FIRST LESSON: Colossians 1:15-28
SECOND LESSON Matthew 3:1-12
SERMON: “Dangerous Waters”
We got to talking the other night in session about trusting the power of God and seeking God’s power through prayer. Somehow that led us into a discussion of the prayers of confession and whether we actually mean them, or just mouth the words and expect little difference in ourselves or any real response from God. Of course not every word or thought of every prayer of confession applies to every person in worship. That’s why we have that short silence for you as individuals to offer up to God your own personal confession. Then as I began preparing for today’s message, in a service centered around the baptism of Konrad I finally caught a connection, I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps you have realized it all along, but I hadn’t.
We are called to confession of sin, much as John the Baptist called people to come for a baptism of repentance. We in the Reformed tradition only baptize once. We recognize the baptisms of persons in other traditions because we understand that it is God who is active in the Sacrament. The logic being that to baptize someone a second time would be saying that somehow God didn’t get it right the first time, and as good Reformed theologians we hang our theology on the sovereignty of God, and there is no way we would say God didn’t get something right.
When we respond to the call to confession of sin, offer a heart-felt prayer (either corporate or personal) and receive assurance of God’s mercy and grace, perhaps without realizing it, we are remembering our baptism, the washing away of our sin and the comforting declaration that we are guiltless before God.
Jesus began his ministry by being baptized. At this point in Jewish history, water baptism served one of three purposes. First was the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist was preaching. But of course Jesus didn’t need to repent because he was without sin.
The second kind of baptism was for people who desired to convert to Judaism. If you were a Gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism, they baptized you in water. That’s one of those trick questions I use in confirmation classes – when were the first baptisms done? Not with John the Baptists, not in the early church – way back in Hebrew history, it was an entrance to the community.
Roy Lloyd, a Lutheran minister, once interviewed Mother Teresa. One of the questions he asked her was, “What’s the biggest problem in the world today?” And she answered, without hesitation, “The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day.”
With all that is evil and wrong in this world today it would be easy to answer that question in a hundred different ways. That’s what makes Mother Teresa’s response so jolting. She was saying that the problem is not so much with the world as it is with us. We need to see more people as our neighbor than we are currently doing.
I see Jesus doing this in his baptism. In submitting to baptism, Jesus identified himself with us. By his baptism he included us in his righteousness. He identified himself with humanity, with our need to be cleansed, and our need to be made pure. If you have been baptized you have been drawn, by Jesus’ baptism, into the circle of God’s family. After Konrad is baptized this morning his name will be entered in the rolls and registers of North Kent Presbyterian Church in the section “baptized children.” But Konrad will be baptized this morning not just into the NKPC family – as wonderful as that is – but into the whole Christian family.
But Jesus had no need to be baptized into Judaism. He’d been born a Jew. He did not need to be baptized for forgiveness of sin, because he was without sin. So, for what other reason would a person be baptized in water back then? Well, the only other people who experienced baptism - in the Jewish faith in that day were priests. The Law dictated that especially the High Priest was to “washed with water.” And the Temple had pools set aside for just that purpose. In Leviticus 8:6 we’re told that - by the instruction of God -- “Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water.” Then, later, during that ceremony Moses “poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.” Leviticus 8:12 For many of us this finally answers the question as to why Jesus submitted to baptism by John – it marked the beginning of his ministry and acknowledged his role as priest.
So, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan — that once mighty river — the river that Joshua and the Israelites miraculously crossed with God’s help, the river that shielded David and Elijah from their enemies. Sadly that river is now little more than a stinking, bacteria-infested, polluted little creek. At the site where many believe that Jesus was baptized, down near the Dead Sea, Christian pilgrims still plunge themselves into the brown water repeatedly, in spite of the fact that it’s so filled with bacteria and raw sewage that the Israeli government has banned people from entering the water. (They still can enter from the Jordanian side, although the Jordanian government strongly advises against it.)
Environmentalist Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East explains the danger of just stepping into the dirty water, let alone dunking in it repeatedly. “If you drink the water, you’re likely to get diarrhea or stomach problems, and if you have a cut, you will probably get a rash,” he says. And that’s if you’re lucky. It could be a lot worse.
A few miles north of the dam and 65 miles north of the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, the river is still very narrow but somewhat cleaner near where the shrinking Sea of Galilee spills into the Jordan. Here, in this scenic spot, the Israeli government has set up an official site for people who want to get baptized or remember their baptism in the Jordan. There you can rent a baptismal robe and change in a locker room before stepping down into the green water to be baptized while your tour group looks on and the fish nibble at your toes. For many pilgrims coming from around the world, it’s a memorable experience.
Perhaps the risk taken by those who are willing, even anxious, to step into the dirty waters of the Jordan shouldn’t be too easily set aside, for baptism is also a call and claim upon our lives for mission and ministry.
M. R. DeHaan, one of the editors of the devotional Our Daily Bread, put it this way:
“In the early days of the church. . . , baptism was a declaration that the believer was definitely identifying himself with that group of people who were called Christians and were despised and hated. To be a Christian meant something. To identify yourself with those who were called Christians meant persecution, maybe death; it meant being ostracized from your family, shunned by friends. And the one act which was the final declaration of this identification was baptism. As long as a man gathered with Christians, he was tolerated, but when once he submitted to baptism, he declared to all the world, I BELONG TO THEIS DESPISED GROUP, and immediately he was persecuted, hated, and despised. In baptism, therefore, the believer entered into the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ. A person might be a believer and keep it strictly a secret and thus avoid unpleasantness and suffering, but once he submitted to public baptism he had burned his bridges behind him. . .”
In no way do we anticipate that Konrad will be persecuted, hated or ostracized for being a baptized Christian. But he is by his baptism called to a life of Christian service.
There’s a story told of a husband and wife both of who were doctors - one a doctor of theology and the other a doctor of medicine. When their doorbell was rung and the maid answered, the inquirer would often ask for “the doctor”. The maid’s interesting reply was always: “Do you want the one who preaches or the one who practices?” We know the theory of Christian living but what we must do is to practice it, even when that means getting into some muddy, dirty, even dangerous waters.
Today in the baptism of this precious child, let us all remember our baptism, resting in the assurance that our sins are forgiven, finding joy in being a part of the Christian family, and responding to the call to Christian service.