Can you remember your baptism? If you were baptized as an infant, chances are good that you have no memory of the actual event. I was baptized by my pastor – who also happened to be my father – when I was a young girl. I am grateful that my baptism could happen in a clean, heated baptistery, instead of the cold muddy river our church used for baptisms in its earliest years. I remember stepping down into the water, wearing one of my dad’s white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. I remember losing my footing as my dad laid me down into the water, baptizing me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. But Dad didn’t let me drown. He held onto me until I could get my feet back under me, and then helped me back up the steps, where my mom waited with a clean towel. It’s a good memory. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something was different about me after that. I knew I’d been changed for good.
The third chapter of Matthew’s gospel describes a slightly different process, as John the Baptist preaches a message of judgment and baptizes repentant sinners in the Jordan River. The water is cold and murky. Since John’s call to repentance inspires a spontaneous desire to be baptized among his listeners, their Moms probably aren’t waiting on the riverbank with warm towels. But the people coming up out of the water know they’ve been changed for good. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but something is different.
Then, an amazing thing happens. The long line of baptismal candidates has dwindled down to the last three, then two, then only one person standing in front of John in the river, waiting to be baptized. And John recognizes this one. It’s his cousin, Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at the thirteenth verse:
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.” Matthew 3:13-17
Whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, your baptism required water. Water is essential to life, and we can’t live very many days without it. The average human body is about 65% water. Water plays a major role in the biblical story, all the way from Genesis, with Creation and Noah’s Flood, through the Exodus, as God provides water in the desert, into the New Testament, where Jesus lives and teaches by the Sea of Galilee, right through to Revelation, where the River of Life flows through the City of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he, himself, was the source of Living Water. Water also washes us, and the origins of baptism in Jewish worship included the symbolic act of washing and being purified through water. New converts to Judaism were baptized, you may remember, as part of the initiation ritual that demonstrated they were now clean, ready to enter the Temple. As John baptized repentant sinners in the Jordan River, I wonder if anyone remarked on the irony of being cleansed from sin in one of the dirtiest looking rivers around.
There’s a story in the Old Testament about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. I have sometimes wondered why it isn’t one of the assigned readings for this Sunday, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Naaman was a powerful general in the army of the King of Aram, during the time of the prophet Elisha. Naaman had a skin disease. His wife’s servant, a young girl who had been captured from Israel by an Aramean raiding party, told her mistress about Elisha the prophet, and said, “I wish my master would go to him and be healed.” One thing led to another, and soon Naaman was on his way to Samaria with a load of gifts for the King of Israel. You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but the short version is that the king sends Naaman to Elisha, and Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to meet the great warrior. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to dip himself in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman is insulted. Aren’t there cleaner, nicer rivers back home? And why doesn’t this prophet come out and wave a magic wand, say some mumbo jumbo and make the disease disappear? Naaman leaves in disgust. But his servants, who are traveling with him, urge him to reconsider. They remind him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’s been told to do? Naaman changes his mind, does what he’s told, and is healed of his skin disease.
Naaman repented. He turned around and went back to the river, and did what he was told to do. He obeyed the Word of the Lord, given through the prophet Elisha, and he was changed for good. His disgust and unwillingness to submit to Elisha’s command was replaced with obedience.
Like Naaman, John also protested, but relented and became obedient. John knew Jesus. We don’t know if these two relatives spent any time together as children, but keep in mind that John was only about six months older than Jesus, and their mothers had been close. So we can speculate that they knew each other as “cousins” before Jesus waded into the river to meet John. But John knew Jesus as something more than a cousin. He recognized that the man standing in front of him was The One for whom he had been preparing the way. John knew that this was the Messiah. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John knew that his own ministry was about to come to a close, because here stood the whole reason for John’s preaching, teaching, and baptizing. John knew that the Kingdom of God was looking him in the eye.
