think about our own beginnings, as we use this day as a time of recommitment to this Jesus and his kingdom.
So we look at this story. And the first thing we need to mention is that it seems a little odd that Jesus even came to John to be baptized, doesn’t it? Even John thought so! Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented it.” He even gives us some of the conversation, too. “I need to be baptized by you!” he said. But Jesus explained that it was fitting “in order to fulfill all righteousness.”
Still, we’re not quite sure about that. And one of the reasons this story seems odd, is that sometimes people get hung up on the theological details of this event. “Baptism,” they say, “is for the forgiveness of sins.” “So why Jesus?” “If he was without sin, as many believe, he didn’t need this ‘sacrament.’”
Well, the thing about that is that baptism is not just about the forgiveness of sins. Yes, it has, as part of it, the symbolism of water and of cleansing. But baptism is also all about community, and the entry into that community. That’s how the Jewish people used it. When they welcomed an outsider into the faith, they used this ceremony.
I think we Presbys do well with that interpretation. We celebrate baptism always as a congregational event. And in that ceremony, we get hints of the communal nature of this sacrament. We say, “In baptism God puts his sign on you to show that you belong to him.” That’s very basic, and very simply put. And then, as part of the ceremony, we ask the congregation, “Will you help this person learn all Christ commands, and by your fellowship, strengthen their family ties with the house hold of God?” That’s what we’re talking about!
As you know, I love that wording! It speaks very well that baptism is an “entry ceremony,” almost an “initiation rite.” It’s a time of making “vows,” which we will remember and celebrate today, and it’s a time of making pledges. In the oldest traditions, the baptismal font was in the back of the church, not the front. (And by the way, it is “font,” not “fount.”) It was back there because it was symbolic of being the “entryway” into the community of believers. And yes, part of the entry into the church is about receiving Christ as savior and being cleansed from sin. There’s no doubt that’s part of this. But even in that, the water is purely a symbol. It is a sign of what Jesus has done for us. The water doesn’t actually cleanse us. Otherwise, we’d need to do this over and over and over again.
So, Jesus came to John to be baptized. And the simple explanation of that is that Jesus wanted to make this a beginning. And he wanted to let people know who he was, without just coming right out and saying it. Remember, we know who he was. Those people didn’t. For them it wasn’t a matter of “Hey great! Jesus is here!” It was more like “Who is this guy?” And as I’ve often said, I don’t think it would have gone over very well if he just stood up in the Temple or on a rock somewhere and said, “Hey everyone, I’m the Messiah! I’m the Son of God!” That wouldn’t have worked. In fact, all throughout his ministry there was a sense of careful timing involved in Jesus revealing who he was.
So the things that happened that day gave a miraculous start to his ministry. They said amazing things about him, which he may not have been able to simply come out and say about himself. To see the heavens opened, to see the spirit descend as a dove, to hear the voice of God, those are what Jesus intended in this event. And the world would never forget it!
So we think about that today. We think about the Baptism of our Lord. And in past years we’ve been using this event to think about our own Baptism, our own beginnings. If you’re like me, you were too young to remember it. As an infant, I was too young to know what was happening, or even that it did happen. But the upside of that is that when we baptize a baby, we get a better sense of the “entry into the community” part of this sacrament. And we remember it as a time when the process of being “nurtured in the faith” begins. So think about those who nurtured you in your faith. Was it your parents? Was it your Sunday School teacher? Or was it other influential members of your church community? I know I could point to all three of them. Maybe you can, too.
Maybe you do remember your baptism. Maybe you were older. Maybe you even remember the vows you took. (We’re going to recall them in just a few minutes!) If you can’t, maybe you can remember your confirmation. The vows are the same. At that time you confirmed Jesus as savior and pledged to follow him.
However it all happened to you, I invite you to think back and remember it. And I’d like you to think of the words of John in his Revelation, when he warned the church in Ephesus that they had lost “the love they had at first.” (Revelation 2:4) I want you to think about the “first love” you had for God, as we ask you to reconfirm your commitment to him today. It’s a New Year, and I can’t think of a better time to say those vows again, to recommit your life to Jesus Christ, and to renew your pledge to follow him.
So I invite you to do that now. And then I will “reintroduce you “ the waters of baptism.
Baptismal Vows and the Waters of Baptism.
Lord we love you and we give ourselves to you. Helps us as we remember vows and pledges, to strive to follow. Help us to know in this new year that we are indeed being conformed to the image of Christ our Lord, that we are being led by your spirit, and that we are called to be the light of your love and Grace to the world. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom in our midst, Amen.