Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon - Baptism of our Lord - Year B

Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7                                                                     

                                                            Be Silent and Receive the Gift

            Sermons are supposed to answer questions, not ask them.  But I have a question for you this morning, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  He was not baptized in the same way that you and I are baptized.  Our baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are baptized in the name of the LORD Jesus - thus the necessity (pointed out in our second lesson for this morning) for those in Ephesus to receive the lying on of hands.  Their baptism, John's baptism, was in some way different from the baptism practiced by the Christian community.

            So why was Jesus baptized?  Especially since the baptism he received was John's baptism.

            I hate to ask questions and then fail to provide an answer but I have to tell you now that I am not going to come up with one any time in the next eleven minutes.  There are theories and explanations; there are doctrines and theological justifications - but there is not a final answer to the question of why Jesus was baptized.  It is one of those things which just happens.  We are at a loss to explain it - but somehow it speaks to us and Jesus’ baptism becomes an important part of our experience of God.

            But we are rational people.  We like explanations.  Many of us are academicians.  We spend our lives looking for answers.  So it bothers us, not knowing why was Jesus baptized.  Why did he receive John's baptism? 

            Our Gospel lesson for this morning is very clear what it meant by John's baptism, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1.4).  John's baptism was offered to that brood of vipers, who had somehow been warned to flee from the wrath to come.  It was a ceremo­nial bathing associated with one's decision to turn their life around.

            The people who came out to John, listened to his sermons and became aware of how far they had drifted from the places God wanted them to be.  Those who entered the waters of the Jordan River had come to realize their sinfulness and they were acknowledging their desire to do better. 

            I do not mean to minimize the importance of a baptism of repen­tance - but it is not the same thing as the baptism we cele­brate in the Christian church.  a baptism in the Christian Church is a baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  We baptize one into the death and resurrection of Christ.

            The story in Acts 19 exposes this difference.  Paul is passing through Ephesus when he encounters some disciples.  He asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  Actually he asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they became believers - a subtle comment perhaps - but one that does raise the question of what is absolutely essential for one to be considered a disciple of Jesus.  Here is a group whose theology did not even include the Holy Spirit yet Paul addresses them as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Sometimes we get awfully picky about what one has to believe or confess or do before we will consider them a part of the community of Christ.  Paul seems much more willing to accept these folks - even though there is a gaping hole in their theological fabric.

            Paul encounters these folks in Ephesus and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  As he tries to understand why they haven't even heard of the Holy Spirit, he hits upon the symbol of baptism.  These believers had received a baptism of repentance - they had come to an awareness of their sinfulness and their need to turn to God.  But they had failed to receive the gift of baptism into Jesus - they had not experienced the confidence associated with the Spirit's coming to dwell in the very midst of their lives.  Their baptism was all about what they had decided to do – the baptism to which Paul wished to expose them is all about what God intended to do.

            If we accept the Biblical witness regarding Jesus, then we must admit that he had no need for John's baptism.  Scripture speaks of him as one who knew no sin.  So why would scripture include this story of his baptism (a baptism for repentance) at the hand of John?

            Again – I have no final answer.  I will acknowledge with you that Jesus’ baptism by John seems to be a way to link his life with the lives of those who would later be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  His baptism unites him with those who are being baptized.  His baptism yokes him with the baptism of you and me. 

            It is not that Jesus needed to be or had to be baptized – he wanted to be.  He wanted to share our life and our experience and he wanted to give us hope and promise.  And so, Jesus was baptized.  And in so doing, he transforms baptism.

            After his baptism, after his death, after his resurrection; baptism became a way of experiencing this desire on the part of our Messiah.  Baptism became the way that we could once again acknowledge that a God who didn’t have to do something, did do something.  Did it because God wanted to be a part of our lives and our world.  Did it, so that we might never again have to bear the weight of our sin.  Did it, so that having been set free from the burden of our transgressions we would be free to love and serve God.  God didn’t have to do this; God wanted to do this.

            We baptize, not as some outward sign of an inward change of heart.  We baptize, in order to provide physical confirmation of a spiritual reality. 

            The Church has never doubted that God may be found along a stream or in a baby’s cry or in the midst of a beautiful piece of music.  We may experience God in any number of settings.  What we believe and teach is while God may be present to you in those places, there are two places where God promises to be present.  One is at the table where we share The Eucharist and the other is in the baptismal waters.  God’s desire to enter our world is made real in God’s promise to enter our lives through baptism.

            By now you have caught on that I am really not all that interested in an answer to the question, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  The answer toward which I move is “Why are we baptized?”  True, there a number of writings, and scripture itself speaks of our baptism as a baptism of cleansing.  But Christian baptism is not John’s baptism.  It is not a baptism of repentance.  It is a baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.  Whereas John’s baptism looks at the change of heart made by a sinner, a Christian baptism has God’s activity as its focus.

            The baptism of John addresses what we plan to do.  The Baptism of Our Lord speaks of what God is doing.


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