John’s question has troubled Christians from the beginning. Why did Jesus think he needed to be baptized? He had never sinned; he didn’t need to repent. Yet, here he was, asking John to baptize him along with all those repentant sinners. It’s quite possible that Matthew’s first-century church had argued over this question, and that is why Matthew makes a point of explaining a motive for this peculiar behavior by the Son of God. Jesus tells John, “Allow this to happen for the time being, to fulfill all righteousness.” “Trust me on this one,” Jesus says to his cousin John. “Even if it seems weird to you, just trust me. God has a plan in mind, and this is part of it.” So John is obedient, and baptizes Jesus, and righteousness is fulfilled.
That word, “righteousness,” is loaded with meaning. Matthew uses it seven times in his Gospel, and each use signals a slightly different understanding of the word. For Matthew, righteousness is more than “being good.” Righteousness is closely connected to an awareness of the coming Kingdom. Righteousness means following Jesus as a faithful disciple, and participating in that kingdom. Righteousness is becoming aligned with God’s deep desire to save us. When Jesus tells John, “permit it to be so now, to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s saying, “Let’s do this! It’s part of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin!”
It’s important to see that Jesus includes John in the plan. They have to do this together. This moment when John lowers Jesus under the water connects the ministry that went before, preparing the way, with the ministry that is just beginning – that is the Way. As Jesus submits to baptism, he puts himself in the same position as the people he came to save, and he does it in a very literal, tangible way that they can see. Three years from this moment, he will take on the sins of the entire world as he hangs on a cross at Golgotha. But in a very real way, his baptism serves as the initiation for that saving work.
So, just as Naaman obeyed Elisha, and John obeyed Jesus, Jesus becomes obedient. In their obedience, Naaman and John are changed for good. In his obedience, Jesus changes us for good.
And then something else amazing happens. The heavens are opened, and Jesus sees the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Spirit moved over the waters at Creation, and over Mary at Jesus’ conception. Now the Spirit moves over the waters of Christ’s baptism, labeling him as God’s own beloved Son, and anointing him as both King and servant of all. When we baptize an infant or a new believer, we lay on hands and breathe over the one being baptized, to signify that a New Creation has begun in us. We anoint the newly baptized with oil, as a symbol that the Holy Spirit has marked this one as God’s own beloved child.
Theologian Greg Garrett writes that baptism symbolizes birth and rebirth throughout the Bible, and whenever this happens, “people enter the water as one thing,” [slaves out of Egypt, or wanderers entering the Promised Land, for example] … and emerge as something entirely different”. Jesus entered the water as ‘just another guy’, as far as the crowds around John were concerned. But when he emerged from those baptismal waters, he’d been changed for good. Christ’s baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry on earth, but it also marked him as God’s own Son, the Beloved, in whom God took great pleasure. If Jesus was going to baptize with the Spirit, as John had announced, he had to first experience that anointing himself.
Baptism marks us as belonging to God. The old catechism calls it a visible, outward sign of an invisible, inward grace. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit does this work in us; it is not some transaction we perform. It is also important to remember that, once we are sealed with the mark of baptism, that seal is a permanent one. We belong to God, now and forever. He has claimed us as his own.
In a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows using a distinctive Wesleyan liturgy. As we each reflect on our own baptism, we must also consider how we ended up here, in this Methodist Church, living and working together for Christ’s kingdom through this particular congregation. How are we being called to obedience by God’s Spirit working among us? What is the outward sign of our inward grace, and how are we to show that grace to the community of New Ulm?
You may have noticed that several elements of our worship this morning have drawn on the Wesleyan heritage that marks the United Methodist Church in a unique way. For over three hundred years, the Methodist movement has been “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.” John Wesley held three simple rules that have become known as “The Wesleyan Way.” Those rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. They are reflected in the Minnesota Annual Conference Gospel Imperatives to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world.
As we renew our baptismal promises, we need to make them count for something, to honor them in spirit and in truth as we live out our faith together in this time and place. If this is something you haven’t considered before, or if it’s been a while since you consciously thought about your own discipleship, I encourage you to focus first on Wesley’s third rule: stay in love with God. Cultivating a deep and rich friendship with God gives us a reason to do good, to reach new people, to heal a broken world.
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 in a moment, 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.