Sunday, January 10, 2016
I have to admit that our Baptist friends have all the good stories about baptism. For example, a lady was being baptized by immersion in her church. Her pastor laid her back under the water. Suddenly her body stiffened and her eyes popped open. The look on her face was a mixture of excitement and surprise.
The pastor wasn’t sure what had happened, but something definitely had. As he pulled her up from the water, she put her hand on the back of her head; only then did he realize that he had moved toward one end of the baptismal pool, and when he had lowered her into the water, he’d smacked the back of her head onto the baptistery steps. That’s one event this woman won’t soon forget.
Today’s story from Luke’s Gospel is also about an unforgettable baptism. It’s the Baptism of our Lord. We celebrate to it year after year so we won’t forget. Why? Because it defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Every one of us who are members of this church have been baptized. It’s the central rite of every Christian congregation.
Our Lord was baptized by John and in doing so, Christ set a precedent for every person who’d follow Him. We were baptized because Jesus was baptized. Being baptized doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Being baptized doesn’t mean we’ve got our life all together. Being baptized doesn’t even mean we have our theology all worked out. Being baptized simply means that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and we’ve committed ourselves to walk in His footsteps as God grants us His grace.
You know the basic story of Christ’s baptism. All four Gospels record this occasion, which really was Christ’s coronation into His earthly ministry.
Luke’s version of the account is shorter than the other Gospels. He begins with a brief description of John’s ministry, the people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. And John answered them, I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Luke writes simply, when all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.
Wow! Wouldn’t you love to have been there that day? I’m glad that people who were there, wrote it down for us. Jesus was baptized and as He was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.
Christ’s baptism reminds us, of Christ’s humility. Christ humbled Himself and was baptized by a mere mortal in our behalf. Whereas you and I would be tempted to enjoy the perks of our relationship with God, Christ humbled Himself and became a servant.
Humility, in a biblical sense, is not to be confused with false modesty. It isn’t about allowing yourself to be walked on because you lack the courage to stand up for yourself. Jesus wasn’t like that at all. Jesus’ humility was an act of courageous obedience to the will of God. He was baptized not because He was a sinful person, not because He was influenced by John’s preaching, and certainly not because He was a sinner. The Bible teaches us He knew no sin. He was baptized because of His obedience to His Father. He did it to set the pattern for us. For you see, what God desires from us more than anything else is that we might be obedient, too. That’s what humility is all about.
I want to take you back to the old television series “The Lone Ranger.” Some of you remember that long-running series. My favorite part of that show was the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. Silver was the perfectly trained companion for the Lone Ranger. But Silver wasn’t always obedient.
In the first episode of “The Lone Ranger,” the Lone Ranger was one of a group of Texas rangers. One day, however, they were ambushed and he was the lone survivor. He was left for dead, but recovered. When he began to get his strength back, he heard in a canyon below him the sound of a horse, the horse that would come to be known as Silver. He imagined that Silver could help him escape a difficult situation. The problem was that Silver was a wild stallion. The whole first episode was about Silver being brought under the control of the Lone Ranger. Silver would throw him off; the Lone Ranger would get back on, only to be thrown off again. The Lone Ranger rode Silver until Silver got the message that he was no longer in charge. When that happened, Silver became an amazing horse.
Here’s the point. God created you and me to do amazing things. But we will never be all God created us to be until we humble ourselves and become obedient to God. Christ’s baptism is important, because it shows His humility, His willingness to submit to His Father’s authority.
We see Christ’s humility, but we’re also introduced to the idea of His divinity. It’s no accident that the story of Christ’s baptism is one of the few occasions in scripture where all three persons in the Trinity are mentioned; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now, that may not get you all that excited. After all, the word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear in the Bible. The idea of the Trinity, God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, wasn’t verbalized by the church until a few hundred years after the Resurrection. And yet, here at Christ’s baptism, all three persons of the Godhead are present. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus (the Son) in bodily form like a dove and then the Father (God) expresses His love and His approval for Jesus, His Son.
This may seem boring, but it’s important. The doctrine of the Trinity strengthened the idea in the mind of Christians that when we look at Jesus we’re looking at an accurate picture of the character of God. Jesus, while remaining a human being, in all ways is a mirror image of God.
When Christian missionaries came to the Cherokee tribes in the late seventeenth century and told the story of Jesus, the tribesmen were quickly converted. Their chief announced, “Our ancestors have always taught that God is just, merciful, and forgiving. God has compassion for us in our sorrow. We didn’t know that this God has entered our experience. We didn’t know the suffering God. But now you have supplied us with the name and personality of the God for whom we have longed, Jesus the Christ.
That chief was a good theologian. When people ask us what God is like, all we have to do is point them to Jesus. God is a carpenter from Nazareth. God is loving, forgiving, accepting in the same way that Jesus was loving, forgiving, accepting. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.
Sometimes that’s too big of a leap of faith for some people to take and I understand that. And that’s sad. Where else shall we look to determine God’s nature? Where shall we look to find a God worth worshipping? We can look to nature to show us a God of grandeur and might. But we can’t find there a God of perfect and complete love.
And we can’t look to other religions to show such a God. These religions are helpful to those who follow them, but none of them speak of a God whose very nature is love. Only within the pages of the New Testament can I find such a God. That’s one reason the story of Jesus’ baptism is so important. It shows us Christ humility, but it also shows us His connection to divinity.
And that brings us to the final thing to be said about Christ’s baptism: it helps us understand our real identity.
Christ’s baptism was the beginning of His earthly ministry. He was about thirty years of age. What had he been doing before then? He was probably working in Joseph’s carpenter shop. He probably took it over at Joseph’s death. All we know about His early years, except for that time when He stayed behind in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph made their annual pilgrimage to the Holy City, was that He was obedient to His parents and that He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. Which we read about last week. But now, at His baptism, He has this amazing experience. After He is baptized and while He is praying, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven: You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.
Regardless of what it meant to Christ, it’s certainly true for His followers that it’s at our baptism that we receive our identity. In some traditions, a person receives his or her name at baptism. While we don’t receive our name at our baptism, we most certainly receive our identity. Baptism tells us we’re children of God and the way we honor that baptism is to live in obedience to the will of God as best as we are able to understand it.
Bau Island, a small island among the Fiji Islands, has a small Christian church and inside is a large stone with a small cleft in the top. According to the chief, this stone holds a significant place in the ancient history of the people of the island. In ancient times, this stone was used to crush the heads of captives. It was a prominent weapon, and a symbol of the violent culture of the island.
But once the message of Jesus reached the people of this island, this rock was used in a new way. It became a baptismal font, and the cleft that was once filled with blood was now filled with water for baptizing the heads of small children as they were brought into the family of God.
The people wisely concluded that, once they were baptized, their way of life needed to reflect that baptism. So it is with us. Our lives should reflect our baptism.
In our baptism we’re given our identity. We’re now children of God. We’re a part of the body of Christ. Our words and our actions should reflect that great truth. Just as Christ humbled Himself in obedience to the will of God, so shall we humble ourselves to live in obedience to God’s will that in all things people may see our good works and give thanks to our Father. This is why each year during Epiphany we revisit the event of Christ’s baptism. We see here Christ’s humility and His divinity. And we are reminded of who we are. We are His body at work in the world today, reminding the world that it’s loved. We’re the children of God, and that’s how we are called to live.