January 8, 2023
Rev. Scott Landis
The passage from Matthew describing the baptism of Jesus invites as many questions as it answers when it comes to OUR understanding of baptism. We might wonder, why did Jesus NEED to be baptized – a question even posed by John. Is what John was doing in the Jordan River the same as what we will do later this morning down at Maluaka? Does one need to be repentant to be baptized? If so, how do babies repent of their sins? Do babies sin? And how is it possible to baptize both babies AND adults? And then, what’s up with infant “dedication?” What does that mean or do?
I won’t try to answer all those questions in one sermon, but today’s scripture passage, coupled with this Sunday known as “Baptism of Christ” Sunday, along with the fact that we have 4 candidates (of very different ages and experiences) all coming to be baptized – well, it’s a preacher’s paradise. I get to talk about one of my favorite topics – baptism – AND how it relates to our theology as members of the United Church of Christ. Hang onto your hats. Here we go!
First, it’s highly likely that what John was doing in the Jordan – and what Jesus came seeking was somewhat different than what we will do as a community today (whether we use a baptismal font, a tank, or Maluaka – AND whether we sprinkle, pour, or completely immerse). The Hebrews engaged in a regular and repeated procedure know as “ritual washing.” Ritual washing was a necessary practice of Hebrew believers who were extremely concerned that they would be fully prepared for worship AND for the coming of the Messiah. Men and women both engaged in ritual washing and did so often as a means of purifying their bodies and as an act of repentance.
Second, what John was calling for was a repentant heart. He wanted those coming to him to be mindful of their SINS, to repent of them, and then engage in ritual washing as an outward display of their desire to be clean – whole – and prepared.
Most biblical scholars believe that John was a member of a community of cloistered monks known as the Essenes who made their home in the harsh desert hills of Qumran near the Dead Sea. I’ve been there. Believe me, it is dry, desolate, and deserted. The Qumran community believed that the “Son of Righteousness” might come at any moment, and they had to be ready. Ritual washing – even in a location where water was scarce – was engaged in repeatedly. It was THAT important.
It could be that John left this community to become a more active proponent of this practice – calling others to do the same. But when he saw Jesus, he was initially reluctant to “wash” or “baptize” him. Imagining him to be the “Son of Righteousness,” he felt unworthy. But Jesus insisted and it’s why he said,
“Let it be so now, for it is necessary for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
I believe what Jesus demonstrated by submitting to John’s repentant washing was both his desire to fully identify with humankind, AND his desire to humble himself taking on the form of a servant and not the one who needed to be in the lead. John had his role and duty to perform, and Jesus was only too glad to receive John’s offering.
It’s what happened next that I find even more compelling for our purposes today and speaks to the heart of our theology as an inclusive community. You’ll recall Matthew’s words,
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up out of the water, suddenly the heavens opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, I am so pleased with him.” [Pause]
Regardless of the method we engage in baptism, or the age when it is administered, what we are doing when we participate in this sacrament of our church is to indicate by outward display our belief that God is present and blesses the one being baptized through naming and claiming as God’s “Beloved” child. And God delights in WHO we are AS we are. God blesses us with God’s love – a love that will not let us go – a love we can never be separated from. My oh my, it just doesn’t get any better than that. That’s grace – unmerited, eternal, and free!
AND – it is a re-affirmation we all participate in as whether we are the ones being baptized or the ones offering our ascent – as we re-member and re-affirm
God is here.
God is blessing.
God affirms God’s love for us.
God’s promise will never be taken back!
That’s something to get excited about. It is the crux our faith. When we participate in the sacrament of baptism – we remind ourselves AND the ones about to be baptized that we are Beloved too!
I make this point especially to parents who bring their children to be baptized. When we ask them to make a commitment on behalf of their child, we have no idea what the child will become. But God blesses them no matter. She may become a doctor. He may be a budding astronaut. She may be a lesbian. He may commit a crime. None of that matters or is relevant when we come to the water and pray. Instead, we affirm the relationship one is seeking for him/herself, or the promises made by parents that they may be one day be accept or reject. Regardless, what we know is God’s promise never fails or changes.
And to the adults coming to be baptized, we ask them to reassert their intent to draw closer to God in a deeper and more meaningful and fulfilling relationship.
Finally, the sacrament of baptism is a public and communal event. Baptism is not a private affair because, in the words of the African proverb, “it takes a village” to instruct and support one another in Christian faith. It’s why I ask you to offer your “love, support, and care” as part of the baptismal liturgy. And it’s why you are invited to witness the act itself as water is used to signify both cleansing and covenant.
As we baptize today, we assert as a community that these 4 candidates are begin formally welcomed into the larger Christian ‘ohana. They may be members of other churches, or they may need to confirm their baptism at a later time in their lives – but by prayer, and promise, water, and goodwill we will invite the triune God – “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” to welcome each one as a “Beloved Child of God, Disciple of Christ, and Member of the Christian Church.”
And, finally- finally, (I promise) when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, while we may not remember it, we reaffirm our own baptism and remind ourselves once again – with joy – God continues to delight in WHO WE ARE AS WE ARE and calls us “Beloved.”
Mahalo ke Akua – thanks be to God,