January 10, Baptism of Jesus

It seems that there was once a Sunday School class, and the teacher decided to have the children learn the Apostle’s Creed, which we read whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. She decided that it was too long for them to memorize the whole thing, so she assigned parts to different children. The big day came, when the children were going to present the entire prayer for the congregation to hear. All was going well. The first child said, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The second child said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The third child said, “He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven.” The fourth child said, “He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Then there was silence. The children looked at each other, but no one seemed willing to speak. Finally one little girl said, “The boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
The point of this is to bring your attention to the Holy Spirit, the one who is often shrouded in mystery, the one who seems to be around at important times, the one who is credited with bringing wisdom. If we look way back to the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 2, we see that the Spirit was hovering over the waters even before creation. If we look ahead to the book of Acts, in chapter two, we read about the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles in tongues of fire after Jesus had ascended into heaven. Before this, the apostles were afraid, and had hidden themselves away, but after they were filled with the Spirit, they were able to carry out the great commission which Jesus had given them – to go forth and preach to all the nations. The Spirit was the one who descended on Jesus, who gave him the power to do what he had been told to do by his Father. Each person who is baptized is filled with the Spirit, even if most of us don’t know it. I think about the minister who urged his congregation to remember the day they were baptized. Now, unless this was a faith community which believes in adult baptism, nobody in that congregation was likely to be able to do that. Most of us were baptized as babies, long before memory had kicked in.
And we were baptized because our parents made that decision for us. It was likely a decision that had been made long before we were born, and one which would profoundly affect the rest of our lives.
Different people look at baptism in different ways. For some, it is like joining a club – the Jesus club, if you want a name. Just as people join Brownies or Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club, so do babies become members of the Jesus Club. As members, there are rules to be followed, and members of the club – for the most part – follow these rules. There is really nothing terribly exciting about it; it is just something that you do.
Then there are those people who look at baptism as a kind of insurance. This is a holdover from the days when people believed that the souls of unbaptized babies would go to hell, if they died before baptism. I remember when my first child was born. His grandmother was quite angry with me because I didn’t rush him to the church when he was three days old to have him baptized.
Then, of course, there are the parents who decide, for whatever reason, not to have the baby baptized. They say things like, “We want to let him choose for himself when he is older.” I always found that interesting, not to mention puzzling. I wondered if these same parents would decide not to feed their babies so that they could choose what they wanted to eat when they grew older.
One way of looking at Baptism is that this is the way we join the family of God. If you will, we become God’s adopted children, just as Jesus was and is his real son, begotten, not made. As the parent of an adopted child, I can tell you that we did not wait until she was old enough to make up her own mind to ask her if she wanted to be a part of our family. People who adopt children tend to do it this way, and that is why our church believes in infant baptism. A child who is adopted as a baby needs to do nothing; it is the parents who do it all. Likewise, a person who is baptized as a baby needs to do nothing; God does it all.
But for believers, for true believers, Baptism is something else, something real, something important. It has been called an outward sign of an inward grace, and it is often regarded as one of the marks of being a Christian. Some people refer to it as a kind of branding, the idea being that it is through the mark of Baptism that we can be recognized. If we carry this analogy a bit further, we can say that the cow or horse that is being branded certainly did not ask for this to happen. This is something the owner does, in the same way that Baptism is done to the baby.
Of course, one of the commonest ways of talking about Baptism is to refer to it as cleansing. Water is used to symbolically cleanse the infant soul of original sin. Some of the good old hymns which are rarely used any more talk about being washed whiter than snow, or being cleansed by the blood of the lamb, and this idea is alive and well today. We know that no baby can clean himself, which is why the parents quickly invent their own bath time rituals. As with other aspects of baby care, the decision is the parents’, not the babies’. In Baptism, it is God who washes our hearts and makes our souls clean.
Now, let’s compare Jesus’ Baptism to our own. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, as we heard in the Scripture reading, he was revealed as the Son of God. When we were baptized, we were claimed as God’s beloved children. Not genetically, but in every other way, we because God’s children. How amazing is that? We are the children of the creator of the universe. That is why we are able to pray, with perfect truth, the Lord’s Prayer, in which we address God as Father.
When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended on him the form of a dove. This is the same Spirit, as I said earlier, who hovered above the waters at the time of creation. This is the same Spirit who filled the prophets of old, and allowed them to save their people. This is the same Spirit who filled Israel’s rulers, such as David, and helped them to rule wisely. Before the Spirit descended on him, before God recognized him publicly as his son, Jesus had performed no miracles. Now, being filled with the Spirit, he was able to heal the sick; he was able to turn water into wine; he was able to feed 5000 people with just a few loaves and fishes; he was able to command demons; he was able to raise the dead. When we were baptized, we were given the same Spirit. Now, while we are not able to do what Jesus did, because of the Spirit, we are able to do other things. We are able to face the daily challenges which confront us. We can face the challenges in our personal lives – challenges with spouses, with children, with parents. We can face the challenges in our professional lives – challenges with co-workers, challenges with bosses, challenges with employees. We can face challenges both physical and emotional, and get through them all with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, he took on our sins. We are baptized so that our sins may be washed away, but Jesus had no sins. He took on our sins, and carried them with him to the cross, where he paid the ultimate price so that we would be forgiven. We don’t have to carry our sins around with us; Jesus has taken care of them for us.
While I was in seminary, we were given lists of authors and titles of books which we should try to buy and read. One of the authors whose name cropped up quite a lot was Fred Craddock, and we used excerpts from many of his books in our classes on writing and preaching. In the book Craddock Stories, Fred Craddock talked about an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”
“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked.
He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.
Children of God, remember that you have been baptized and rejoice.


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