Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17
Every year at this time of year, my posts about previous Baptism of Christ Sundays pop up in my Facebook feed. In each and every one I struggle to find words and then end up saying something like this:
“Facing a long line of people (adults and children) that I love, looking each one straight in the eyes, drawing a cross of water on their forehead, calling them by name, identifying them as God’s beloved child, and telling them that God is well pleased with them may not be the Number 1, absolute, single, very best part of my job, but it is way, way up there.
The other thing that pops up in my Facebook memories is a post by a church member. It includes a photo of me drawing a cross with water on her forehead and her comment that what the photo doesn’t show is that she had tears in her eyes.
Well, for the second year in a row, none of us is going to have that exact experience—thanks, Omicron—but I am starting to wonder if the experience we all will soon share might be even better. I’ll say more about that later; until then, I hope you will join me in a brief reflection on what this day in our liturgical year is all about.
Why do we care about the Baptism of Jesus? What is its significance? And what about our own baptisms? Do we ever even think about them (assuming we have been baptized)? What does our baptism mean to us?
Now, before you get too worried, let me assure you: I am not about to launch into a deep dive on the theology, history, and doctrines of baptism. Not that that would be a bad thing; I would even argue that some understand of all that is pretty important.
A few weeks ago, we got a message on the church voicemail from someone wanting to have her three children baptized. When I called the woman back, she told me that certain family members were coming into town soon and how it seemed like a good time to get the kids baptized and so on and so on. I said I be happy to talk to her about that, and I asked why she wanted to have her children baptized. I said something about how baptism is very much a community ritual. And since she and her children are not part of our church, I said, maybe we could talk about that as well.
“How did you find out about our church?” I asked.
She responded that someone in her family goes to this church.
“Oh,” I said. “Who is that?”
And then she gave me a name I’d never heard before.
“Hmm,” I said, “I don’t think I know that person.”
And, long story short: It turns out she thought she had called St. Brigid’s.
End of conversation. End of my theological dilemma of whether to offer drive-through baptisms.
All of which is to say: I take baptism pretty seriously.
John the Baptist took baptism seriously, too. For him it was all about repentance and starting over—that is, turning around and away from our sin and brokenness to make way for God’s love to transform us and the world. I think John the Baptizer also had in mind some kind of baptism hierarchy: the people who had already turned around and toward God’s realm baptized the people who were still a hot mess.
So when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, at first John will not have it. “I need to be baptized by you,” he tells Jesus.
And here’s where I absolutely love the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s translation: “But Jesus answered him, “Let it go now …” And: “Then John let it go.”
John let go of his by-the-book understanding of baptism. He let go of his sense of the correct order of things. He let go, he got out of the way, and he let God be God.
And I wonder if maybe that isn’t what all of us need to do this morning as we consider Jesus’s baptism and ours. I wonder if that isn’t what all of us need to do in our lives as we search for meaning and belonging and purpose: to just let go and let God be God.
And so, putting church doctrines aside for the moment, I invite us to consider how baptism reflects at least three things that are fundamental to the life of faith.
The first one has to do with identity. Baptism is about both who God is and who we are.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is our creator. It is God who made us in the divine image; it is the Holy One who formed us in love and for love.
“I have called you by name, and you are mine,” God says.
It is in God that we discover who we are: that we are creatures, for example, and that we are beloved, precious in the sight of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Baptism confirms our fundamental identity as beloved children of God. In baptism we claim and consent to that identity. Baptism announces that we belong to Love.
Second, baptism is about relationship—the relationship that defines and determines everything. It is an intimate relationship that offers us redemption, solidarity, protection, deliverance, and community.
“Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Be not afraid, for I am with you.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and when you go through rivers they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned; the flames will not consume you. Why? Because I love you. Because that’s who I am. Because you are precious in my sight.”
And third, baptism is about how we live—about our vocation, call, mission, and purpose. Baptism acknowledges that we are not only God’s beloved children but also God’s anointed partners, God’s agents, God’s hands and feet, if you will, in loving and healing this beautiful and broken world.
In baptism, we accept the job offer, we say “yes” to the sacred call, we commit ourselves to carrying out the mission of love and justice. Baptism empowers us for the journey. In baptism, we also proclaim that we are part of the body of Christ. We recognize that we did not earn our membership and that we are no better than anyone else; we affirm that there is room at the table for everyone.
And so it was that when John let it go, when he baptized Jesus, and when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and Jesus saw the very Spirit of God. As she took the form of a dove and descended upon him, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Dear ones, you are God’s beloved children, and in you God is well pleased.
This doesn’t mean we’ve got everything figured out. This doesn’t mean baptism is some kind of magic salvation stamp and now we can forget all about living with and in God. This doesn’t mean we don’t need still need to change.
What is means is that God’s got our back. What it means is that we forget this way too often. What is means is that when the world is getting us down and we’ve forgotten who we are, we can remember our baptism. We can claim this Extravagant Love and ground our life in it. What it means is that God is with us, and we need not be afraid.
The time has come for us to remember the blessing and the promise of our baptisms. The time has come for us to let go: to claim who we are and to let God be God. The time has come for us to renew our baptismal vows to partner with God in loving and healing the world.
Since we cannot line up in the sanctuary and come forward for a blessing with water, I propose that we do it in this way:
Zoom has been kind enough to put us all in our own little boxes, and in this way it becomes easy for us to pass the blessing from person to person.
If you do not want to participate in the ritual, I invite you to turn off your video. I hope everyone else has a cup or bowl of water handy.
I will begin by calling out someone in a square I can see and saying the following words, while dipping my hand in water and making the sign of the cross with my hand. Then I’ll say: So and so, your are God’s beloved child, and with you God is well pleased.”
And then that person will call on someone else, and do and say the same thing.
After you have been blessed and offered a blessing, I invite you to turn off your video, so that it’s clear to all of us, who still needs a blessing. In those squares where there are two people, I invite the first person blessed to consider calling on the other person with them, and in that case, you may actually make the sign of the cross with water on the other person’s forehead. And then, after the second person calls on and blesses someone else, you may turn off your video until we’re all done.
Are you ready?
Okay here we go.