Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
On the first Sunday of a new year, we remember Jesus’ baptism.
Mark, as usual, is into that whole brevity thing — leaving out any hesitancy on John’s part to baptize the one who comes after him but who is above him. Jesus doesn’t explain the reason for his baptism, either. In Mark we simply get a recounting of the events: Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (Did anyone else see these spectacular happenings? Did John? Mark doesn’t say.) God speaks from heaven proclaiming that Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom God is well pleased. Even without questions, commentary or explanation, the account resonates with miraculous meaning.
Ordinary water employed by very human John becomes the catalyst for heaven rending, Spirit descending, God announcing, identity giving action. No ordinary day at the Jordan for John, or for Jesus. And yet, how often do we consider that Jesus’ baptism resounds in our own and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Few pastors lack stories of parents requesting to have the baby “done” or “christened.” Many a congregation has giggled when the baby cried, and the minister struggled to get through the liturgy. Most of us have been moved when a parent of an infant or an adult being baptized has renounced evil and professed their faith. But do we consider that in our baptism the barrier between heaven and earth has been torn asunder, the Spirit has alighted on our head and God has claimed us and called us beloved?
I wonder if we are not more like those new converts that Paul questions in Acts who respond to his query about their baptism with an honest, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” We have not even thought about the impact of our baptism. We have not claimed the promise or shuttered at the responsibility. We have not recognized the new day, the beginning, ushered in by the baptism of Jesus and our own baptism. It is the first day of the rest of our new lives in Christ and nothing will ever be the same again.
The study catechism, approved for use in 1998 at the 210th General Assembly, says this:
Question 71: What is baptism?
Answer: Baptism is the sign and seal through which we are joined to Christ.
Question 72: What does it mean to be baptized?
Answer: My baptism means that I am joined to Jesus Christ forever. I am baptized into his death and resurrection, along with all who have received him by faith. As I am baptized with water, he baptizes me with his Spirit, washing away all my sins and freeing me from their control. My baptism is a sign that one day I will rise with him in glory, and may walk with him even now in newness of life.
No ordinary day in the sanctuary, the day you were baptized or had your children baptized or baptized a new member of the body of Christ. No ordinary day in the Jordan for John or for Jesus of for us because Jesus’ baptism demonstrated the lengths to which God will go to be reconciled with us and to reconcile us to one another. God tore apart the heavens to get to us, to give us the Holy Spirit, to forgive us and join us to Christ. Do we recognize into what, into whom, we were baptized?
On this first Sunday of a new calendar year, reaffirming our baptism could remind us that the answer to that critical question is Jesus Christ. As we make resolutions or renew commitments to get in shape, get out of debt or check a few items off our bucket list, as Christians we should also turn away from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world. We should publicly turn to Jesus Christ, accept him as our Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love. We should affirm again that we will be Christ’s faithful disciples, obeying his Word and showing his love. In other words, we should make sure that our baptism marked the first day of the rest of our lives as beloved children of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and empowered to do God’s will.
As I reflect on 2017, I struggle with the contrast I experienced on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The hope I felt gathered for worship at sunrise in a Baptist sanctuary packed with people of every color, multiple faiths and no faith at all tethers me to the vision of John in Revelation of every tribe and nation worshipping God together — their differences still visible, but their unity of praise and purpose unstoppable. And yet, the vitriolic, calculated, organized hate I saw that day and the night before and in the days since won’t leave me alone. And it shouldn’t. It better not, frankly. I continue to be compelled to announce both ends of the humanity I witnessed: the light and the dark, the good and the evil, the hope and the horror. Healing won’t happen without an honest account of both.
Many days I wonder what will happen next and what role I am to play in this story that started long before my baptism and will continue, I am sure, long after my baptism is complete in my death. I keep praying for wisdom, discernment and a means to make an impact for good. Too often I feel utterly useless, a noisy gong and a clanging symbol in a world already awash in a distracting din of rhetoric. And yet, I can’t turn and leave or throw up my hands in despair because I am baptized. By virtue of my baptism I am united to Christ and through Christ to you and, because of Christ, to the whole of creation. And I can’t undo that unity, no matter how hard I try. We are stuck together. In baptism we are clothed in Christ, made one with Christ, the Body of Christ, the church, and our neighbors — the body of humanity made in God’s image and called good. And while this is transformative for us, it is not for our sake only; it is for the sake of God’s beloved creation.
So, on this first Sunday of 2017, I am going to remember that Jesus was baptized and that heaven was subsequently torn apart and the Holy Spirit escaped and the Son of God — the one who pleases God, the one God so loves and who so loves the world — frees me from my sins and their control so that I can right now walk in newness of life. Today, therefore, is a new day, the first day of the rest of my life, a day to renounce evil, turn to Jesus Christ, obey his word, show his love and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
- If you are baptized, what do you know about your baptism? How often do you remember your baptism? What difference does it make to you that you are baptized?
- Calvin writes, “But if it was the baptism of God, it surely had enclosed in itself, the promise of forgiveness of sins, the mortification of the flesh, spiritual vivification, and participation in Christ.” Can you put into contemporary language each of those four meanings of baptism?
- Where are other places in Scripture where the heavens are opened? (For examples, see Ezekiel 1:1; John 1:51; Acts 10:11; and Revelation 19:11.) Any commonalities?
- Have you ever participated in or witnessed a memorable baptism? What was memorable about it and why?
- Look up “baptism” in the index of our Book of Confessions and compare what various confessions have to say about baptism. What meanings and images do you see repeated? Which ones resonate (or not) with you?
- Daily, pray the prayer from our Book of Common Worship in the reaffirmation of baptism service: O Lord, uphold your servant by your Holy Spirit. Daily increase in him/her your gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.
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