Wet And Ready
Sermon by Stephen Ricketts
Providence-Fort Washington United Methodist Church
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Baptism of the Lord – January 8, 2012
Several weeks ago Oren Mangrum and I were having a discussion about which event is more important in Jesus’ life, Christmas or Easter. I said that I believe Easter is more important because without Easter, Christmas is irrelevant. Oren said that he felt Christmas was more important because without Christmas, Easter is impossible. Now, this is somewhat like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Obviously, Christmas and Easter are both important because both reveal God’s grace and God’s love; together they are God’s gift of salvation given to all people. But after some thought Oren began to see things my way; he acknowledged that Easter is the most important event in Jesus’ life, though we both think Christmas is pretty important. Well, just when that question seems settled we have a new day to celebrate, the Baptism of Jesus. Where does this day fit into the hierarchy of Christian celebrations of Jesus’ life? Clearly Jesus’ baptism is important; Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe the event. But is this day more important than Christmas or Easter? I am not sure I want to put it first or second, but I want to suggest that this day might be a good contender for third because it marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Every event recorded in the gospels before Jesus’ baptism is essentially private. His birth, dedication and even the story about meeting with the elders in the temple are really private events that were known to just a few people. Every event recorded after Jesus’ baptism is a public event. Beginning with his baptism, Jesus embarked on a public ministry that touched thousands of people. In some sense, without Jesus’ baptism, there would be no ministry.
But, what exactly is baptism that makes it such an important event in Jesus’ life and elevates this practice to the status of a sacrament in the church? Like many questions, this one is much easier to ask than to answer. The problem begins with the word itself. You see, baptize is not an English word; it is a Greek word. In Greek, the word means to immerse or to dip or to wash depending on the context, though immerse is the usual meaning. Most English translations of the Bible avoid choosing a meaning by simply using the Greek word. Some groups of Christians believe that baptize should be translated as immerse and this leads to the Baptist Church’s insistence on baptism by immersion. The fact is, we do not know exactly what happened when John “baptized” Jesus. John might have immersed him completely in the Jordan, or he might have just poured water over his head. No matter what he did, we can be sure that Jesus was thoroughly wet when John had finished “baptizing” him.
Another difficulty to understanding baptism is that we use it for a variety of purposes in the church. At its simplest, baptism is the ritual we use to bring people into the church. If you look closely at Baptismal Covenant I (p. 33 in the Hymnal) you will see that it includes several sections. After the actual baptism (section 11), there are sections for becoming a member of The United Methodist Church, and a member of the local congregation. So, we receive members into the church through the sacrament of baptism.
Another difficulty in understanding baptism is that we baptize both children and adults. When John appeared in the wilderness, he came preaching a baptism of repentance; that is he called people to turn from following their own sinful desires to following God. Obviously, a baptism of repentance implies that someone is able to understand there is sin in their life and make a conscious decision to change; obviously this is a decision that only a mature person can make. But, many Christians (including Methodists) baptize infants and children who cannot make such a decision. How can baptism apply to both infants and adults? The answer is that baptism means different things depending on who is being baptized. When we baptize an adult, we first ask them to renounce the sin in their life and then profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. For them, baptism represents their death to sin and their new birth into Christ. But, when we baptize a child, we are not actually speaking to the child, we are really speaking to the child’s parents and to the church. When we baptize a child we, the whole church, are promising to love and nurture the child and provide a Christian environment until the child is able to publically profess their faith (usually during confirmation). So, baptism of an adult is a baptism of repentance and profession of faith. Baptism of a child is the church claiming the promise of baptism for the child and pledging to support the child until they can accept Christ for themselves.
But, I think the real reason we have so much difficulty understanding baptism is that we are looking at it from a human perspective. But, what happens when we look at baptism from God’s perspective? What is God doing in baptism? While there are minor differences between the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, the first three gospels agree on one key point; they all agree a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus was baptized, God publically acknowledged him as his Son. I believe that the same thing happens when someone is baptized today. Now, we may not hear a voice thundering from heaven, but baptism is, from God’s perspective, something like an adoption ceremony. No matter who we are or what we have done, in baptism, God claims us as his own. It does not matter whether we are an adult or an infant, in baptism, God declares that we are his child. So, first and foremost, in baptism God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the voice that spoke from heaven, but there is one point about which all four gospels agree; all describe the Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove. From God’s perspective, baptism is the moment when God’s Holy Spirit is poured into our lives. In today’s passage from Acts, Paul encounters a group of disciples who only knew about John’s baptism of repentance. We do not know who brought them the Good News of Jesus Christ, but whoever it was, that person only shared with them John’s baptism. When Paul baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus, they received the Holy Spirit. If you look closely at our Baptismal Covenant (p. 37), you will see that “immediately after the administration of the water, the pastor, places hands on the head of the candidate, and says: The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is really a “two-part” sacrament. In the first part we are washed with the water and received as a child of God. In the second part we are filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
God’s third act in baptism is to send us out to serve the world. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness and from there he “proclaimed the good news.” Baptism is both the catalyst that propels us into ministry and the protection that enables us to serve in the world. I believe that in his baptism God provided Jesus with every gift he would need as he proclaimed the Gospel message. I believe that in his baptism, God provided Jesus with every protection he would need to resist Satan’s temptation. I believe this is what happens in our baptism; I believe God equips and protects us for ministry through our baptism. As a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ, God has given you everything you need in order to serve him in the world. As a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ, you are fully qualified to engage in whatever ministry God calls you to. And, as a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ, you have the assurance that God will protect you from all evil in the world.
I believe baptism makes much more sense when we look at it from God’s perspective. I believe we can see how God uses the water of baptism to shower us with his love, his grace, and his power. In baptism, God declares his love for each and every one of us; God claims us as his own beloved child. In baptism, God fills us with his grace; God fills us with his Holy Spirit. In baptism, God fills us with his power; God sends us into the world to serve him by ministering to a hurting world.
So, are you wet enough for ministry? Are you wet enough to heed God’s call on your life? Are you wet enough to change the world? Have the waters of baptism so saturated your life that you are ready to burn with the fire of the Holy Spirit? Today we stand at the beginning of 2012. I believe this year will be filled with challenges and opportunities for Providence-Fort Washington. I believe God is calling us to do great things for him in this place. Already we have drafted a set of goals as part of the Methodist Church’s Call to Action. And as we implement these goals, we will make a difference in the world. But, I believe God has bigger plans for us than just the small goals we have outlined; I believe God is calling us to do even greater things for him.
Today, I challenge us to lay aside our timid spirits and embrace the waters of baptism. I challenge us to hear God’s voice as he claims us as his beloved children. I challenge us to allow the Holy Spirit to baptize us with his fire. I challenge us to rely fully on God as we go to serve God in the world.
We are wet with the waters of baptism and we are ready to burn with the fire on the Holy Spirit.
"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake."
Gospel of Matthew (5:3-10)