The text is Matthew 3:13-17.
I’ve been baptized three times. And no, I don’t mean three times, as in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. I mean that I’ve received the sacrament of baptism on three separate occasions.
The first time was when I was a baby. My uncle, a Wesleyan minister, baptized me in his church. The second time was when I was thirteen years old. The church my family attended at the time believed that baptism should only be administered to those who have already made a conscious decision to follow Jesus. The third time was when I was in college. The church I attended at that time believed that people should only be baptized after they’ve had a certain kind of spiritual experience.
Each time I was re-baptized, I did it with the most sincere faith I could muster at the time. I wanted so badly to please God. Each time, I wanted to be absolutely sure that I “got it right”.
If my story about three different baptisms sounds bizarre to you, don’t worry: it should sound bizarre. While my faith was sincere, I think as I look back that I was operating out of a very basic misunderstanding of what baptism is. I was assuming that baptism is all about what I do. I had to get baptized in the right way, from the right person, at the right time. I thought it was up to me to “get it right”, otherwise the baptism didn’t count.
But nowadays, as I study more of the Bible, theology, and church history, I’ve come to believe that baptism is not really about what we do; I believe that baptism is mainly about what God is doing in us.
This truth is illustrated beautifully in today’s gospel reading. It’s the familiar story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The first thing we notice is that this is no empty ritual. Neither is it “just a symbol”, as some Christians tend to think of it. Something is happening here. Something mystical. Something wonderful.
We read, first of all, that as Christ came up from the water, “the heavens were opened”. We don’t know exactly what that means, but the general sense is that, for just a moment, the boundary between this world and the next (i.e. between “earth” and “heaven”) became paper thin. So thin, in fact, that you could see and hear through it. I imagine the scene going down like this: a sudden hush falls over the group. Then the hair on their arms and the backs of their necks stands up. They start to look around at each other and suddenly realize, “We’re not alone in this place!” Just then, a voice speaks out, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is a moment of revelation. We are being let in on a big secret. In this moment, God is revealing something very important about who Christ is and, by extension, who we are.
The voice says, “This is my Son”. This is a direct quote from the Old Testament. It comes from Psalm 2:7. This psalm is what’s called a “coronation psalm”. It’s all about the king of Israel. The title, “Son of God”, is usually applied to the king. When we hear this title applied to Jesus, it’s a clear indication to us that Jesus comes from a royal heritage and is bound for a royal destiny.
As it is with Jesus, so it is with us. Just as he passed through the waters of baptism, so do we. Just as the heavens opened over him, they do so over us. Just as he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, so are we.
In baptism, God shows us who we are as beloved sons and daughters. You are not an anonymous face in the crowd to God. Like Christ, the unique treasure stored in your life (and every life) has royal dignity. As God’s children, you and I bear the image of God, the Holy One who gave us birth. Each one of us reflects that image in a totally unique way. If even one of us was missing, a part of that image would be lost forever.
As God’s sons and daughters, the text also tells us that we are “beloved”. This is where I think “baptism” is especially appropriate as a word and as an image. The word “baptize” means “to immerse” or “to soak”. You and I are literally surrounded by God’s love (like water in a hot tub). We’re soaking in it. You and I are floating on an infinite ocean of love. We’re carried along by its currents. If you use your imagination, you can picture it in your head. That’s what I like to call “seeing with the eyes of faith” or “seeing with your heart”. Now, we can’t physically see God or God’s love with our eyes. God is a mystery. So, we have to use our imagination and trust that God is actually there. Baptism, as a ritual, makes this invisible mystery more real to us in a tangible way.
So then, baptism is about what God is doing in us. In baptism, God reaches out to us. God shows us, through Jesus Christ, who we truly are as unique and beloved sons and daughters of God. God empowers us, through the Holy Spirit, to trust in the unseen and infinite reality of love that surrounds us. When you look at it like that, it gets pretty hard to think about baptism as something that we do for God. Suddenly, it doesn’t even make sense to think that God is shaking God’s head and going, “Gosh, you didn’t do that right. You’d better do it again if you want it to count.” To think of baptism as something we do for God misses the point completely.
This truth was brought home for me in a fresh way last year. There is a guy who I’ll call Sam (not his real name) who I know through my ministry on the streets in Utica. Sam is a mentally ill alcoholic who occasionally finds himself homeless in our area. I’ve known him for years through various agencies and organizations in the community. A few years ago, he started attending our Thursday night Bible study at St. James Mission. His participation would vary from week to week. Sometimes he showed up reeking of booze and his comments on the text were nearly incomprehensible. At other times, he would engage with others in lively discussion. He brought insight and compassion from a street-perspective that left us all feeling enlightened and enriched. In spite of his many problems, we’re glad that Sam came to be part of our community.
After he had been coming for a while, Sam told me that he would like to be baptized. He and I began meeting together on a weekly basis to discuss the meaning of baptism and the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. Things started well but quickly fell apart. Sam’s psychological condition was deteriorating. He would show up to his appointments, rambling about nonsensical ideas, reading poetry off blank pieces of paper, and talking to imaginary bodyguards through an invisible headset. It was abundantly clear to me that any discussion of theology or spirituality would be pointless.
During this time, I considered delaying Sam’s baptism until he could get himself into a healthier place. I thought a good dose of tough love might be just the thing to push him to get help. However, I decided to go ahead with Sam’s baptism in the end. We did it at our Thursday night Bible study. He dressed his best and invited a whole slew of friends and family to celebrate the occasion with him. And there, in all his confusion, Sam was immersed in the infinite ocean of God’s love for him.
Was this baptism a waste? Maybe so. But if we admit that it is a waste, then we also have to admit that God’s love is wasteful. According to Jesus, God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Don’t we place our faith in that same wasteful love when we bring our children to be baptized as infants, long before they can make any decision or response toward the Gospel of Christ? Don’t we all have lean on that wasteful love time and time again when we struggle and fail in our Christian walk? I know that I do.
God’s love is wasteful. God opens the heavens and pours it out over those who need it most and deserve it least. We are all soaked in it. Baptism makes real to us the mystery of God’s love in a way that we can see and touch. The faith we proclaim in our baptismal vows is only a grateful response for what God has already done for us. As we meditate on the subject of baptism this morning, I pray that it will not be an empty ritual for you. I pray that the reality of God’s love will soak you to the bone in a fresh way. I pray that you would walk out of here this morning refreshed and renewed, ready to take this infinite ocean of love with you into a world that is dying of thirst.