Baptism of Our Lord
January 9, 2011
Baptism. Many of us were baptized as infants, having a bit of water splashed on our foreheads and a smear of oil. We were told that we were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. But we don’t remember. Those of us who went to Greece and Turkey were able to remember our baptism in a very powerful celebration in Philippi. It was only the second day of visiting early Church sites, but it was certainly a major highlight of our trip. It was in Philippi that the Apostle Paul met Lydia, the first convert, and performed the first baptism in Europe. It was beside a river on the outskirts of town that he met a group of women who had gathered to worship and pray, as there was no synagogue in Philippi. He sat down to teach them about Jesus, and Lydia asked if she could be baptized. You can read about it in the 16th chapter of Acts. The Orthodox Church has memorialized the site with a beautiful baptistery and channeled the river so that pilgrims can celebrate their own baptism in the same waters.
I brought a couple of pictures, pinned up on the bulletin board, if you want to see. There is a place to sit like a small theater, and across the channel an area for a preacher or a table. Granite steps go down into the channel, and up on the other side. We gathered to remember our own baptisms and renew our baptismal vows. Pastor John read the promises and renouncements. We all made our declarations. We were invited to step down into the rushing water and be splashed. “Remember that you have been washed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We then stepped out of the water up to the platform where bread and wine had been consecrated, and each of us partook of the Holy Meal. It was stunning. We talk often of coming up out of the water to new life, but rarely do Lutherans get to physically experience that stepping up and out. I will never think about baptism again without remembering our morning in Philippi.
It is in baptism that we are sealed into God’s family, become children of promise, and can know beyond a doubt that we God’s beloved. We are born into a new life in Christ forever, never to be plucked out of God’s hand. When we are the most worried, and most doubtful about our life and its purpose, or whether our faith is strong enough, Luther tells us, we should say to ourselves, “I am baptized.” It is in our baptism that we have been given the gift of faith to sustain us for a lifetime, and the assurance of the forgiveness of sins for all time.
Each of the Gospels has a slightly different account of how Jesus’ baptism took place, but all agree that Jesus came to where John was baptizing in the Jordan, and asked John to baptize him. John was astonished that HE should be doing the baptizing. All agree that there was a voice from heaven, pronouncing him Son, Beloved, and saying that he was pleasing. Why would Jesus have to be baptized? I’m with John on this, it does seem backward, doesn’t it?
In Matthew’s account, which is before us today, Jesus says that the purpose of this baptism is to fulfill “all righteousness.” We will hear a lot about ‘righteousness’ as we read Matthew’s Gospel through this year. Matthew sees righteousness as doing God’s will, even if it seems to contradict traditional practice. It is not enough to just follow the rules, or to spiritualize God’s teaching in Matthew. He holds his community responsible for being God’s people by doing what God requires. And so in today’s reading, Jesus’ follows what God expects by submitting to the baptism of John.
If you look back at the reading from Isaiah, you get job description of the Messiah, the anointed one: he will bring forth justice – for the nations, not just for his own people. He will be gentle and faithful in his teaching, nor will he give up before his work is done. He has been called, he is a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. He will open blind eyes and bring out captives. Perhaps this is the very prophecy which Jesus has in mind when he says that it is proper for him to fulfill all righteousness.
It is easy to see Jesus stepping into this role as God’s Beloved, Son of God, Bringer of Justice, Light to the Nations, as he emerges from the waters. But maybe his need to be baptized was just as simple as ours. Who does not want to be claimed as God’s own child? Who does not want to be told that you are Beloved? Who does not want to feel the Spirit touch you directly? Baptism is the guarantee of God’s faithful promise to each of us. No matter how dark the time we are negotiating, now matter how careless and unfaithful we have been, we can turn to our baptism to remember that we are God’s forever, and that God is always at work in our lives, even if we can’t see it. We are named and claimed by God as Beloved, no matter what else happens. Perhaps, just like us, Jesus turned to this day for the rest of his life, remembering those words: my Son, my Beloved. Remembering the touch of the Spirit. Remembering coming up out of the water to life with God forever.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.