Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
When you stop and think about all of the scientific progress and knowledge that we as a species have acquired it is truly staggering. Scientists in a wide variety of fields are discovering new things all of the time. While we may not always be aware of or understand these new scientific findings or breakthroughs, I think we are generally aware that there are smart people at the top of their field who are always expanding the boundaries of human knowledge. One of the things that might surprise us though is that there are some very common, everyday things that scientist are clueless about. For instance, science cannot explain why ice is slippery. Ice, as a solid, is not particularly smooth or frictionless. The best explanation for why ice is slippery is that it has a very thin layer of water on top of it, but science cannot explain why solid water does this and no other substance does. Science also cannot explain what causes this thin layer in the first place. Science also cannot explain what makes magnets work the way they do. Scientists can observe the effects of magnetism and they can explain how magnetic forces work, but the “why” is a mystery. On this subject Jearl Walker, author of a widely used college physics text book said in an interview, “We just observe that when you make a charged particle move, it creates a magnetic field and two poles. We don't really know why. It's just a feature of the universe.” In much the same way, gravity is also a mystery has science currently has no good answer for why gravity is. It is seeking to answer these unanswered questions that drives scientific discovery in the first place. Isaac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries is not Eureka! But that’s funny. . .”
Science and faith share a common denominator in that both disciplines are seeking truth, just from different angles. In the same way many of our spiritual insights come not from flashes of brilliance but from thinking “that’s funny” and asking questions. The bible is full of all kind of instances that can make us say “That’s funny . .. “ There are several scriptural stories that we may be familiar with, but when we really start to ponder lead us down a path of asking questions and discovery. I think this morning’s scripture is a good example of this. We believe that Jesus is messiah, he is God incarnate. So it is funny then that Jesus had to be baptized. Why did Jesus get baptized? By exploring this question we can gain a better understanding of our own baptism and the amazing grace of God.
Baptism is one of the oldest Christian traditions. The book of Acts as well as Paul’s letters mention the importance of baptism as a way of signifying faith and a new life. There is an ancient Christian document called the Didache. This document dates all the way back to the first century and contains a baptism liturgy in it. For as long as our faith has existed, baptism has been part of it. We often trace this back to the fact that Jesus was baptized, and his disciples went on to baptize. To properly understand what baptism means for us, we need to understand how baptism worked during the life of Jesus.
Baptism was not a new idea that John the Baptist created. The idea of being ritually clean is one that has deep Jewish roots. The Old Testament law mentions specifically that the Levites or priests had to regularly immerse themselves to maintain ritual purity. By the first century, this practice had become widely adopted. In the Jewish law there are several things that can make someone ceremonially unclean. Immersion was a physical act to symbolically show cleanliness. In ancient Judaism this was done through a ritual bath called a mikveh. In Jerusalem, outside of the ancient temple steps, there are the remains of several of these mikvehs. When the Israelites would go to the temple, they would first bathe in one of these as an act of worship to present themselves clean and unblemished before God. A mikveh has steps that lead down into the bath, and there is a clear division on the steps indicating two sides. A person would walk down on one side, unclean, immerse themselves in the waters and come up the other side clean. The water was a symbol that was meant to mark a spiritual change within a person. It is out of this tradition, that John the Baptist did his ministry. The ritual bath of the Mikveh was to wash away the imperfections that made someone unclean, John’s tweak to this formula was repentance. The message of John the Baptist was “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repentance means to turn around completely, it is a true 180. John’s message was an invitation to re-focus on God because God’s kingdom was coming. Those that came to John the Baptist wanted a fresh start, they came too baptized to acknowledge their need for repentance. They entered the water as people who had moved away from God and they emerged as people with hearts, minds, and souls reoriented to their creator. The baptisms that John preformed signified a change in the baptized, the beginning of a new life, a life that is based in being oriented towards God and God’s mission.
This is why Jesus sought out being baptized by John. It was not that Jesus needed to repent. John the Baptist even knew this was the case which is why he was confused and at first insisted that it was not right for him to baptize Jesus. Jesus declared though “Let it be so now it is right for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was not baptized because he needed to repent and turn back towards God, but Jesus was baptized as a way to symbolically show that he was beginning something new. Baptism symbolically shows a change in a person. Up until this point of his life, Jesus had lived as the son of Mary and Joseph. Yet, when Jesus emerged from the water he embraced his identity as the Messiah, the son of God. This is fully confirmed as the Holy Spirit descends and God the father declares “this is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, it marks the beginning of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by starting the path that enables us all to live righteously in right relationship with God.
