The Baptism of our Lord
January 10, 2010
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The great protestant reformer Martin Luther is reputed to have proclaimed passionately to his audiences, “Remember your baptism!” For those of us who were baptized as infants, that is just about impossible. But if you are like me, perhaps the gaps in your memory have been filled in by family stories. I don’t remember my baptism, but I know that it took place on a hot June Sunday, in an Episcopal Church in North Carolina, long before anyone thought of air-conditioning churches. My whole family was gathered—my parents, and my grandparents and a couple of aunts and uncles, along with some of my parents’ closest friends, and of course, the congregation. I was wearing the long white dress my older sister had worn at her baptism a few years earlier. Because I was a chubby baby, and perhaps a few months older when I wore that dress than when my sister did, the arms were too tight, and my mother tells the story of how, in the rush to get to church on time, she simply took the scissors and snipped a few threads in each sleeve to make it more comfortable for me.
More than 50 years later my little granddaughter Julianna wore that dress at her baptism, the sleeves still bearing the mark of my baptism day. Julianna likely won’t remember her baptism day either, but she’ll be able to see the pictures, and she’ll hear the stories—how it was hot in church that night, too, even though it was only April, and how the smell of the incense wafted through the congregation, and how her family gathered, church goers and non-church-goers alike in the candle light, as her Amma baptized her with water and marked her by the power of the Holy Spirit with fragrant oil, sealing her as Christ’s own forever.
Even if we don’t remember our own baptisms, chances are that we all know the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s told in all four gospels, and we hear it each year on this Sunday, the first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is, I think, no accident that this story is told in the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” means a revelation, a showing, and in Jesus’ baptism and the actions that followed it, Jesus’ identity, his true identity, is revealed—not for the first time, certainly, for as we’ve heard over the last few weeks, the angel Gabriel revealed Jesus’ identity to Mary at the annunciation, and again to the shepherds on the night of his birth. The infant John leapt in the womb, revealing this identity to Elizabeth when Mary went to visit, and Simeon and Anna caught glimpses of it when he was presented at the Temple. And in last week’s gospel, when Jesus lingered in the Temple and told his parents that he was in “his father’s house” he seemed to have had some inkling of who he was.
The revelation in today’s gospel, however—when the heavens opened up and a dove descended, and a voice proclaimed, “You are my son…” – did more than just signify Jesus’ identity. These words marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the world; they set him on the journey that would culminate with the cross, and the empty tomb. When Jesus was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, he received not only an affirmation of who he was, he also received a vocation.
That sense of vocation is something I fear we sometimes miss in our practice of baptizing infants and young children. Don’t get me wrong—as you may be able to tell from my story about Julianna’s baptism, and from last week’s baptism of little Jacob, I love baptizing babies. When it is time to mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the holy oil, and to utter the words, “You are marked by the Holy Spirit and sealed as Christ’s own forever,” I get a chill. Something very real, very powerful happens when we pour that water over an infant’s head, when we Chrismate with that oil—and it’s not something I’d want to give up.
But—and there is a very real but coming—but when we fail to take the promises we make for the child being baptized seriously, when we fail to take those vows to heart for ourselves, when we fail to recognize that each and every one of us is given a vocation at baptism, then I fear that we miss the point of what we are doing. For baptism is more than a social occasion, it is more than a moving liturgy. We consider baptism to be a sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace—because baptism is transformative. It is life changing. And it is through baptism that we are called to live as Christ’s own forever, with all that entails.
We may not remember our baptisms, and we may not always recognize the impact baptism has on our lives. But lucky for us, we are given the opportunity to refresh our memories as it were and to revisit what baptism means for us whenever we witness a baptism, and whenever we celebrate a “baptismal occasion” as we do today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. In just a few minutes we will stand and we will renew our baptismal covenant—those promises that were made for us by our parents and godparents, or perhaps that we made for ourselves if we were older. And in an act meant to fully reconnect us to the power of that moment in time, we’ll be sprinkled again with the holy waters of baptism.
This may seem like so much show, but I invite you to enter fully into this moment. Think about the promises you are making, and what they mean for your lives—as individuals and corporately as members of this parish, as members of this community, as members of the body of Christ. Pay attention to what you are promising—not only that you believe, but also that you will “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, “ that you will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and that you will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” And if these promises seem daunting, pay attention to the responses we make to each one, “I will with God’s help.”
I will with God’s help. And that brings us full circle. In baptism we receive our vocation as Christians, but we are not left to do it all on our own. Instead we are given God’s grace and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was empowered by the spirit on the day of his baptism. We are empowered by the spirit and we are called into the community of the church to do the work of Christ in the world. And if we take this seriously, then our baptisms will be transformative not only for us, but for the whole world. Think about what that could mean.
And now, let us stand and reaffirm the promises of our baptism…