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Sermon – Jesus’ Baptism – January 12, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Jesusʼ Baptism

Psalm 29; Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 3: 13-17

Julius Caesar and a legion came to the Rubicon river in the year 49 B. C. It was against the laws of Rome for any military commander leading troops to cross there, as it represented the boundary between Italy and Roman possessions outside of Italian soil, and the Republic felt that any soldier coming across with troops would be making an effort to seize control of Rome.

Everyone present when Caesar reached the Rubicon understood what it meant. He might have made a speech in support of the Republic and ordered his men to remain behind, or sent them on without him. Instead he went across as a general with an army, knowing that it amounted to a declaration of war against the government of Rome. It is reported that he said “the die is cast,” a famous quote I misunderstood as a boy because I didnʼt know that “die” was the singular of “dice.”

There have been other famous river crossings. Washingtonʼs of the Delaware is immortalized in a historically inaccurate but appropriately dramatic painting, as the surprise attack it permitted on Trenton was a significant turning-point in the war. Rivers have so often served as boundaries that they figure in a great deal of military history. Confederate river crossings heralded the Gettsyburg campaign, German river crossings the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War; the bridges that permitted crossings late in the war are remembered for the rapid deployment they permitted on the far bank, and the tactical advantage that overcoming them granted.

Rivers also permit travel to the extent that they are navigable. Exploration in every age has relied on those hardy enough to embark on unknown streams. In our own nationʼs history we remember De Soto, Marquette and LaSalle for their investigation of the Mississippi. The search for the source of the Nile was a great adventure in the nineteenth century, and the Amazon continues to be tested.

In a world in which bridges were less common, rivers represented a crisis, a challenge, or an opportunity, depending on oneʼs circumstances. For the collective memory of Judaism, rivers meant more than that. There was the founding history of the Hebrew people, with its escape from captivity through a miraculously separated river, and its entrance into the promised land through a miraculously parted river. The land itself, with its areas of dry wilderness and its reliance on watersheds, made the nurturing aspects of rivers a familiar metaphor for everything good, including the providence of God. Images of blessing and plenty, from the story of the Garden of Eden on, gave rivers a central place.

John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan. Its sacred quality is related to the miraculous entrance it provided for the people of Israel when they finally reached the Promised Land. It also figures in miracles associated with the prophet Elijah, including the healing of the leper Naaman by his washing in the Jordan. It seems natural to us to baptize in rivers, but part of that of course is Christian imitation of the precedent set by John the Baptist when he baptized Jesus. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls seems to show that cultic Jewish bathing practices often relied on small pools created expressly for the purpose. We are familiar with the portability of ritual washing by the miracle at the wedding at Cana related in Johnʼs gospel, in which large jars of water for purification figured. The unique character of Johnʼs Jordan baptisms is indicated both in the New Testament and by Jewish writings of about the same period. It makes sense to think that the riverʼs place in the story of Israel was one of his motivations, especially in an era in which he had reason to regard the land as corrupted. Coming out of the Jordan after being baptized would permit everyone who accepted Johnʼs invitation to re enact the original entrance into the Holy Land. It would symbolize a new beginning, not only for individuals, but for the covenant people.

In that connection the verse we recently have heard from the Christmas narratives, “you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) has a resonance. “Jesus” is the Greek for the name “Joshua,” who was the leader who brought Israel across the Jordan and fulfilled the promise of a land of their own for which Moses had led Israel out of Egypt. We Christians have, through the centuries, modeled our own baptismal rituals on Johnʼs

baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. We have developed doctrines about baptism, in part from the description in the gospels of Jesusʼ baptism. Baptists, particularly, have prided themselves– and this, like most reasons for pride and presuming to surpass other people, is a silly thing–on recovering the practice of baptizing by immersion, which seems to be what Jesusʼ baptism was. Thatʼs a foolish thing to make a fuss about, because Baptists also assert, with more reason, I think, that the effectiveness of religious ritual is not in the manner in which it is performed or even by whom it is administered, but in the faithful intention and expectation of the participant. In other words, Baptists know that itʼs not how wet you get, but how wholeheartedly you claim confidence in Christ, which is the power of baptism.

But the point I want to make here is that this ritual, after twenty centuries, is something common. It happens everywhere. There are different settings and varying methods, but it has been the inauguration of communal Christian identity for millennia. We canʼt recapture the impact of Johnʼs creating this ministry on the margin of his society.

We know Johnʼs baptism is a big deal because many people take it seriously and walk a good distance to be a part of it. We know it has an impact because the powers that be worry enough about it to challenge Johnʼs doing it. We know it is a monumental thing because Jesus of Nazareth, as attested by every gospel, and by the verse we read this morning from the book of Acts, begins his ministry by choosing to undergo it.

When Jesus gets to the Jordan he is about to have his life transformed, and of course thatʼs the reason heʼs there. He will be confirmed in his intention to be especially Godʼs person. I think all those things we have been talking about–the challenge, the crisis, the opportunity, the sense of new possibilities, places never seen before, things left behind– all that is present. To the extent that the people to whom he will bring the gospel of the kingdom of God are living under a foreign occupation, the die is cast for Jesus much as it was for Caesar–thereʼs conflict and danger as well as questing and achievement.

