In baptism, God is forgiving, reconciling, empowering and naming us as his children.
Today we celebrate the institution of the sacrament of baptism. We hear in the Gospel that John had been baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins. John had been preaching a baptism for repentence of sins. John was prophesying to the people that one greater than he was to come and that the people should believe in Jesus Christ.
The Book of Acts recounts the baptisms of John:
Acts 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls.
Acts 19:4 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
We have a sense in the accounts of John’s baptisms that the people who came to him were being encouraged to repent. The people would listen to John’s preaching about Jesus and then come to be baptized as a ritual of repentance or turning their lives around. They were symbolically being cleansed in a rushing river. The water washed away their past, and they were renewed, made new, for a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Reconciliation (initiation into the community of believers)
When we hear the passage from Acts that “there were added to them three thousand souls”, we recognize a second meaning in John’s baptism. As he baptized them, they were being welcomed into the fellowship of believers, a new community of people who believed in Jesus Christ. People were becoming a Body, a family, a collective of followers. Those who might have been on the margins of the community were being brought into the center. While government structures might have ranked people or left some people out, through the sacrament of baptism, God is bringing the people together into a new community of believers.
Both of these meanings—a baptism for repentance and a baptism as a rite of initiation into the community of believers are still carried in our baptisms today.
But in the story of Jesus’ baptism, we can hear and see a new layer of meaning. Jesus is baptized with water and with the Holy Spirit. There is a different, a new, experience of God working in Jesus. As the author of Acts explains, in his baptism, Jesus was anointed by God with power.
Naming us as children of God
As that power comes upon him, Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, as the beloved Son of God is reaffirmed. This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus has insisted on being baptized by John because he knows that this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness”. Jesus is without sin, he has nothing to repent. He knows that he is with God, in God, the Son of God—and yet he seeks John’s baptism. When he gives his reason, we can hear that he is humbling himself. Jesus is not saying, I don’t need baptism like the rest of you, I have nothing to confess, I don’t need to turn my life around. Instead, he says, this is right. Like every other human, I need a baptism for repentence. Jesus is showing us what it means to be obedient to God. He is not rejecting the sacrament of baptism, he is instead seeking it from John, honoring God by this act. “Fulfilling all righteousness” is about following God’s laws. Even Jesus who is the Son of God, recognizes that a baptism seeking forgiveness is the right posture for his relationship with God.
And having taken this posture of obedience, submission, humility towards God, he is baptized by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus rises up from the water, the dove—the representation of the Spirit, becomes visible to John and the power of God comes to him. God is working through Jesus’ baptism by John. God is empowering Jesus, putting the Spirit in him. And God is identifying him. As the Spirit becomes visible to John and the voice comes from the heavens, John’s knowledge, John’s intuition or vision about Jesus is reaffirmed.
We have three characters in this scene—John, Jesus and God the Father. John knows that he has a special calling. He knows that he must baptize the people with the baptism of repentence, and he knows that he is the prophetic voice, heralding the coming of the Messiah. John knows already that Jesus is the Messiah and he is surprised when Jesus comes to be baptized by him. But after Jesus explains, John is obedient and does what Jesus asks. John becomes again a witness to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God and he sees God’s power working in Jesus.
Jesus approaches John with humility. He asks for the baptism because he wants to fulfill God’s will, that all should repent and seek God’s forgiveness and guidance. Jesus then receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit, given God’s power and guidance.
God the Father’s work in this scene is powerful, God is forgiving, reconciling, empowering and naming. And all of these things that God does for Jesus, God does for us.
After the sermon today, in place of the Nicene Creed, I am going to ask us to repeat our Baptismal Vows. If you haven’t been baptized, I invite you to consider this sacrament. Today, I want us to think about what God is doing in this sacrament. As we contemplate the different characters in this story, put yourself in the position of Jesus the person. Consider the humility with which he comes to Baptism. How do we need repentance, how do we need to turn our lives around? How do we need reconciliation? How do we need to be brought into the community of believers? Are we prepared again to ask God for forgiveness? Are we prepared to ask God to take us into God’s family?
But then, I invite you to think about God’s part in this action. How has God blessed you with grace, forgiven you, loved you when you have made mistakes? How has God brought you into the community of believers? You might think about how God led you to this community here at Nativity, or how being a follower of Jesus has shaped you, your life, your path.
How has the Holy Spirit come upon you? What is God doing in you? What does it mean to be named as one of God’s own?
As we imagine the dove coming down from heaven, the Holy Spirit descending upon us, what does the power of the Holy Spirit feel like? What new way of being is possible now that we have the power of the Holy Spirit? Are there things that we could never imagine doing before that now are possible with the support of God, the Holy Spirit?
And what does it mean that you are named as one of God’s own. When you identify yourself as a Christian, what does that mean? When God calls you God’s child, when you know yourself as a brother or sister of Jesus, how does this identity express itself in your ways of being in the world?
I offer these questions for your contemplation today and over the next days and weeks as we move through Epiphany—this season of incarnation in which we know God’s presence in our midst and in ourselves.
But as we contemplate God’s presence in us and with us, I also want us to hold our baptismal promises. We are called to respond to God’s gifts. Those of us who have been baptized have made promises to respond in a particular way.
We have promised to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. We have promised to persevere in resisting evil and when we fail, to repent and return to God. We have promised to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We have promised to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And we have promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
It’s a tall order. But with God’s forgiveness, with the support of the Beloved Community, with the motivating and strengthening power of the Holy Spirit we can do more, be more than the human imagination can envision. Let us celebrate today, God’s presence in our lives and recommit ourselves to responding as we have promised.