For this first weekend of 2018, our topic in worship is the Baptism of Christ, as found in Mark 1:4-11.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you follow church on Facebook you already know this, but our confirmation class topic last Wednesday was baptism. We talked about what baptism is, had students share what they knew about their own baptisms, and we read this story about Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin, John the Baptist.
Our final activity for the evening was moving to the sanctuary and gathering around the baptismal font to remember our baptisms.
I dipped my fingers in the water, and traced the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead, saying, “Remember that you have been claimed as a child of God.”
Remember that you have been claimed as a child of God.
When we hear this story of Jesus being baptized, a big question comes up. Why does Jesus get baptized? When we baptize someone in our church, we say, in baptism, God liberates us from sin and death. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a means by which God claims us as part of the Church, the family of God.
As a side note, that’s why it doesn’t really make sense to do a private baptism if we can possibly help it. Being baptized means joining a community of faith, so whenever possible, it should be done in the community.
But the main point of baptism is that it is a means of God’s grace. It’s a channel through which God shows us love and grace. In the Small Catechism (did you know there’s an app for that?), Martin Luther describes baptism as bringing about the forgiveness of sins, redeeming from death and the devil, and giving eternal salvation. We baptize because Jesus says to do it, because this is a way God chooses to work. If you’re here today and you have never been baptized, let’s talk after service.
All of that’s great for us, but again, why does Jesus get baptized? His baptism certainly wasn’t about forgiveness of sins. Jesus never sinned, so there was nothing to forgive there. It wasn’t to join the church – Jesus doesn’t need a ritual to join his own body. So what’s going on here?
John the baptizer is confused too. In Mark’s version of the story, he talks about not being worthy to even untie the sandals of the Messiah.
In Matthew’s telling, John actually has an argument with Jesus when Jesus wants to be baptized, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But eventually, Jesus convinces him, and John baptizes Jesus.
I see two important parts of Jesus’ baptism First, at the same time he’s God in the flesh, Jesus is also human. That’s the point of the Christmas story. And as a human, Jesus has the same doubts and struggles we do. There are times when he doubts his mission. At the end of his ministry, as we’ll here not that long from now, Jesus will be so overcome that he’ll sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God if there’s another way to save the world. On the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
His baptism gives proof that his mission is actually from God. He can look back on and remember God’s voice declaring from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That’s one of the benefits of baptism for us too.
As we talked about at confirmation, God does not need you to be baptized in order to save you. God is not limited by whether or not a certain ritual is performed. Think about the thief on the cross. He wasn’t baptized, yet Jesus tells him today he will be with him in paradise. Or think about everyone in the Old Testament who lived and died before Jesus’ command for us to baptize. Forgiveness comes from Jesus’ death on the cross, not from action we take. It’s God’s will, not ours.
Baptism, though, gives us something to point to in moments of doubt. Martin Luther in late nights of wrestling with his doubts, would yell out, “Get away from me Satan. I am baptized!”
Baptism is a physical sign of God’s grace. It’s a little like a driver’s license. There are many people who can drive before they get a license, but getting a license gives you something tangible, something you can pull out of your wallet and say, “Look, I can drive. Here’s the proof.”
I don’t carry it in my wallet, but I have this certificate testifying that on July 16, 1989, I was baptized by Pastor Byron Bunge. There’s something I can point to. Whether or not you have a certificate, if you’re baptized, somewhere in a church there is a record you can point to as material proof of God’s claim on your life.
Even if we don’t remember the actual occasion, there are times when having that event to point to can be important for us, and I think it was important for Jesus too. Even though he was already the Son of God, God in the flesh, this event is a clear sign of his identity.
The other important part of Jesus’ baptism is what happens right after he’s baptized. As he comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart. To think about what that means, I want to go back to our Psalm for a minute. Psalm 29 talks about how powerful the voice of the Lord is, and it’s traditionally associated with Jesus’ baptism.
I think we miss something when we sit here in our nice temperature controlled building, safely gathered for our rituals of worship, singing predictable hymns we mostly know, hearing familiar readings, and doing pretty much the same thing every week. Worship can feel safe and comfortable. Note that this idea comes from an excellent reflection in the Feasting on the Word commentary by Allen C. McSween Jr.)
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for worship to be familiar, but sometimes, we risk thinking God is safe and comfortable. Psalm 29 is not talking about a safe, comfortable God. This is talking about an awesome, powerful God whose voice thunders over the waters, who can snap off the strongest trees, shaking the whole creation. That’s who we’re worshiping.
Writer Annie Dillard puts it like this. She warns, “The churches are like children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flairs; they should lash us to our pews.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, pg. 40-41)
At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are ripped apart, and just for a moment, we get a glimpse of God’s awesome power. The Holy Spirit comes in a visible form, and God’s booming voice declares who Jesus really is.
This cosmically powerful God, this God with the thundering voice who created the world who can make powerful nations skip like young wild animals, this God has come into our world. C.S. Lewis describes it as an invasion, as God landing on this enemy-occupied world in human form. (Mere Christianity) Jesus really is God in the flesh, God with us.
During the season of Advent, as we prepared for Christmas, we’ve been writing prayer concerns and glimpses of God on paper lightbulbs, and they’re on display around the kitchen window in the fellowship hall. Each lightbulb represents a glimpse of God’s power, a glimmer of God’s light brightening the darkness of our world. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, just for a moment, the curtain is peeled back and a spotlight pierces through.
As Mark’s Gospel continues, there will be two more moments of tearing open. In a few weeks, we’ll hear the transfiguration story, where the disciples get to see a glimpse of Jesus’ true heavenly glory. God’s voice speaks again, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” And then on Good Friday, at the moment Jesus dies, the curtain hanging in the temple to separate humanity from God is torn apart.
God is breaking in. God is tearing away the barriers that separate us from God, forgiving our sin, washing us clean, defeating death, gathering us into the presence of God, gathering us around God’s table to be fed and nourished on Jesus’ own body.
As you reflect this week on the baptism of Jesus, I invite you to remember your own baptism. Remember that the God who created the heavens and the earth is the same God who has claimed you as a beloved child. The same Savior who has come into our world to die for us has washed you clean and made you part of his Church forever.
On your way out of worship today, I invite you to dip your fingers into the baptismal font as a reminder of God’s promises in baptism. You can make the sign of the cross, or just feel the water.
Remember that you have been claimed as a child of God.