Scripture Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 NRSV
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
If this seems like we just heard this story, you are right. We did hear parts of this same passage during Advent, but in the Message version, and without Jesus’s baptism included. We used the same artwork too, because it is a representation of Jesus’ baptism. And because it is simply a beautiful piece of art.
John said, “I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s Baptism. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit. They both use water. They are both about repentance. What is the difference? And what is the big deal about baptism anyway?
John’s baptism was simply of repentance. It is acknowledgement of and atonement for sins committed. The baptism of the Holy Spirit kills sin - it washes you clean like a newborn. In the baptism of the Holy Spirit, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” All that is good in each person he embraces, while all that is is discarded, burned.
Martin Luther suffered bouts of anxiety throughout his lifetime, and when it was at its worst he would center himself, re-assure himself by saying “I am baptized!” In a writing first published in 1519, Luther said, “We must hold boldly and fearlessly to our baptism, and hold it up against all sins and terrors of conscience, and humbly say “I know full well that I have not a single work which is pure, but I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me, not to count my sin against me, but to slay it and blot it out.”
I need to point out here that Martin Luther was baptized as an infant, and indeed, Lutherans and many other Christian traditions still practice infant baptism today. What Martin Luther was saying in his quote about baptism is this. That in our baptism we have our sins removed. And when we sin after we have been baptized, as we will because we are human, we must return to our baptism, return to the faith of a child, reaffirming our desire to belong to God.
For “Sin is not drowned at once, or its consequences escaped in a moment. . . . baptism but begins the constant struggle against sin that ends only with the close of life. For unless baptism be the beginning of a new life, it is without meaning.” (“Works of Martin Luther: Holy Sacrament of Baptism.” (http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_a9.htm))
Baptism is what allows us to call ourselves Christian. And baptism has divided Christians more than perhaps any other issue.
In 1525 a movement called Anabaptist began. These were people who believed that infant baptism was not Biblical, and therefore not valid. They believed that only believer’s baptism was valid and ordained by Christ. And indeed, as far as we can tell from Scripture, only adults who proclaimed that they believed that Jesus is the Christ were baptized, although there are those who say that if someone’s entire household is baptized, as in the case of Cornelius, that must include infants and even persons who may or may not believe but who had to do as their master told them to do, like slaves. Be that as it may . . . The Anabaptists were despised and hated by Catholic and Protestant alike. As early as 1527, just 2 years after the start of the movement, in some nations it was a capital crime to participate in believer’s baptism - Catholics burned Anabaptists at the stake! Lutherans and other Protestants usually had them beheaded. Or drowned, which was really making the punishment fit the “crime.” Giving food or drink to an Anabaptist was also a crime. The Anabaptist movement gave birth to Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, and Baptists. And, yes, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The question of whether infant baptism or believer’s baptism is the “right” way can still divide us even today. I was at a New Church meeting in another region when a young minister who was starting a joint Disciples/United Church of Christ congregation was asked about how he baptized his folks. When he said that in his church both infant and believers baptisms would be performed, some of the older ministers on the committee nearly had strokes. They informed him that in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only the baptism of believers was acceptable, and his new church needed to fall in line. Well, that’s not entirely true. Disciples do only baptize persons who are old enough to understand the commitment they are making, and not infants. And anyway, that young minister’s church was a DOC/UCC church, and the UCC are infant baptizers. But these days we in the Disciples churches do accept all baptism as valid. So if you have come here, having been baptized as an infant in another Christian tradition, that’s ok. You do not need to be baptized again. I was taught that we do not ever re-baptize, but I have come to recognize that for some people the re-affirmation that comes about in being baptized as adults, even though they have already been baptized as infants, is an important new beginning. But however and whenever you were baptized, whether you were an infant or 12 or 72, you are Christian.
Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said: “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”
Jesus was baptized by John. And because most of us have been taught that Jesus was without sin, we might wonder why he needed to be baptized in the first place. Nadia Bolz-Weber says it is so that God could proclaim his identity. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And from that place of affirmation and confirmation, Jesus could go forward with his ministry, knowing that he has God’s approval. Because we cannot forget that Jesus is fully human. He was just another guy standing in the crowd, as far as the rest of the folks waiting to be baptized knew. But once he was recognized, once that voice from heaven proclaimed his identity, all that would change. People would begin to see him differently. He would go from that place that day, out into the wilderness to prepare himself for his mission, his ministry. He would be tested by Satan, and he would pass that test. And then, he would begin teaching, healing, and doing many other wonders. And the result of all of this, the job that Jesus was sent by God to do, is the salvation of the world, the healing of the nations, the death of sin in the hearts of all humankind. His work continues in us, for we are also, through our baptism, the beloved children of God. And that’s hard for us to remember. We are just not always really good at believing that. Rachel Held Evans wrote,The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough. We’re really not good at that whole “enough” thing. We are always looking for ways to improve ourselves, or we compare ourselves to others and think that we fall short. But God only compares us to ourselves, and loves us as we are at any given moment, on any given day.
“I am baptized!”, said Martin Luther. Whenever he felt he was not good enough, not deserving, not worthy . . . whenever he felt the full weight of his sinful human nature, he would remember his baptism and he would proclaim, “I am baptized!” He would proclaim his baptism to remind himself that he is a beloved child of God, that he could begin afresh right then, knowing that the remission of sin in baptism is not a once and done thing, but a continual daily effort. For unless baptism is the beginning of a new life, it means nothing.
Whenever I call on you to look back and remember your baptism, I am not saying “remember that day and that event.” If you are like Martin Luther, or me, baptized at about one month old, you aren’t going to remember that day. But I can remember that Jesus was baptized, and was recognized by God as the Son, the Beloved, in whom God was well pleased. And I can remember that I am baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And I can remember that this act made me one of God’s beloved children, and even if I wander off, as I did for many years, God still loves me.
I am baptized! And I can begin again. All of us can begin again, and start a new life in Christ again, every day, anytime that we find ourselves straying from God’s will. Because the Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that we are all God’s beloved children. We are all given the mission and ministry of Christ, to go out into the world spreading the Gospel, and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Please stand with me now, and sing of that day when Jesus was baptized, Down by the Jordan.