Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The Disney movie The Emperor's New Groove tells the story of a selfish and unfeeling emperor named Kuzco. After firing and alienating his equally as selfish and unfeeling advisor, she decides to get her revenge and turns Kuzco into a llama. The bulk of the movie is the story of him trying to get back to the palace and changed back into a human. Along the way, he makes promises and then breaks them…and makes more promises and beaks them….and makes false promises, and breaks them, and ultimately finds himself in the middle of the forest in the pouring rain, alone, helpless, and for the first time ever, realizing that his former life has gotten him absolutely nowhere. He’s a llama stuck in the middle of the rain, for goodness’ sake! But this rainy scene is the turning point for him. The water here becomes his transformation and renewal and repentance. Water is a symbol in much of our film and literature, and usually shows up at moments like this. Key moments when a person or a story turns around, when the old life is washed way and gives birth to a new one.
Today is a day that we focus on these same themes. We remember our baptisms in light of Jesus’ baptism, and give thanks to God for the waters of baptism that washed away our sin and that transformed us, sinners, into God’s righteous people. Luther, in his small catechism, teaches us that baptism is a matter of water and word. It “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives salvation to all who believe.” He says that baptism “signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
In Matthew's gospel, Jesus’ baptism is his first public adult action. Matthew begins his gospel telling about Jesus’ ancestry and about his birth, and then he skips over 30 years of Jesus’ life and immediately tells the account of Jesus’ baptism. He comes to John the Baptist – that strange character we got to know in Advent who ate locusts and wild honey and wore a cloak of camel’s hair. John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, the man sent to earth to save us from our sins, approaches John to take part in this baptism of repentance. He does this not because he needs to be saved from his sins, but because we need to be saved from ours. And we read that the moment he came up from the water - at the moment that he arose, foreshadowing his eventual rising from the dead – the skies opened and the spirit of God descended upon him like a dove. And the voice of God from heaven proclaimed that this man, Jesus, is his beloved son, in whom he is well pleased.
This powerful and supernatural moment signifies for us that something really does happen in baptism. The baptismal waters are cleansing, and renewing, and transforming... Each of us has moments in life when we are like emperor Kuzco - when we find ourselves in the middle of the forest, alone and scared and broken. The good news of our baptism is that we never have to remain forever in these dark places. The good news is that God is gracious. To be baptized is to be assured of this grace and to remember that we are claimed by God. When Luther would feel tormented by the devil and all the powers of sin and brokenness in the world, he would take comfort in repeating over and over again "I am baptized!" This is why we cross ourselves - to remember that we are baptized and to take comfort in it. One of my seminary professors commented that we should always begin our day by remembering our baptisms - remembering that we live wholly by and in God's grace. He said that we might even make a point of crossing ourselves in the shower, remembering the waters of our baptisms that cleansed us from our sin and brought us to new life in Christ. In this way, we start every day remembering that our lives have been made sacred.
In Marylinne Robinson's novel, Gilead, the narrator of the story - John Ames - recalls some of the mischief he got into with his friends as a child. He remembers: “Once, we baptized a litter of cats….I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula….I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” (Gilead, 21-23)
There is a reality in baptism, he says. A real transformation. A real moment when we are grasped and claimed by God to live redeemed lives of faith. We are truly blessed, and we are truly sacred to God. When we look at Jesus baptism, we are reminded that our own beautiful and mysterious lives are wholly wrapped up in the mysterious presence of God. Our own sacred lives are bound to the waters of our baptism. But these waters are not standing still. They are forever moving, swirling, rushing, pushing us toward an ever-deeper walk with Christ.
When Jesus emerged from the water, his old, private life was over. His baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry - all of his miracles and preaching and teaching, and ultimately, his death and resurrection. His baptism wasn't a one-time event or a mere ritual. His baptism was just the beginning of a life reoriented toward God's purposes. It was the official beginning of his life as the servant described in Isaiah: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching....I have called [him] in righteousness, I have taken [him] by the hand; I have given [him] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."
Jesus’ baptism thrust him into acts of love and service. Our baptisms do the same thing. When we baptize people, we use a liturgy that includes a series of promises. The baptized promise:
to live among God's faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord's supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
And we as a congregation promise to support the baptized as they grow in faith and learn about God's Word and become disciples. Our liturgy reminds us that baptism is just the beginning of a lifelong process of growing ever closer to God and aligning our lives more and more with God's will.
One of my parents’ cats, Bert, is fascinated by water. Over Christmas, he ran into the bathroom while my older sister was running the water for a bath for one of my nieces. Burt heard the water running and sprinted into the bathroom and over the edge of the tub – only to realize that there were already a couple inches of water in the bottom of the tub! It’s true: cats hate water! His paws barely hit the surface before he sprung back out onto dry ground, shaking water off of his paws with every step.
Have you ever felt like Bert? Fascinated by transforming waters of baptism, curious as to what baptism means for your life? And then when you get up-close and personal to these promises and to the holy power of God, when baptism challenges you to live differently as you embrace your faith, all of the sudden you find yourself leaping backwards, shaking off the waters of baptism because they makes such a claim on your life? I think we all feel this way. How could the task not seem overwhelming?
But we have to remember that we don’t have to go it alone. Baptism makes a claim on our lives, but not without the everlasting support and inspiration of God the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are God’s beloved, and God will give us the strength to live each day in the fullness of our baptisms to be pushed onward by the rushing waters toward lives of faithful love and fervent service. Today, I urge you not to shy away from the water – I urge you to jump into the bathtub and stay there a while. Look around at the wars and the greed that plague our world. At individualism and materialism that drive us to despair. At illness, death, disaster that plague our existence, or at oppression and injustice. We make these baptismal promises in order to be a part of sharing God’s saving grace with the world!
During Lent this year, we will be supporting and encouraging a group of people involved with The Way - some of them are people seeking membership here at Trinity. Some might be seeking their own baptism or the baptism of their children. But along with these people, we hope to get a group of you from the congregation to spend Lent in preparation for affirming your baptism at the Easter Vigil. Affirming your baptism means publicly re-committing yourself to the promises that were made at your baptism and reestablishing your life under God’s baptismal covenant.
As people claimed by God, we can't possibly sit still. Just as Jesus' baptism kicked off the whole of his ministry, so also do our baptisms jump-start our lives of faith and discipleship, our lives of striving for justice, for sharing the good news, for living as people whose lives have been made sacred by God.
If you remember nothing else about baptism, if you remember nothing else about this sermon, remember this: God has claimed you and transformed your life from something broken into something sacred. Baptism is nothing more and nothing less than God taking hold of our lives and changing them forever. Baptism is when God looks at each and every one of us and says "you are my sons and daughters, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased."