4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus is baptized and tempted
9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Thoughts on the passage:
I was on a retreat this week with clergy of several different denominations and we started talking about baptism and who practiced infant baptism and who practiced believer baptism. Believer baptism is the idea that baptism is done in response to a belief in God, whereas infant baptism is done as a part of a commitment to help a child come to faith.
The United Methodist Church, along with the Catholic church and many other protestant churches, practices infant baptism. For that reason, I suspect it is safe to say that most of us here do not remember our baptism. Even my children, Bryce and Zoe, who were not baptized until they were both almost two, are unlikely to remember anything about their own baptisms. Every year, on the Sunday following Epiphany, we remember the baptism of Jesus. It is also a point that we often use to remember and reflect on our baptism. Even for those of us who have no real memories of the event can ponder again what that moment means to our faith.
I love infant baptism. It is a moment where a number of things occur. First, parents and sponsors are given a chance to profess their faith and recommitment themselves to Christ. Second, it is a chance to celebrate the prevenient grace of God that is at work in a child’s life long before they are aware of God. Finally, it is a chance for a community to pledge their support for a child and a reminder that it takes a whole village to raise a child. All of these are great, and yet when we baptize a child we can forget about one part of what baptism is meant to be a about, a celebration of a changed life. After all, what change can really occur in a 3 month old?
Our text today is the telling of Christ’s baptism from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest and sparsest of the four gospels. He says in a few words, often without dialogue, what the other gospel writers will expound upon at great length. Even Mark however, captures the tension that exists in the baptism of Jesus. Here is Jesus, the Son of God, divinity in human form, asking John, a simple man, to baptize him. John is preaching the importance of baptism as a part of transformed life and a sign of forgiveness. What sort transformation does Christ need? What sins has the young Jesus committed that he needs washed away? Most theologians would likely agree that the answer is that Jesus has no need of forgiveness. Instead, the moment of baptism marks a change in Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry. There is no clear record of what Jesus did before his baptism, but it is clear that after his baptism and the descending of the Holy Spirit upon him, he began to preach, teach, heal, and transform lives.
When we think about baptism, we often think in terms of the forgiveness of sins. Infant baptism started at a time when people were concerned that children might die still bearing their sins and would not be able to go to heaven. Baptism as a means of spiritual cleansing was paramount. What gets forgotten is that second part of the baptismal call that John gives in Mark: changing our hearts and lives. Since obviously a child is not really able to change their heart or life, this part of baptism has sometimes been forgotten.
The ripple effect of this, is that we often forget that the Christian life is a transformed life. It is meant to be a life of discomfort and challenge as we strive to live not according to the standards of the world, but instead according to the standards of God. When Jesus is baptized he goes from a quiet and assuming life to one where he speaks out and challenges the powers of the world. He immediately goes into the wilderness and faces temptation from the devil. Do we think of baptism as the beginning of something difficult and challenging or just a nice ritual, a reminder of God’s grace?
In October, we started something in this church called the Red Shoe Challenge. It was a challenge to try and raise $40,000 by the end of the month (we later extended it to the end of the year). The idea behind the challenge was that someone had given almost $40,000 to our church because they believed in what we were doing and we wanted to show that the rest of us believed in the church as well. If we were able to raise the money, I promised to wear red shoes in church and do a dance to celebrate. The red shoes were meant to be a symbol of the challenges of stepping out in faith. Wearing heels is not comfortable and neither is a life of faith. Wearing heels as a man comes with some social stigma, and so does a life of faith. The point of the Red Shoe challenge is not just to raise money through a cute gimmick, but also to serve as a reminder that our faith comes with costs and discomforts.
Today we are remembering the baptism of Jesus and how it was a transforming point in his ministry. It was the beginning of a life of discomfort as he moved from town to town, sometimes under threat of death, calling on people to repent and believe and follow God again. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the cross and his own death. Even knowing where it would end, Jesus enters the waters and lets the river and the Holy Spirit wash over him.
One of our core values is that we are centered in Christ. This means we place Christ at the center of our hearts and lives and we seek to follow him. We know that it will come with costs and it will come with discomfort. We make Christ the center of life because of what he means to us and what God has done for us.
When we were baptized or confirmed, we took several vows. We promised to renounce the forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of our sins. We confessed Jesus Christ as our savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promised to serve him as our Lord. We accepted the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. These vows were said for us as infants, and parroted by us at our confirmations and yet they are not meant to be taken glibly. They are not easy nor are they comfortable.
Being centered in Christ means doing that which is hard. It means standing up to injustice and oppression, whether it is through the #metoo movement, resisting institutional sexism and racism, or challenging the systems that leave too many of our brothers and sisters in poverty. It means resisting evil whether it comes in the form of international terrorism and war or bullying on the playground. It means rejecting the evil powers of this world that care more about fame, beauty, and money, then they do about humanity.
Are we ready to take on that challenge? Are we ready to walk the uncomfortable path of faith? Are we ready to claim once again the promises of our baptism and let our lives be centered in Christ? Will we step out in faith, come forward and once again touch the waters that are filled with God’s grace and love, but are also blessed with the transforming power of the Spirit. Will we change our hearts and lives and follow Christ?
Questions to Ponder:
What is a baptism that you remember?
What does baptism mean to you?
What is a way that being a Christian transforms your life?
How are you being called into a new life with Christ this year?
God, help us all to remain centered in Christ. Remind us of the love and grace that we find in the waters of baptism. Give us the courage and strength to let that water wash over us and transform us for a life of faith. Help us to remember that to be a Christian comes with great responsibilities. May we embrace the challenges that are put before us as we faithfully follow Christ. Amen