Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, September 22, 2018
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Jesus' Baptism and Our Baptism

Mark 1:4-11

 Today we mark the beginning of a new season in the Christian year, and with it a new chapter in the story of salvation.  We are now in the season after Epiphany.  And in our Christian story, Jesus has now grown up.  He is about 30 years old, and the time has come for him to begin his ministry.  

 But first, there must be some kind of event to mark that beginning, an inauguration if you will.  It begins with the coming of John the Baptist.  We talked about John and who he was and what he stood for back in the season of Advent, so we won’t belabor the point of talking about him.  To state it simply, he is the first prophet of God to appear among the people of Israel for more than 400 years.  That alone is remarkable, but he is also given a special task.  He is the one to announce the coming of Messiah.  He has been ordained to prepare the hearts of people to receive Messiah.

 He was such a remarkable figure that many people wondered if he himself could be the Messiah.  He clearly stated he was not.  His baptism was only a baptism by water to show a person’s sincere desire to repent, but when Messiah came, he would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Compared to the Messiah, he was just a humble servant, not even worthy of untying the Master’s sandals.  But he had a purpose: to make Messiah known.

 Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John.  After he was baptized in the Jordan, he came up from the water, the heavens were torn open.  This showed symbolically that God had come near to his people, so near in fact that he was present in their very midst.  It was reminiscent of the words of Isaiah the prophet who wrote, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  Well, the heavens were opened, and God in flesh was present with his people. 

 And the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, like a dove.  A dove, of course, is a symbol of peace.  But it can also mean more than that.  In the book of Genesis, after the great flood, Noah sent out the dove, and the dove returned with an olive branch, a symbol that God was renewing the world.  So the dove can also be a symbol of new life.  And the dove is also a symbol of gentleness, and it was foretold by Isaiah that the Messiah would be gentle among his people:  “A bruised reed he will not break, a flickering candle he will not extinguish.”  His work would be one of healing and restoration.

 And then God spoke from heaven, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me joy.”  In the first century, the Jews believed that God no longer spoke by prophets.  But that didn’t mean that God was silent.  They believed that God sometimes communicated directly with his people by what they called a bat kol, the “daughter of a voice.”  They believed that when God spoke in heaven, it echoed on the earth.  And sometimes, people could hear that echo of God’s voice.

 Usually when God spoke like this, he quoted Scripture to his people, and that could certainly be the case here.  God’s words could be a combination of several Old Testament verses.  Psalm 2:7, “You are my son, I have become your Father.”  Isaiah 42:1, “Look at my servant.  He is my chosen one, who pleases me.  I have put my Spirit upon him to bring justice to the nations.”  And also possibly Genesis 22:2, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved dearly.

 So far, everything about Jesus’ baptism seems to make perfect sense.  But some Bible scholars see Jesus’ baptism as being somewhat problematic.  Here’s the issue:  If John the Baptist preached a message of repentance, and if he performed baptisms as an outward sign of repentance, and if Jesus was the sinless Son of God, why would he need to be baptized for repentance?  It’s a good question.  In Mathew’s Gospel, it is recorded that John the Baptist tried to avoid the situation by saying to Jesus, “I should be baptized by you.” But Jesus said, “Do this for the sake of all righteousness.”  Why was Jesus baptized?

 A number of ideas have been suggested.  Maybe all of them have some degree of truth to them.  Let’s look at some of the suggested reasons for why Jesus was baptized.

 Some people think Jesus’ baptism was the moment of his calling.  That up until that moment, Jesus did not know his true identity and true purpose, that he was unaware that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, who would die for the sins of the world, and only became aware of it at his baptism.

 I first heard that idea about 15 years ago, and at the time, I completely rejected it.  And to this day, I’m still uncomfortable with it.  But I no longer reject it outright.  If Jesus became truly human and experienced the fullness of the human condition, then is it too much to think that he also experienced uncertainty about his own identity and his place in the world?  So maybe this idea is true, but we’ll never know.

 A second idea is that Jesus’ baptism was a way of God identifying Jesus, not so much for Jesus’ sake, but the sake of those who were there.  Maybe it was God’s way of definitively pointing Jesus out to John the Baptist, who then pointed others to him.  

 Closely related to that, it may also have been God’s way of approving Jesus.  God claimed him as his own and gave him his approval at the moment of his baptism.  And that was not just for Jesus’ benefit, but also for the benefit of others who were there and others who heard about it.

 Jesus’ baptism was also a way to provide a beginning point to his ministry.  Up until this moment, he had lived as a Hebrew and a Galilean.  He had been a son to his earthly parents Mary and Joseph.  He had become a carpenter or builder like his earthly father Joseph.  But at the moment of his baptism, he began a new life as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  It was a decisive break from his former life into his new life.

 Jesus’ baptism may also have been the moment of his equipping.  We know the Holy Spirit came upon him at the moment of his baptism.  We do not know of any miracles that he performed before this.  Maybe those things couldn’t have happened until the Spirit was on him.  After all, he was truly human.  Maybe his ministry could not have started until he was equipped with power from on high.

 And finally, Jesus’ baptism was a way for him to identify with sinners.  He himself was without sin, but he took his place among sinful humanity so that he could be the sacrifice for sin.  He engaged himself fully in the human experience, living among sinners, so that he could suffer and die for us.  He let us know that he was for us by his identification with us.

 I think every one of those reasons for his baptism could be true.  There are one or two that I wonder about, but I think there’s at least some element of truth to all of them.  And I also think that every one of them has something to say about our baptism, and its significance as well.  I’m not suggesting that this is a complete theology of baptism.  That would take a long time to do, if it could ever be done, but let’s try to relate Jesus’ baptism to our own.

 Our baptism is a calling on our lives.  We are called through our baptism to live as children of God.  Now, obviously, if we were baptized as infants, we could not understand that calling at the time.  But as we grow up and grow into our baptism, we should claim that calling as our own and seek to live it out.

 In our baptism, God identifies us as his own and also approves us.  We are approved not because of who we are on our own, but who we can be through God’s grace that justifies and sanctifies us.  

 Just as Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of a new chapter in his life, the beginning of his ministry, so also our baptism is a beginning point for us.  Our baptism calls us to a new life, no longer just as children of the world, but now as children of God.

 Our baptism is also a moment of equipping because we believe that we are baptized not just by water, but also by the Holy Spirit who puts his mark on us and gives us his protection and his care and his guidance.  

 Let’s pause for a moment here and ask a question.  In light of verse 8, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” and in light of Acts 19 that we heard earlier, are there two baptisms?  Are we baptized first with water, and then later we become “fully Christian” by being baptized by the Holy Spirit?  Some Christians of the Pentecostal persuasion say yes and use Acts 19 as an argument for their point.  I say no.  Acts 19 is not about a second baptism by the Holy Spirit.  It’s about a group of people who had not heard the whole message.  They only knew about John, and didn’t know Jesus had yet come.  So they were baptized once into the Christian faith, by water and Spirit.

 And finally, our baptism identifies as sinners.  The symbolism of baptism is about death and rebirth.  Our baptism calls us to die to sin, to die to self, and to be reborn into new life in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.  

 For most of us, our baptisms were a long, long time ago.  Probably most of us can’t remember them.  I can’t because I was baptized as an infant.  But I can remember it in a different way, and so can you.  We can remember what it means for us:  We are born again to a new life in Christ.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as children of God.  We are identified as children of God and approved by God and called to live into our identity.  

 With that in mind, let us remember our baptisms.

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