When Jesus approaches John at the Jordan, John recognizes that Jesus is exceptional. He doesnʼt want to baptize Jesus, but suggests that it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptize him. Jesus, however, politely says that going ahead with Johnʼs usual role and the customary role of the person being baptized is the right thing to do, so they proceed.

We canʼt help but regard Jesus as exceptional. Itʼs a popular folk saying, on the subject of mortal fallibility, to say something like “there was only one perfect man and he died on a cross” or some such thing. As one of the persons of the Godhead, who in Johnʼs gospel explicitly identifies himself with God, heʼs not someone with whom we compare ourselves. We donʼt expect to be like him. We feel like itʼs apples and oranges– ordinary mortals and God Incarnate.

Thatʼs all correct as far as it goes. It does, however, if followed to its logical conclusion, suggest that itʼs impossible to follow Jesus. We know thatʼs not entirely true because the first disciples, and some since, are credited with miracles– and all the first disciples, and many since, find it possible to suffer martyrdom.

Christianity is misleading if its piety in reserving special regard for Jesus prevents people from attempting to identify with Jesus, and understanding themselves as appropriately called upon to emulate Jesus. This is true for baptism, as it is true for offering forgiveness to enemies, or refusing violence as a solution.

We should understand our own baptism as like that of Jesus. That means many things, but since today weʼve spoken about all the associations with getting into rivers that are part of human history, and all the connections Biblically-minded people make between rivers and great events involving God, we should see our own baptisms in larger terms than we probably have. Our ordinary perceptions of the experience, even if we found ourselves moved by it, or apprehended the profound meaning it had for people who loved us, doesnʼt approach what the gospel reveals baptism in Christ to be.

Whose baptism includes a reassurance from God, spoken from heaven? To our human ears, nobodyʼs– but to the faithful reader of the gospel, yours and mine both. The New Testamentʼs faith is that being baptized into Christ equips us with the Holy Spirit. In other words, both the affirmation of who we are– children of God– and heavenly support in aspiring to live more like children of God– is part of what baptism is. Believe that. God knows, sooner or later each of us is required to live more nobly, more

selflessly, more courageously than we would prefer, or indeed find possible relying on our own powers. The good news of the baptism account from the gospels is that there is more for us to call upon than our own powers. God is with us, and God will help us.

Baptism is not just a rite of passage, a memorable punctuation in the development of our growing selves. Itʼs not just important in our family, or in our church community. Itʼs not just a source of wonder and wondering for each of us who goes through it. Itʼs a transformation. Just as a river often marks a border between one land and another, baptism is a boundary between the person we were before we claimed Christian discipleship for ourselves, and the person we have been since we declared for Christ.

Persons throughout their lives renew a sense of the vitality of their faith. People are inspired to recommit themselves to discipleship again and again. For that reason, the church has decided that baptism is not to be done over every time someone recognizes in him- or herself a more authentic experience of conviction. People ought always to be outgrowing the degree of insight or the depth of devotion which first brought them to baptism, so baptizing canʼt become a celebration of every better effort on which we embark. It is not an individual’s ritual, but that of the Christian church.

However, thinking about baptism should always remind us that we ourselves have been initiated into a community which is the body of Christ on earth. We should count on gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we should insist to ourselves, when life causes us to doubt it, that we are beloved children of God. There is more to us than meets the eye, and we have greater possibilities and potential than we typically expect. Those people who appear before us as Christian heroes throughout the centuries, the saints, the reformers, the founders of hospitals and educational efforts, those who brought healing and encouragement to the humble and unconnected in every age, those who stood up against contemptuous power and insisted upon the worth of persons–sometimes we wonder what we might have in common with them. In the last part of the last century Mother Teresa became someone who would be mentioned every time someone wanted to give the idea of Christian integrity and service credit. Half a century before people mentioned Albert Schweitzer. Before that there were the founders of the urban missions, from the Salvation Army to Hull House in Chicago. They may seem like a different species than us at times, but they were flesh and blood, and would, as part of their Christian conscientiousness, tell us that they were no better than us. They had this in common with us, that they were baptized. There were different methods, at different times in their lives, but when at some point in their lives they considered who they were by virtue of that baptism, they set a course which God offers to everyone who will consider it.

In my hippie youth a poster proclaimed that life was a journey and not a destination. That never seemed right to me, because I was raised in the religion that had produced Pilgrimʼs Progress,, and that progress was definitely toward God. We who are of the church sometimes are challenged and sometimes consoled to be assured that we are on our way. Thatʼs what the gospel presents to us as the model life of a person of God. We are born, we come to some point in our lives, we are baptized. The world, with its good and bad, awaits us. We are no longer merely products of the natural world, nor even only products of genetics and culture and the circumstances of our time and place. We are those who have the assurance that we are beloved children of God, and that Godʼs love for the world requires us to live, by the help of the Holy Spirit, in a way which serves God and others.

The architecture of this place of worship lays it out. We have the seating for what we are to behold. Down front there are, first, places of the word–one side where the Bible is read and one side where it is preached. A little deeper brings us to the communion table, where the communal feast of the faithful is served. Then at the core, or the heart of the church there is the baptistry, where we confer the New Testament heritage on every new claimant. It is at the center every week. At some point its witness reminds us, as does this scripture about Jesus, of who it is that we are, and what the life is that we will lead.


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