Touched by the Water
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
It is also the Sunday when we remember the baptisms we have celebrated over the past year.
The names of those we have baptized this past year are in the bulletin and we have already prayed for each while restating our commitment to help raise them in the faith.
But, what did we do when we baptized those babies?
We performed a ceremony that metaphorically depicted God’s adoption of the child as God’s own.
A sign that each one of them now belongs to and is loved by God.
It is a truly powerful moment.
I read a story this week about a homeless man who carried two documents with him at all times.
One was his birth certificate which proved where he came from and when.
The second document was his baptismal certificate which proved that he was adopted by and belonged to God.
These two pieces of paper, to him, provided his essential identity.
But it was the baptismal certificate that gave him hope.
It represented who he was, whose he was and where he was going.
That is why our metaphorical adoption ceremony is the essence of the Gospel.
It is a ritual that proclaims God’s love, even for those who don’t yet know it.
That is grace.
But … that is not what Jesus baptism was about.
And that is not what we celebrate today.
What we celebrate today is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus gets baptized by John and walks out of the Jordan River to start his journey to the cross, teaching, healing and feeding along the way.
All four Gospels describe this event.
To Mark, it is the first thing.
Matthew describes it this way.
Matthew 3: 1-6; 13-17
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson gave a nationally televised speech.
At the end of that speech he said these words:
”I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
He said these words at a time when the most recent political polls showed him beating all his potential opponents in the next general election quite handily.
The nation was stunned.
Perhaps not as stunned as Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president, who Johnson let read the speech beforehand.
Humphrey’s reaction to the speech was described this way by Johnson’s Chief of Staff, James Jones.
Mr. Humphrey’s facial expression was pathetic at that moment. Shoulders hunched, he said softly, ”There’s no way I can beat the Kennedys.”
This was a big surprise to the Democrats.
Their incumbent, the one who was going to lead the country to the Democrat promised land, no longer wanted the job.
Worse, the next in line did not think he could win the nomination, let alone the general election.
I can’t imagine how crestfallen the Democrat leadership must have felt.
All the plans for the future, plans that started with President Kennedy and for the most part continued with President Johnson looked like they might crash and burn.
And that is what happened with the election of Richard Nixon.
This story came to mind when I read the story of Jesus baptism.
Here is why.
John the Baptist is out in the wilderness looking and acting like a prophet.
Camel’s hair clothing with a leather belt and eating locusts and honey.
What was his prophetic message?
The Kingdom of Heaven is near.
And here is what you need to do.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
And here is how you do that.
Repent of your sinful life and get baptized.
Then when the Kingdom comes, you will be ready.
What was this “baptism” John proclaimed and encouraged?
First of all, any Jew wandering by the Jordan River who saw John at work might have said, “I wonder what that is all about?”
It would have been foreign to them.
Certainly the Hebrew scriptures talked about baptism in several contexts.
But the common theme was that one had to be clean to be in God’s presence.
To be permitted to stand in the presence of God one had to undergo ritual baptism.
The Essenes, one of whom was John, believed that in order to pronounce the name of God in prayer, one had to be pure, so each one of them underwent baptism every morning.
Cleaning oneself up before conversing with God.
Baptismal pools were common around the Temple so that people could immerse themselves before performing a sacrifice.
They were even in found people’s homes where bathing in the baptismal waters assured that one was free of ritual impurity.
It was used as a sign of obedience to God.
But what John was doing did not fit into any of these known rituals.
In fact, people have been debating where this came form since the Gospels were written.
This was new.
People were confessing that they had not lived a Godly life.
Then they were immersed in the Jordan.
They were changed.
John also said that there was another who was to follow him and who would be greater and more powerful.
He knew who that was.
And look, here he comes.
John knows Jesus because they are cousins.
I have always assumed that Elizabeth and Mary told John and Jesus respectively a bit about their births and what was expected of them.
I am not sure what John thought as Jesus approached, but it was not that Jesus would want to be baptized.
One of the great mysteries of the Gospels is why Jesus wanted to be baptized.
And why baptized by John?
John’s baptism was all about repentance and purification.
Jesus needed none of that, right?
Jesus was sinless.
Jesus was the incarnate God.
What did Jesus have to confess to, repent from and be cleansed of?
That is why John was puzzled.
John knows he is second fiddle and is waiting for Jesus to show up and take the lead.
Then Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him.
Why do I need to baptize you, Jesus?
You are the child conceived by the Holy Spirit, right?
You are the one who has come to change everything.
You are the one who brings the Kingdom of God.
Heck, you are the Kingdom of God.
Wait … are you saying that you are not?
That you are just a guy?
That you aren’t going to lead us to the Kingdom of God?
Are you saying I have to do that?
I have an image of John with a sort of Hubert Humphrey look on his face.
I can’t do this.
I am not here for repentance of sins.
I have none.
I am here to join the community of those who need forgiveness.
The people I have come to serve and save.
I am emptying myself out and becoming fully human.
To do that, I need to be changed.
I am no longer the carpenter from Nazareth.
I am now the Messiah.
My baptism will be my anointing.
My acceptance of God’s call.
This is where my work begins, John.
John, greatly relieved, baptizes Jesus and at that moment, Heaven opens, a dove descends, and God blesses Jesus.
Jesus has accepted the call and has been blessed by God.
All this happened when Jesus was touched by the water.
OK, so the political illustration is strained, but I think you see the point.
The people needed someone to lead them to the Kingdom of God.
To be the Kingdom of God.
Jesus was that guy.
He was born for it.
But he still had to agree to it.
Presenting himself for baptism was the way he accepted God’s assignment.
And God was pleased.
And then Jesus was off on his mission.
OK, that’s a good lesson on Jesus’ baptism.
But then I realized we were ordaining and installing our church officers on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
When I read the Matthew passage with that in mind, it occurred to me that we need to reflect on the act of faith that each of our now ordained and installed officers took today when they said “I do” and “I will” and so accepted the responsibilities of their respected offices.
Each of them, and everyone here who has ever been ordained to church office, have accepted a call of God.
When ordained you were appointed, consecrated, commissioned to do the work of God in this place.
For those serving as elders, your responsibility is this:
To provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard.
To provide that the Sacraments may be rightly administered and received.
To nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ.
To guide the congregation to be the witness of God’s sovereign activity in the world so that the congregation is and becomes a community of faith, hope, love and witness.
For those serving as deacons, your responsibility is this:
To be a compassionate witness and servant to our congregation, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed those burdened by unjust policies and structures and anyone in distress.
And like baptism, once you have been ordained, you are always ordained.
Your call does not end with the expiration of your term of office.
It continues all your life.
But such an understanding of what you have undertaken might feel a bit overwhelming, but be at peace, because Jesus give us two promises.
First, that he will be with us, to the end of the age.
So at least to the end of your term.
He also promises to send the Spirit to guide you.
So, you will not be alone.
And you also have this congregation.
This community of faith that has agreed to be led by you, pray for you and support you while you do the things that will push us to better know, glorify and serve God.
So, I am going to ask that every elder and deacon who is currently serving, even those ordained and installed today, to come forward and touch this water that has touched you.
When you do this, know that you are blessed by God.
Feel his presence.
Know that you are not alone.
And then get on with your ministry.
This water is still here.
If you have been ordained, maybe you could take a moment before leaving to come up and touch this water that has touched you.
And remember your call.
And everyone else can come up and touch the water and remember that this is the baptismal water that touched you.
And remember your baptism.