gifts of baptism

detail of mural at St Michael & All Angels London Fields, photo by John Salmon

detail of mural at St Michael & All Angels London Fields, photo by John Salmon

Yesterday we celebrated the baptism of Jesus. Which raised the question: what’s the big deal with baptism? Why was Jesus baptized? And why should we be? Thoughts after the jump.

After all the excitement of his baby stories, the adult Jesus just sort of sidles on stage. The prophet named John is preaching in the wilderness. People are so hungry for a fresh start, that they have come streaming to him, from miles away, out into the desert in the hope that this prophet might at last show them the way.

Maybe we haven’t followed a prophet into the desert. But we know what’s it’s like to want a fresh start. It’s that hope that fuels our resolutions every year. We know things aren’t as they should be, in ourselves or in the world, and we long for things to be made right.

The thousands streaming out to John in the desert shared those longings. And Jesus appears right in the midst of them, listening to John, lining up for baptism.

We skip past this so often, but how revealing is it that this is how Jesus chooses to come to us—as one of us, as part of the crowd. Before these people are baptized, before they’ve repented, before they’ve found what they’re looking for Jesus is with them, loving them. He’s even baptized with them.

Which raises the question—why was Jesus baptized? Surely he didn’t need to be baptized, right? Why was he baptized?

We don’t know.

Some historians tell us that Jesus was baptized by John because he was initially a follower of John. Maybe so.

Some early church fathers said Jesus was baptized in order to sanctify the waters. Just like by breaking bread and sharing the cup, Jesus gave those elements meaning beyond the apparent. So too, by being washed, Jesus pointed us to the power of ordinary water to demonstrate God’s love. Maybe so.

Some theologians say Jesus was baptized for us, as a gift for us. It is as if Jesus is saying, here is life. Do as I do. Be made clean. Let the waters wash over you and claim you, even as God has already claimed you. Maybe Jesus was baptized so that we would be, too.

All of which is well and good, but what difference does it make? If Jesus was baptized so that we’d be baptized, why did he think that was so important? What difference does it make in our daily lives?

Maybe you were baptized as an infant and don’t even remember it. Maybe you were baptized when you were older, and you can remember it, but you don’t think of it much. It doesn’t really affect the day to day. Maybe you’ve never been baptized, and you wonder what all the fuss is about.

Today as we remember Jesus’ baptism, I want to suggest three things that baptism can mean for our lives.

First, baptism is a sign that we are claimed by God’s love.

That’s what we see in Jesus’ baptism. As he comes up from the water, Jesus has a physical and spiritual experience of being claimed by God. The heavens open. A dove descends. And a voice says, You are my child, my beloved.” In his baptism, Jesus comes to know how deep God’s love runs.

This is what baptism means for us, too. As Presbyterians, we don’t believe baptism makes God love us. Rather, God chooses to love us because God is God, and baptism is a sign of that love. This is why we baptize infants—because it is a sign to them and to all of us, that before we are even able to choose, God already loves us. We are claimed by God.

In pointing us to baptism, Jesus gives us a tangible sign of the truth of the words in Isaiah. In baptism, the God who creates us says to each of us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

This is the first gift Jesus gives us in baptism—this sign that we are loved.

A second gift in baptism is the assurance that this love will sustain us through the ups and downs, ebbs and flows of life and death.

Immediately after this, in a story we’ll look at in more detail in a few weeks, Jesus is driven into the wilderness for a time of testing. Notice that this sign of God’s love comes first, not afterward. God loves him before he is tested, before he proves his mettle, and that love sustains him through that time of testing, and beyond—through his difficult ministry, even at his death.

Often when we talk about baptism we talk about dying and rising with Christ, and that gets at the same idea. In our baptism we have an irrevocable sign of God’s love for us, love that will sustain us day in and day out, in life and in death.

Our baptism gives us a tangible sign of God’s words in Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

In our baptism we are promised that we shall be brought safely to the other side. As we are covered with the waters, so too, we’re covered by God’s love on the good days, the horrible days, the days we can’t face, the days we hoped would never come. It is because of baptism, that we can proclaim with Paul, in life and in death we belong to the Lord, and so whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

The first gift of baptism is that God claims us. A second gift is that God’s love promises to sustain us.

And third, baptism points forward to the day when redemption will be made complete.

This is what John was getting at with the scary stuff about fire and separating wheat and chaff. This, he says, is what Jesus will do. It will be like a farmer who throws wheat up in the air, and the unnecessary chaff floats away in the wind, and the good wheat falls back down to the earth.

Now, we need to be clear. We should not understand this metaphor to mean that some of us are chaff who God will discard or throw into the fire. God made us all, made us good, and loves us. This is the testimony of scripture over and over again.

There is, however, in our world and in each of us, evil, sin, brokenness—call it what you will. We are not who we were created to be. We hurt ourselves, each other, the world. Sometimes it feels like we can’t help ourselves.

In spite of that, this is God’s promise to us in Jesus: the grip of evil on this world has been broken. And the brokenness in us will be made whole. The chaff—all the extra, not necessary, clutter that gets in the way of being who God made us to be—all of that will ultimately be carried away in the wind. The tarnish that mars our perfections, will be burned away in the fire—and in the process we will not be destroyed, but made whole. As Isaiah said, “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

God will bring creation to completion. This is promised in our baptism: the work of redemption has begun, and it will be made complete. We have died to sin and risen to life. We still mess up and make a mess of our lives, but God’s mercy is wider than our mistakes, and God has promised to make us whole.

This is the great good news of our baptism. We are claimed in God’s love. We are sustained by that love, in life and in death. And we will be made whole and holy by that love.

Come what may, this is the promise that is sealed in the waters of baptism. This assurance is the gift that Jesus gave us when he went under those waters and came up, ready to begin spreading the great good news. You were made by God. You are loved by God. If you will consent to living your life in light of that love, you will be sustained day in and day out, even unto death. And you will, ultimately, be made whole.

by Sarah W. Wiles
January 13, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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