A picture hangs in my office, taken sometime in the mid-1950s. A young boy is standing waist-deep in a river, holding a list of names, candidates for baptism. Next to him is his father, a pastor, preparing to baptize a young girl. The busy river flows around these three figures, and makes me grateful that, by the time that same pastor, who also happened to be my father, baptized me, it was in a heated baptistery filled with clean water.
This Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus going down into the Jordan River, where John was baptizing repentant sinners. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t asking to be baptized because of sin, but in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17).
There’s a story in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:1-14) about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. But Naaman didn’t do it voluntarily. In fact, he was angry that the prophet Elisha had told him to do such a degrading thing, and turned away in disgust. But his servants reminded him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’d been told to do? Naaman changed his mind, and was healed of his skin disease.
I see a connection between John’s baptism “with water for repentance” and Naaman’s repentant plunge into the Jordan River. But I see an even stronger connection between Naaman’s “baptism” and the baptism of Jesus, who had no need to repent, who knew no sin. Naaman may have balked at first, but in the end, he did what he was told to do. John may have balked when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but in the end, Jesus did what he was told to do, too. Naaman was cleansed of his disease, while Jesus took on the sins of the world. Both were obedient to God.
Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water this Sunday, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.