By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12, 11-17
The first year Britt and I were in ministry, a church member shared with us an advertisement for a religious product: "The Bapto Robe." Now, if you've been a Methodist all your life, this will need a little explaining. If you come from a denomination which baptizes by immersion, it will make more sense. In those denominations, when an individual is baptized, they are immersed completely under the water. Sometimes this occurs in a lake or a stream. More often nowadays, it occurs indoors in the church's baptistery – a tank of water designed specifically for baptism by immersion.
So, back to the Bapto Robe. Its advertisement lauded the following attributes: it was water-proof, fire-proof and disposable. Let me repeat that: water-proof, fire-proof and disposable. Now, I'm the first person to admit to a little vanity when it comes to my hair and makeup. But, consider the irony. First of all, baptism – in any denomination – can only be accomplished with WATER. Second, fire and water are common symbols for the Holy Spirit throughout scripture. In this morning’s scripture, John the Baptist says of his ministry, “I baptize you with water,” but elevates Jesus’ work by saying, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”1
Furthermore, since baptism is always tied to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the recipient… well, therein lays the irony of the Bapto Robe's guarantee to be both water-proof and fire-proof. (This Bapto Robe sounds more like a strategy to hold the Spirit at bay.) Finally, there's the Bapto Robe's assurance that it is a disposable garment. Now, I imagine its inventors saw this as a plus in the hygiene department. But, from early scripture and church tradition, an image for baptism was that of putting on a new garment – being "clothed with righteousness." And, one would hardly want to cast off righteousness like a disposable paper hospital gown or, in this case, a disposable Bapto Robe. The paradox of The Bapto Robe lay in its apparent claim that, by wearing this product, one need not suffer the "effects" of baptism. One could go under the water sealed in one's water-proof, fire-proof "suit" and re-surface as if nothing had happened at all. Yikes!
That’s a far cry from what the scriptures and Church have historically taught about baptism. The word “baptism” comes from a Greek word whose root meaning is "death by drowning." It communicates the idea that, through the act of baptism, one is not only "effected," but even "put to death" in a certain sense. In the early church, many baptisms were by immersion for this symbolic purpose. Remember that water in the ancient world – long before the days of submarines or deep sea diving – was mysterious, chaotic and threatening. So, as one went under the water, it was a symbolic death, as if one were being buried in this deep, watery grave. And the death that baptism celebrated was the death of our sinful and selfish natures; those parts of ourselves that look out for number one and seek personal security above all else; those parts of ourselves that fearfully and selfishly grasp at what we desire. It was that selfish human nature that was, symbolically, drowned to death as one went into the waters of baptism. And, as one resurfaced, it symbolized a resurrection of sorts – a newness of life – for now, through the action of baptism, the Spirit of the risen Christ took up residence, so to speak, within the newly baptized person. The apostle Paul described it like this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”2
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Although there are some slight variations, our gospels are all in agreement that the baptism of Jesus was a revelatory experience. Jesus’ baptism revealed his identity as God’s beloved son; one who brought pleasure to the heavenly Father. Now, Matthew, Mark and Luke also agree that Jesus’ baptism was followed immediately by his temptation in the wilderness. Those accounts have some variation, but here’s what they all share in common: the devil tries to coerce Jesus into acting in his own, personal self-interest. But Jesus does not succumb to the devil’s tempting, because Jesus stands firm in the security of his identity: beloved Son of God whose actions and attitudes bring pleasure to his heavenly Father.
Now, within the church, Baptism of the Lord Sunday is a day when we not only remember the baptism of Jesus. It is also a day when we remember and celebrate our own baptisms. For in baptism, we too are named and claimed as God’s beloved sons and daughters who bring pleasure to our heavenly parent. Now there is nothing magical about baptism; it doesn’t function like some incantation that makes us impervious to all temptation. In fact, we will – throughout our lives – face temptation; and by that I don’t mean silly things like decadent dessert or skipping a day at the gym. No; I’m talking about true spiritual temptation, the kind that Jesus faced in the wilderness: situations when we too are tempted to act in our own personal self-interest; those times when we are tempted to pursue our own purposes rather than the purposes of our heavenly Parent; to choose our way over God’s way.
But, while baptism isn’t magic and doesn’t give us a pass on all of life’s temptations, it is – as it was for Jesus – a revelation of our identity and a call to stand firm and live out that identity with integrity. To the question “Who are you?” baptism provides the answer. In baptism, we are named “beloved child of God;” children filled with God’s Holy Spirit who accompanies us all along life’s journey – even through the temptations and the trials.
Each time we reaffirm our baptism, we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are. Baptism is not nearly so much about what the preacher does or even about what the one being baptized does. Baptism is, first and foremost, about what God does. Our baptisms are the revelation of how God lays claim on us, they are the story of who we are and to whom we belong.
In baptism, we relinquish all claims on ourselves – we belong to God, along with our time, our money, our talents and our relationships. All that God has created us to be has been consecrated and dedicated for God’s purposes. When we are baptized, our time is no longer our own. It belongs to God, just as we do. Our money is no longer our own – it is God’s, merely entrusted to us so that we can do God’s good work with it. And even our relationships become holy unions – because Christ himself is at the center of them.
A story is told of the ancient church father, Augustine of Hippo. Prior to his conversion, he’d led a pretty loose and decadent life. One day, shortly after his conversion, he was walking down a street in Milan, Italy when a prostitute he’d known intimately called out to him in hopes he would secure her services again. But Augustine did not respond. Undeterred, she continued to call out, finally saying, “Augustine, don’t you remember me? It is I,” to which Augustine promptly replied, “Yes, but it is no longer I.” Augustine recognized that baptism effected real change in his life. His very identity had changed. The old Augustine drowned in the waters of baptism and the Augustine who rose up out of the water was fully dedicated and committed to Christ.
Friends: if you have been baptized, it does not matter what others call you or what they think of you. Others do not tell you who you are. Family and peers do not define you or assign your worth. Your boss does not define you. Your teacher or advisor or coach does not define you. The comments to your social media posts do not define you.
Remember who you are and whose you are. You are a beloved child of God.
1. Matthew 3:11b. NRSV
2. Romans 6:5, New Revised Standard Version
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