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.”
Tell us what you remember about your baptism.
So spoke the instructor in my Spiritual Formation class in seminary more than a decade ago. We were huddled in a basement classroom, devoid of any natural light, squirming in our plastic chairs, wondering who would be the first to share.
“I remember,” one of them began, “being afraid.”
He described the fear of Y2K and what horrors it could bring. And so, on the last Sunday of the calendar year, he marched up to the font at the end of church and asked to be baptized because, as he put it, “I wanted to make sure I would go to heaven if the world ended when we hit the year 2000.”
“I remember,” another classmate began, “feeling pressured into by my friends.”
She described the teenybopper convictions of her closest friends who told her she had to be baptized. She didn’t even go to church. But then, one Sunday, she was picked up in a minivan by one of her friend’s parents, and a bunch of strangers surrounded her at the font and water was dumped all over her head. When she got home, soaking wet, her parents demanded to know what happened, and all she could say was, “Jesus happened, I think.”
“I remember,” someone else intoned, “the storm.”
She described her reluctance to attend church her entire life until, well into middle age, a particular tragedy drew her in the direction of mystery that happened to be her local church. She started reading the Bible, participated in worship, joined a small group, and felt like God was calling her to be a Christian. So they scheduled her baptism, and in the middle of the service an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through the town. All was well until they began praying over the water and lightning struck nearby with the thunderclap shaking the sanctuary. In the silence that followed she, apparently, shouted, “The devil ain’t got me no more.”
And then I raised my hand and said, “I remember nothing. I was 19 days old.”
We can only ever begin again, Barth once said. Christians, those who follow Jesus, are ever in a state of starting over. We have a liturgical calendar that folds in on itself every year, we return to the same scriptures and the same songs and the same prayers not out of tireless commitment to the old, but because they make us new.
We can only ever begin, again.
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when churches across the world read about Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan.
It’s a bit odd, when you take a step back and think about it, that John is the one who baptizes Jesus. It’s odd for a variety of reasons. Notably, John shows up in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. He looks out on God’s people who have completely lost their way and he beckons them back, again, to the truth of the Lord who delivered them from captivity into the Promised Land. Like all the prophets before him, John speaks with clarity and authority and power about repentance.
And yet, what does Jesus have to repent? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John?
Repentance is such a churchy word. Where else can you hear that word thrown around with such reckless abandon?
What is it? Repentance is not feeling bad about what we’ve done, or thinking differently than we once did. Repentance means nothing more than turning around, or returning. The church, in our unending concern with encouraging people to think for themselves and make all the right choices, often confuses God’s kingdom with the benefits of the kingdom.
We talk about turning our lives around so that we can finally find our purpose. We talk about repentance so that we will finally start behaving and make the world a better place. We talk about making changes or resolutions in order to finally become the people God wants us to be.
And those things are fine, they have their place. But they are not the Gospel. They are just the bonus, the 2-for1 deal which is handed over by the One who hands himself over on our behalf.
The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus. Repentance is just the word that describes our activity whenever we encounter it.
John, out in the wilderness, is not offering a better way to live. The kingdom does not come about because we actually start doing the things we’re supposed to do. Rather, the kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and we are not worthy of it. That’s why we repent, we return. We wander off in all sorts of directions, but then in the waters of our baptism we return to the truth of who we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God.
Wandering is at the heart of who we are. There’s this gnawing lack of something inside all of us. It’s why we flock to the self-help section in bookstores, hoping we will finally discover who we really are.
And, again, if self-help books worked, there wouldn’t be any of them anymore.
Find yourself! Says the slogan for clothing companies, vacation destinations, and retirement portfolios.
Do you want to find yourself? You don’t need to go climb a mountain, literal or figuration. You don’t need to sign-up with a spiritual guru or enroll in a CrossFit class.
All you need is some water.
Look in it and you’ll see who you are.
It used to be the case that, when a set of parents brought their child forward for baptism, they only had one name – their family name. And then, someone like me would say, “What name is given this child?” The answer would be the first public declaration of a person’s identity. Our first names, which in certain places are still called Christian names.
Names are gifts. We don’t get to choose them or pick them. They’re given to us.
And then, with the waters of baptism, we receive yet another new name. A larger and more important name: Christian.
Whenever I baptize someone, whether they’re a shiny new baby, or covered in wrinkles with gray hair, I always say the same thing: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – you are a precious Lamb of Jesus Christ.
I say that last part not because I was taught to say it, but because that’s what one of my grandmother’s has called me my entire life.
I’m still growing into it.
It takes time for all of us to live into our names, that Christian name in particular. It’s something we return to every so often because sometimes we forget who we are.
It’s easy, all too easy, to forget our identity. The world will strive to tell us who we are, and what we should care about it, and what we should think. We’re told by the world, and others, that our lives are journeys of self-discovery whereas, in baptism, God finds us.
Our lives are the adventure of being lost and being found over and over again.
Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, was often prone to depression and anxiety. And he said that in those most awful moments, those dark nights of the soul, it was a great comfort to take a drop of water, place it on his forehead, and say, “I am baptized.”
Because we belong to God and that can never ever be taken away.
Or, as Paul puts it, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We return to that promise because sometimes we forget.
In the end, becoming and being a Christian is something done to us and for us before it is anything done by us.
In other words: faith requires others. Just like baptism. Someone has to hold us, pray over the water, tell us about Jesus and the promise of what he has done, is doing, and will do. Someone has to model that faith, a whole life of faith. Otherwise, we would have no idea what we are baptized into.
To know who Jesus is and what he means has got to come to us through others as a gift – a gift like grace.
Before the church was called church is was called EKKLESIA, which just means gathering. Church, then, is people who are together. People who hold fast to one another as we hold fast to the promise of the Gospel.
And that’s why the church gives us this day, this same Sunday every single year, that we might remember who and whose we are.
I don’t remember my baptism. There was no peer pressure, or fear, or even reluctance. I had no choice in the matter. But the choice made on my behalf has made all the difference in the world.
And that’s true for all of us, whether we marched to the font on our own or someone carried us to it. From the moment of our baptisms, it becomes impossible to explain our lives without reference to the water, the promise, the story, and the others who made it possible.
Baptism is where the adventure we call faith begins.
Jesus’ baptism by John unleashes him into the world. The heavens are opened and he sets out on the adventure of preaching, healing, teaching, feeding, dying, and living again that makes possible the rectification of all things, even us. This is where his journey begins, as do our own, in the waters of baptism.