Responses to John
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. 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 loved playing outside as a kid and running around barefoot. My brother and I wore out bases and a pitcher’s mound in vacant lot next to our house playing baseball with each other. After a day of playing one-on-one baseball or running around the yard and the nearby lane, my feet would often be covered in dusty dirt. In variably my parents would then want me to wash my feet at the end of the day. I remember there was something satisfying about washing the dirt away with water and a rag and having clean feet.
At least I thought the feet were clean. The reality, as any nurse or doctor would tell you, is that simply using water to wash away the superficial dirt does not make something clean. It might make it look clean, but beneath the visible dust and grim there is a deeper level of dirtiness that comes from germs. To really get your feet clean you need soap, water alone is not enough.
When it comes to baptisms, water alone is not enough either. John the Baptist makes the clear point that while he baptizes with water, one who is coming, Jesus, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John is offering a temporary forgiveness from our sins. What Jesus offers through a baptism of the Holy Spirit is something much greater. Water alone will not change our fundamental nature as broken people who sin against God and each other.
In his sermon, John talks about Jesus as a thresher who separates the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it is because of the images of fire, but I am reminded of the refining process that happens with metals. Heat is used to purify the metals separating the noble metals like gold and silver from the base metals like lead and copper. The process is used to pull out the undesirable metals and leave behind a precious metal that can be used to create a thing of beauty. In the same way, the winnowing fork is used to separate the chaff, which is worthless, from the wheat that can be used for food.
Through baptism, Jesus wants to separate the wheat and the chaff in our lives. Through baptism, Jesus wants to draw out the impure metals and leave behind that which is beautiful and precious. In baptism, the Holy Spirit creates a change in us and makes us better. Sometimes we cannot see the difference on the outside, but on the inside, in our soul, something amazing has taken place. Through baptism we have been made new. The chaff has been removed, the impurities stripped away, the germs cleaned. No metaphor is perfect to describe what happens at baptism, but they all try to point to the same idea, in baptism we are made new, we become a better form of ourselves than we were before.
The story we heard today about the baptism of Jesus has two parts. The first is John’s teaching on the difference between the baptism that he performs and the one that Jesus will offer. The second part is to talk about what happens when Jesus himself is baptized. Despite his reluctance, John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. As Jesus emerges from the water, the Holy Spirit comes to rest upon him, and God’s voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
The second part of the story is important because of what it tells us about Jesus, but it is also important because of what it tells us about ourselves. First, it is the public declaration of who Jesus is and the beginning of his public ministry. In his baptism, Jesus is heralded as the Son of God. His oneness with the Spirit is made plain to those who witness him. The power and connection that he has to God is revealed to all those who are gathered there.
I think we need to remember what this passage tells us about ourselves as well. Baptism was not an uncommon thing when John began his ministry. The idea that a person would repent of their sins and be ritually cleansed through water was not a novel idea. Rather, John is merely following in the footsteps of other prophets and religious teachers who called upon people to repent, atone, and lead a better life. This is not the sort of baptism we believe in. This baptism is temporary, lasting only so long as we can live a good life, free from sin, and we all know how hard, if not impossible that is.
Christian baptism is a one-time event. Once we have been bathed and blessed by the Holy Spirit, we are made clean. It is not something that we can tarnish or lose through our actions., Rather it is a change that God’s grace and love has affected on us. Baptism does not merely wipe away the superficial sins in our lives, but instead makes a substantive change to who we are. It is not something we can never undo or lose. Its mark will be with us always.
Something else happens in baptism. Through baptism we enter the family of God. While a divine voice does not speak out form the heavens, nor does a dove come to rest upon us, in our own way, we are baptized into a new life in Christ. What that means is that just as God recognizes and celebrates Jesus in his baptism, so too are we celebrated in our baptism. When we are baptized, God claims us as children of God, restates God’s love for us, and celebrates us for who we are. It is an amazing and special gift.
It is important to remember our baptisms. Baptism is a one-time event, that we cannot recreate when we find ourselves needing more grace in our lives. It often takes place before we are old enough to remember. For these reasons it is important to stop often and remember our baptisms. In this church we have a tradition of remembering our baptism at least once a year when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. It give us a regular opportunity to remember what it is that God has done in our lives.
We remember our baptisms by touching the water and using it as an outward symbol of the deep spiritual transformation that occurs in our baptism. Just as water can wash away dirt, so the waters of our baptism wash away our sin, but they do more. They change our hearts and refine our souls so that we might reflect God’s love and grace in our lives. When we touch the waters and recall our baptism we remember that like Christ we are loved. Like Christ we are children of God. Like Christ, we bring God joy. This is something to remember and celebrate. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What does baptism mean to you?
What is another image you might use to talk about the change that occurs in baptism?
What does it mean to be called a child of God?
Ever-loving God, your grace washes over us in our baptism. With warm and welcoming arms your draw us into your family. You strip away our sins and our failings and make us whole. Thank you for your love and grace that strengths us all. Forgive our sins and help us to remember the love we first knew in our baptisms. Amen