Very quickly in the Christian tradition, Baptism took on more meaning. In the book of Acts we see that Baptism was also the way that new believers were accepted in to the Christian community. In Romans and elsewhere Paul adds new meaning to the symbolic act of baptism. In Romans 6:4 Paul wrote, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Jesus emerged from the waters of Baptism embracing the mission and ministry that had been set in motion at his birth. For us baptism is a symbolic act where we die to ourselves and emerge as a new creation in Christ. Our Baptism liturgy summarizes this beautifully and it states, “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ Holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through the water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift offered to us without price.”
In Jesus’s time a large aspect of baptism was that the water was an exterior symbol that signified an interior change. That is still true today, the baptismal waters signify that we are new creations in Christ Jesus. That is why for centuries Christians have been instructed to “remember your baptism and be thankful.” At this, there are some who can get a bit cynical. I for instance, cannot remember my baptism. I have heard the stories, I have seen the pictures, but I was an infant. I have no memory of the event. However, if I dwell on that fact I miss the point. Remember your baptism is not about remembering the circumstances your baptism, it is about remembering that you are baptized. It is about remembering that you have been claimed by God. It is about remembering that we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation. It is about remembering that God’s love and forgiveness is greater than all of our shortcomings and failures. It is about remembering that we are a new creation in Christ.
This is true even if you were baptized as an infant. Because I was baptized I was initiated into a church that loved and cared for me. From a young age I was taught about the love of God by faithful Disciples of Christ. Even when I had turned my back on God, the church did not turn its back on me. The people of God still faithfully did all they did to communicate the great care and compassion that the Creator has for me. When I was an infant I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was proclaimed that God’s love marked my life, and promises were made by my family and by the church to prove and provide that love. Water was sprinkled on my head and I became new creation in Christ, because I can promise you my life, would be radically different if I were not baptized, if I was not initiated in to the church and shown what it means to be incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation. The fact that I was baptized and because of that was raised in an environment where God’s love was proclaimed and made known is a fact for which I am eternally thankful.
If you are baptized, then you are a new creation in Christ. Baptism is a onetime act that shows that the grace of God is present and covers our life, but baptism should have a life time impact. Saying we are a new creation in Christ is not entirely accurate. Perhaps a better way to say it is that we are becoming a new creation in Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit to transform us is not done. From the youngest to the oldest of the baptized among us, God is still at work in our lives, molding us, shaping us, and making us more Christ like. At our baptism it is proclaimed that Christ is savior, and his saving grace is more powerful than any temptation, any addiction, or any sin. Our baptism is a proclamation that nothing can ever, ever separate us from the love of God. We spend the rest of our life from that moment of baptism living that reality out. We do this by taking time to remember out baptism and be thankful.
If you are baptized then the power of the son, whom God the Father loves and is well pleased, is at work in you. However, in the messiness of life it hard to remember this. When we are over-worked, over-stressed, and sleep deprived it is hard to remember to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we find a small measure of comfort from addiction that allure us with false promises of contentment, it is hard to remember to love God with all of mind, heart, and soul. When our heart is hardened from unforgivness, when our spirit is tired from sorrow, and when our mind is imprisoned by the lies that we will never be good enough then it is hard to remember that we are more than this, that we are becoming new creation in Christ. When you find yourself in a place where it is hard to remember your baptism and be thankful, then just add water. The great protestant reformer Martin Luther did this. When he was discouraged about life, he would splash water on himself, look in a mirror, and tell himself “remember you are baptized.” Remember, because our baptism represents the great love that God has for us, and that love will never fail us.
If you are not baptized, then may you anticipate your baptism. If you are not baptized, and you are ready to declare God’s love over your life, if you are ready to die to yourself and begin to become a new creation in Christ, then let’s have that conversation. May those of us who are baptized, may we live as the baptized. May we live as those who have emerged from the waters a new creation, and may we declare with our words and action about the Lord and Savior that has washed away our sins.