Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s different, right? I ask that about Jesus’ baptism, and ours. His baptism is different, right?
Well, of course, at least concerning the way most of us are baptized today, at least in the Lutheran churches. Not too many of us wade out into a river, as Jesus did, where he was likely submerged… and not too many of us wait until we’re thirty years old to be baptized!
That’s not really the point, though. When we are baptized, we are baptized according to the formula given by Jesus after the resurrection just before the ascension. He said to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wasn’t baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was baptized by John, who appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and the people of the whole area went out to him. They were baptized in the river Jordan confessing their sins. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came, John met them with a warning, saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” John promised that more powerful one would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
But when that more powerful one comes… when Jesus comes and John expects Jesus to baptize him with the fire of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t happen that way. Instead, Jesus has come to be baptized by John, insisting it is proper for the two of them in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is not baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—instead, he receives a baptism of repentance.
What does this mean?
For us, repentance usually means that we feel bad or sorry about something, so we try to do something to make things better. In the Bible, that word literally means a change of mind. Of course in Greek thought that might more closely fit what we call a change of heart, so we can understand it in both ways. Repentance meant change, a change of mind and heart so that the future looks different… usually better!
I’m not sure whether Jesus was thinking of change when he went to John for baptism, and then into the water for washing. Somehow he believed it was the right thing to do, but change may not have been his intent. Change happened anyway, though. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the very heavens are opened to him. Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and that Spirit sits right there on Jesus. Then there’s the voice from heaven—not from the dove-like Spirit, not from Jesus, but from heaven—that speaks to any who have ears to hear: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
I’ve not heard of anyone other than Jesus who received the visual of God’s Spirit descending like a dove at the time of baptism. Nor have I heard of others hearing the voice from heaven, claiming the baptized to be beloved son. Neither are many of us immediately taken by that Spirit into the wilderness for testing, and I think we’re all okay with that! We’ll leave those to Jesus!
We are, however, claimed. We are in baptism, named as a child of God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are—each one of us—claimed as one of God’s own. In baptism our family grows to include not only the entire congregation, but the whole Christian church on earth, present, past, and future. Wouldn’t it be great if that whole family of Christians were completely like Jesus?
Of course, we’re not. Whereas Jesus came up out of the water experiencing a kind of change we can not quite imagine, most of those baptized by John could easily imagine a change in themselves which was either desired of them or sought by them. They entered into the experience confessing their sins. Jesus was different. He didn’t need change from a sinful life to one of at least attempted righteousness—as they did, and as we still do.
The sad truth is that we can’t automatically trust someone to do the right thing, just because they are or claim to be Christian. We can’t even quite trust ourselves to do the right thing all the time.
So, yes, it’s different. We are not the same as Jesus. We are not completely free from sin, from misdeeds, from actual evil, sometimes. But God is with us. Jesus died for us, and the Holy Spirit walks with us day to day through all the grace-filled occurrences and those horrible ones that should never happen anywhere, especially not in a church!
Those good things and horrible things and all things in between continue to happen, even in our churches. Just as Jesus came up from the waters of baptism proclaimed God’s beloved Son, to be led immediately to his testing in the wilderness, so we also live with testing and temptations every day. Of course, it is possible to give up, to walk away, and hoping for something better somewhere else, but let me promise you, human frailty is everywhere.
Our other option besides giving up and walking away is to speak up when something seems wrong, so that we may help one another to recognize what can and probably should be changed to make things better.
We’ve entered a new calendar year. It is a time of hope for most people as individuals, and it can be for congregations as well. There are good things happening here at Concordia. There are more that can happen. They are limited only by the incentive of someone to do them.
Jesus came up out of the water and into a ministry that would lead to his execution. He would die. But in his dying he would save us from our sin, and in his rising he would lead us to new life. What will mark the new lives Jesus gives us? Will we be limited by fear and betrayal? Or will we be energized with hope and fortitude?
Because there is something I didn’t say earlier: Jesus came up out of the water with the Holy Spirit sitting on him and the voice of the Father speaking from heaven… right there the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are present. It is in the name of that same Trinitarian God that we are baptized. It is the ministry of that same Trinitarian God that we live out each day as we proclaim God’s love and mercy, and as we live God’s love and mercy for all of creation.
Maybe our baptism isn’t so very different from the baptism of Jesus after all.
In Jesus’ name. Amen