Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism: The Real Beginning

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 11, 2009

Year B: The Baptism of Our Lord
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Baptism: The Real Beginning

Today is the day we remember the baptism of our Lord. But, if you stop and think about it, isn’t it kind of strange that Jesus, our Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, was baptized? I mean, if ever there was a person who didn’t need to be baptized it would be Jesus, wouldn’t it?

Yet, although it seems a little strange, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ baptism in their gospels. The evangelist John, writing the fourth gospel a little while later, was – like us - maybe a little uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being baptized by John. So in his gospel John doesn’t include the actual baptism of Jesus. But, he does include the testimony of John the Baptist: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Today, though, we heard Mark’s version – probably the earliest, and certainly the most barebones. Mark places Jesus’ baptism right at the start of his gospel. In a few quick sentences he introduces John the Baptist as an Elijah-type figure. And then here’s how Mark introduces Jesus:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

That’s it. Mark either doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in Jesus’ back story. There’s no genealogy, no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no manger. If all we had was the Gospel of Mark, there’d be no Christmas pageant!

For Mark, Jesus’ life really begins with his baptism.

So we’re left to imagine Jesus’ life before his baptism. Most scholars believe that Jesus probably started out as a disciple of John the Baptist. And we can imagine him listening to John’s preaching and teaching. We can imagine Jesus watching John, day after day, baptize people in the Jordan. And we can imagine Jesus asking the same questions we all ask. We can imagine Jesus wondering and praying – who am I? What am I called to be? What is my mission in life?

And we can imagine that the answer Jesus was getting back seemed outlandish, absurd, and terrifying. We can imagine him shaking his head in disbelief. I’m just a carpenter from Nazareth. What I’m feeling and hearing can’t be right.

And then the day came when Jesus finally came forward to take the plunge. Jesus comes up out of the water and he hears the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus realizes who he really is in his baptism. Jesus’ life really begins with his baptism.

And what’s true for Jesus is also true for us. In our baptism we realize who we really are. In our baptism our life really begins.

I am sure throughout his earthly life and ministry – especially during the most painful and frightening moments - Jesus remembered that day in the Jordan. Jesus remembered that it was in his baptism that he realized who he really was. Jesus remembered that it was at his baptism that his life really began.

And, you know, the same is true for us. In our baptism we realize who we really are. Our lives really begin at our baptism.

There’s just one problem. Most of us don’t remember our baptism.

When my wife Sue and I were dating she mentioned a couple of times that she actually remembered her baptism. I was skeptical. Now, Sue doesn’t have the best memory and I was sure she was mistaken. Could she be remembering something else – like Confirmation? I mean I know they say that we store in our brains every experience we ever have, but how could you possibly remember your baptism?

“I remember my baptism,” Sue insisted.

Well, when we were getting married we had to get a copy of our baptismal certificates. And sure enough Sue had been about six years old when she was baptized. We think it was time for her to start school and so her parents realized they needed to get their youngest child of six baptized.

But since most of us were baptized as infants we don’t remember our baptism. We need to be reminded of our baptism. We need to remind one another about our baptism.

One of the ways the Church reminds us of our baptism is in Confirmation. And it just so happens that eleven of our young people will begin Confirmation class tonight. A few months from now at the Confirmation service they’ll have the chance to stand on their own and say they want to be part of the Christian Church.

Confirmation is great, but the best way that the Church reminds us of our own baptism is by letting us witness other baptisms. Personally, I believe that one of the best customs in the Episcopal Church is that we almost always baptize right in the middle of a Sunday service. I love how we invite the children to gather around the font and watch the baptism take place. Most of you can’t see their faces, but usually the children look on with wonder and joy. And that seems about right!

Public baptism is important because it symbolizes that we are baptized into a community.

Public baptism is important because it gives us all an opportunity to promise our support of those who are being baptized into the Christian life.

And public baptism is important because it reminds us of our own baptism – it reminds us of who we really are – it reminds us of when our lives really began.

And public baptism also reminds us of the promises we made – or were made for us – in our baptism.

In the words of today’s collect “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.”

That covenant – those promises – reminds us that baptism is the beginning of our life - but it’s not the end. With God’s help, we are expected to live out those promises each day of our lives.

Our baptismal promises aren’t easy – they are the challenge, the work, of our lives.

Today is a particularly good day to be reminded of those promises.

In our baptism we promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers.

In our baptism we promise to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

In our baptism we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

In our baptism we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

And in our baptism we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

These are serious promises. In the busyness of life it’s easy to forget them. Or, to be honest, because they are such serious promises maybe we might prefer to forget them.

And so the Church offers us reminders.

In Mark’s gospel right after Jesus’ baptism Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted and tested. I am sure throughout those days and all the later tests and temptations of life Jesus continued to draw upon the experience of his baptism.

I am sure during the difficult days ahead Jesus continued to draw upon his baptism - when he realized who he really was - that he was God’s beloved child.

I am sure that during the difficult days ahead Jesus continued to draw upon the experience of his baptism – when his life really began.

And so you and I, even if we don’t remember our own baptism, we too can draw upon our baptism. We can draw upon our baptism and remember that we are loved by God. We can remember that it is in baptism that we realize who we really are. And it is in baptism that our life really begins.