Sermon preached January 10, 2010
Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
One of the things I appreciated about the old television show, All in the Family, was the way it would address religious themes from time to time. One such episode was about baptism, and it aired in February 1976 (season six, episode 22, 23 February 1976). Archie, the deeply committed Protestant who never went to church himself, is determined to have his grandson Joey baptized. His son-in-law, Michael, does not want this for his child as he is committed to being non-religious. Archie concocts a plan to take Joey to the church with his wife, Edith, while they are babysitting. Edith wants nothing to do with this plan, even after Archie tries to convince her. “You gotta use force, that’s the Christian way.” Foiled temporarily, Archie is undeterred. He sneaks off by himself with Joey, and then the pastor at the church refuses to baptize the baby, Archie takes matters into his own hands and baptizes Joey himself, ending with a memorable benediction – “I hope that took, Lord, cause when I get home they’re gonna kill me.” In his views about and method for baptism, we might say that Archie Bunker was “all wet” - - - pun intended.
In my first pastorate there was a woman about my age who was going through a transition in her faith. We had a number of conversations and it became clear to her that her theology fit more comfortably within the local Baptist Church. She decided to join that church, and even though she had already been baptized in that United Methodist Church, and, in fact, was twelve when she was so baptized, the Baptist pastor told her she would need to be baptized again with a “believer’s baptism.” I thought his theology was all wet – pun intended.
Yet when we are honest with ourselves we might admit that baptism is a bit of a puzzle. We can wonder why such a simple act carries with it so much feeling and creates so much controversy and debate. We wonder, but we are also grasped with wonder by baptism. There is something special about this simple act of being touched by water, something about it that marks our lives. We are often baptized not long after we come into the world, and next week again we will baptize a young child. When our life here is ended, baptism is also present. The beginning words to our traditional funeral liturgy make reference to baptism. “Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory. As in baptism ___________ put on Chirst so in Christ may _________ be clothed with glory.” Baptism marks our lives from beginning to end. It is significant, yet its significance is shrouded in mystery.
This morning, I don’t want to take away all the mystery from baptism. Part of the power of art or ritual is that there are mysterious and indefinable qualities that touch us deeply. Still, a modicum of understanding is also helpful so on this day when we read about the baptism of Jesus, let’s reflect for a few moments on baptism.
What is baptism about? What makes it meaningful and significant?
God welcomes. Actually, part of Archie Bunker’s theology of baptism makes a little bit of sense. “Every kid needs to be something.” Every human being should know they are something, that they are special, that they matter just because they are. Baptism is the way the church, in the name of the God we know in Jesus, communicates that. When the pastor extends arms to hold the child, or extends hands out to an adult, it is symbolic of the way God reaches out to all. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). The words spoken at the baptism of Jesus – “You are beloved” are spoken to each of us. When the community welcomes the baptized person, it extends the welcoming of God, and I love the way we do that here with children with a quilt to match our words of welcome.
God accompanies. “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:5). Just as we are made of water within, and surrounded by water on this planet, so God is with us within and without. God rejoices with us in our joys – tears of joy, a water image. God wills and whispers our well-being. God cries with us in our sorrow – another water image. God is with us in the difficult times – “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). When we lose our way, God forgives and helps restore us – an image of cleansing, yet another water image.
All this happens by God-with-us, by the presence of God as Holy Spirit. In some Christian traditions, there is a claim made that God’s Spirit needs to come in a different way – that there is a strong distinction between water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit. While we don’t deny that God’s Spirit can touch our lives more or less powerfully throughout our lives, we affirm that as in Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God comes into our lives meaningfully and powerfully at baptism.
This is pretty powerful stuff. How do we expect a little child, someone without words, to understand it? We don’t. Nor do we really expect the adults baptized to fully understand it. While I understand the logic of believer’s baptism – that a person should be willing and able to accept faith for themselves as a condition of being baptized, I disagree with a major premise – that baptism is most about understanding. There is something beyond our full comprehension about God. God’s grace is not dependent upon our intellectual ability, but is there for us before our awareness of it and beyond our full comprehension of it. That’s the logic behind our church’s practice of infant baptism.
Baptism reminds us that God in Jesus Christ welcomes us, accompanies us along life’s journey – beginning to end - - - rejoicing with us, weeping with us, whispering to us direction for our well-being and the well-being of the world, forgiving us, and giving us new starts and second chances. We are God’s all wet people – not all wet in the manner of being mistaken or all wrong - - - but all wet in that baptism marks our lives from birth to death. We are God’s all wet people dedicated to living out our identity and the vows made at our baptism.
Those vows are powerful guidelines for our lives. “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?” Weird question, I know – but when I think of racism, of all the oppressive things human beings have done to one another based on religion, skin color, ethnic identity, orientation I can relate to something like “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers.” I also see how people get caught in patterns of behavior that do harm to themselves and others. We can get caught up in forces of wickedness and harmful behaviors and need to turn – that’s what repent means.
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” God gives us freedom and power – will we use it for good? That’s the challenge to God’s all wet people.
“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to all people?” We miss the mark from time to time and need forgiveness, the forgiveness taught and shared by Jesus. We trust in God’s grace experienced in Christ. We pledge our lives to being Christlike, and we do that together with others.
United Methodist Bishop and former dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School Will Willimon tells the story of growing up in South Carolina. When he would leave the house, his mother would say to him, “Will, remember who you are.” Today, remember who you are – God beloved, all wet with the waters of baptism, pledged to use our freedom and power well.
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Well, the journey of our life in faith begins with a splash, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to send ripples of love, freedom, compassion, care and justice from that moment on. Amen.