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Sermon – January 9, 2011: After Baptism

Sermon for January 9, 2011
The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
After Baptism

Isaiah 42: 1-9; Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 3: 13-17
Years ago I met the parents of a woman who had recently been coming to church. The mother was told I was the Baptist minister. She looked at me and said, “I guess that means that people in your church jump up and down and shout a lot.” I said, “Only at business meetings,” which I thought was pretty quick-witted for a guy whose religious tradition had been treated with what I perceived was not only misunderstanding, but hostility.
Here’s another story about Baptists. When I was in college a friend and I were in the same Philosophy course. The guy who taught the class was a product of boarding schools, so he had one of those accents a bit like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island. I can’t recall what point the professor was making, but it must have had something to do with the bizarre choices sometimes made by younger people. He said something like, “Here were all these children of well-educated and privileged homes running off and becoming Bahptists!” He couldn’t think of a more wacky crowd for well-educated and privileged people to become part of, apparently. My friend quoted him quite a bit after that.
You know, the truth is whenever I read about or hear about some crazy minister or some crazy church I brace myself, because the odds are that they’re going to be some variety of Baptist. That’s one of the arguments that people who call themselves Baptists have won, that the New Testament intends by baptism a ritual washing upon confession of faith. Even the Roman Catholic Church now officially regards believer’s baptism as normative and the practice of infant baptism as a kind of anticipation of what eventually in that tradition becomes confirmation. Baptists, who started off as a sect, have won the day when it comes to the point about baptizing people capable of seeking this mark of commitment to God through Christ, and the result of that is that almost any group which reads the Bible is going to say it’s Baptist, whatever other emphases and insights they profess.
We have an example of that here in town. The Reformed Baptist Church out on Route 192 didn’t begin as a Baptist church and then reform itself. It began in the German Reformed tradition and found over the course of its congregational life that it was adopting some elements of traditional conservative American Protestantism into its approach, and the most significant one of those was believer’s baptism. So they added the name “Baptist” onto the name “Reformed”, to mean that they were both.
Chet Jump, one of the great leaders of the American Baptist Churches in the twentieth century, whom we just know as “Chet,” has a little saying. It goes “there are all kinds of Baptists, and some Baptists are not even kind.” That observation comes
inevitably to anyone who’s lived in the world of Baptists, because there is a such a variety of perspectives and even, in some ways, of practice, that it is inevitable that certain Baptists are convinced that certain other Baptists are inexcusably wrong about matters of faith. Standing on one’s convictions, which is a virtue for Baptists, combined with independence and the inviolability of individual conscience, is one reason there are so many jokes about Baptist churches splitting. I don’t know why this church decided, early in the last century, to rename itself First Baptist after going as The Lewisburg Baptist Church for a long time. I don’t think there was a rival Baptist church over which they were trying to establish precedence. In lots of places, there’s a First Baptist and several other Baptist churches all of which grew out of disagreements about some point of doctrine.
It’s been fun talking about the tradition and about how people don’t know what they are going to get when they run into someone who identifies himself or herself as a Baptist. There is as broad a spectrum there as there is in any religious group anywhere, from one fringe all the way over to the other. Every Christian tradition, however, has baptism as a central ritual, and regards having been baptized as deeply meaningful.
This gets us back to Jesus, whose own baptism is remembered today on the church calendar. Jesus himself was baptized, early in the gospel accounts, and at the conclusion of the gospel tradition Jesus urges his disciples to go and baptize. The gospels all relate Jesus’ baptism, and like the rest of Jesus’ progress through the world, it is meant not only to be biography but example: the faithful listener to the gospel is to identify with Jesus, to believe that baptism indeed signals a meaningful starting point for life, and somehow confers a special identity. For every Christian tradition, believing in baptism always includes believing in the largest possibilities for oneself, and being encouraged to remember that one was baptized always is a call to new seriousness about God, and an openness to greater capacities than one suspects.
Jesus’ own baptism is remembered as the starting point for his ministries. All the gospels, even those who have additional things to relate, like a Christmas or Epiphany narrative or the short philosophical formulation about Christ which begins John’s gospel, really begin at the Jordan with John. The example of early Christian preaching which we have in the book of Acts traces the progress of Jesus’ witness “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.”
If we read between the lines in the New Testament, we get the feeling that there is something a little awkward about Jesus beginning his public life as God’s person by being baptized by John. John is portrayed as uncomfortable with it. This morning’s gospel lesson has it this way: “…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 [John] consented.” We all know what Jesus means by telling John “let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

What it means is that even though Jesus is more important than John, John can at least appear to be administering an important ritual to him, and that even though Jesus may have no sinful nature to abjure and seek having washed away, Jesus can undergo the ritual which others associate with being a sign of the forgiveness of sins. What all this really means is that everyone knows Jesus was baptized by John and was in some significant way associated with John the Baptist– Luke’s gospel makes them cousins, and John’s gospel makes Jesus’ first disciples disciples of John whom John directs to follow Jesus. That’s the history which the New Testament must accept, and it accepts it with good integrity, because history is what the New Testament understands as its basis. If it is going to preserve the story of the resurrection and wrestle with the meaning of the resurrection, it is going to preserve the story of Jesus being baptized by John and wrestle with the meaning of that.
But that’s what I want to encourage us to do, on this day when we remind ourselves that the Jesus raised by Mary chose to go to John at the Jordan and undergo this ritual. What if the human experience of baptism is associated with elements other than God’s presence with the person in the pool? What do all the human motivations mean? What if there are loose ends whenever real human beings engage in the things of God?
I think the faithful person always has to hold together two different things. One is the actual experience of baptism, which may be an occasion for spiritual exaltation but even then always is hemmed in by practical matters like the appearance or temperature of the water or the butterflies in one’s own stomach or the ordinariness of human contact before and after the fact. The other thing we must hold onto are all the hints and hopes about what baptism might mean, all the possibilities created by our own being able to express faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and to follow Jesus’ example and be washed in this old ceremony. It may have been a Sunday, but it also had to do with eternity. It may have been this or that minister but it also had to do with God. It may have been followed by walking around in damp shoes with a wet head, but it also marked a decisive turning point in one’s spiritual journey.
Jesus, whatever the righteousness was that was fulfilled by his going into the Jordan, left the Jordan a marked man. He knew temptation in a way he never previously had–his striving in the desert with the tempter was the next step. He had a vision for the way he should live his life and serve his God, and it wasn’t easy. It required prayer, and it requiredpracticalinstancesofretreatandrefreshment. Attheveryenditwasn’tentirelyclear that it had gone the way God wanted. It wasn’t even clear that God was as faithful as his servant felt he had a right to expect. God, however, did keep faith with Jesus. The journey that began from the Jordan changed everything, for Jesus and for us.
Having been baptized, we are marked people ourselves. We have an idea about who we should be, and how we should live, for God. We need to pray and sometimes we need to rest. Sometimes we wonder if God is faithful, but thanks to Jesus, we know how this story turns out. That’s what baptism is about, and why we remember it today.

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