But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What do you remember about your baptism?
If you are like many presbyterians – that is, if you were baptized as a baby – the answer is probably “no.” Whatever you know of your own baptismal story, it is likely secondhand, filtered down from your parents and those who gathered to mark that day together long ago.
I myself I am not a cradle Presbyterian—I came to the church as a teenager, and so I received my baptism then. But even though I was old enough to be baptized and confirmed at the same time, the truth is that I don’t remember a whole lot about it. I don’t remember much about the classes I was required to attend before the big day, where I was supposed to learn what baptism and church membership meant. Nor can I recall the words that my pastor spoke when he invited my family up to the front of the church. What I do remember is how vulnerable I felt as I stood on the steps of the church with my mother, father, sister and brother. Looking out on a sea of faces that I was only beginning to know and wondering how this identity would shape the person I was becoming. And watching as my childhood pastor sprinkled water over my head as he blessed me, blessed all of us, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It was both beautiful and ordinary all at the same time. But there were no fireworks on that day not so long ago. No sudden and inexplicable quickening of the pulse, no electric shock of Spiritual energy. Unlike Jesus’ own baptism, there were no doves descending, or thundering voices from on high. No mountaintop moment to report, or startling epiphanies about God, nothing I can pinpoint as an instant that I knew for certain that God chosen me. Nothing more than common water trickling down my forehead and onto my dress and the din of clapping hands welcoming me into this strange new family that we call the church. Nothing more than the question: what does this mean?
Now, I bring all of this up in response to one of the keen and vexing contradictions of our present life together in the church, a contradiction made up of two equally true elements. Now, the first truth is this: that we confess that baptism is the pivotal event in the life of a Christian. It is one of only two sacraments that we as Presbyterians celebrate, and it is therefore it must be very important. And the second truth is this: that most of us have little or no memory of our baptism, no clear idea of what it means or why it’s important, and no active sense of how it might shape our daily lives. In fact, I’d be willing to go so far as to say that most of us almost never think about baptism with the exception, perhaps, of when we see a baptism at church or when someone we know and love is having a child baptized. So how can it be, that something so important, so fundamental to our identity as God’s Children, would also be something that we spend so little time thinking about? If baptism is so important to our formation as disciples of Christ, why do we baptize infants who cannot remember it? What is the point of baptism? Have we lost sight of the sacrament’s intent?
In a world where personal initiative means everything, it will of course look strange to baptize a tiny child. How can they possibly know what is being done for them? But that is precisely the point. For in baptizing an infant, we affirm that God has chosen us as God’s own, and loves us first. Moreover, we baptize little babies as a reminder for them and especially for us that nothing we have done or will do earns us that precious grace that God offers in the waters of baptism.
To baptize a child is not unlike an inauguration, for it represents a moment in which those who love us affirm with us and on our behalf that God loves us and chooses us when we are at our most vulnerable, before we are capable of responding back. And it is a promise as well, on the part of our parents and those who have gathered that day, to teach our children and to uphold what it means to follow Christ in this life. It represents an entry way onto the walk of faith that we the gathered faithful hope will be long and deep and broad and wide for the beloved whom we baptize in Christ’s name.
Baptism, then, looks both backward and forward. Backward, at the promise that God has always been making to his beloved people. For since we had words to speak God’s name, God’s people have heard God’s promises, over, and over again: Do not fear. I have called you by name, and you are mine. From the tops of the mountains and into the depths of the valleys of slavery and exile and despair, God has claimed you. And as you have passed through deep waters and walked through the flames, God has been with you. In the Jordan and on the cross, there is God, loving you always. When you were your most vulnerable, at the very beginning of your life, God chose you, from the beginning of time, for ministry in God’s name.
So too baptism looks forward, for it is through our baptism that the Holy Spirit pushes us towards a new life and a new way of being. It is not unlike the experience of a colleague I know, who was from South Africa and described to me what it felt like to be sworn in as an American citizen. For him, it was a sort of communal rebirth, as he and thousands of other immigrants raising their hands to their chests and expressed together their commitment to a new identity that would change their experience of the world forever. The old identity passing, and a new thing being born.
You see, we baptize children and anyone else who is drawn to the promise of Christ because we have faith that this sacrament will be just the beginning of a life-long relationship with God. And it is in the context of that relationship, borne out over our commitment to study and prayer and worship, that we will begin to experience the electrifying rush of the Spirit energizing our work and worship. It is through living out our baptism and making it real that we begin to hear the voice of God that was always there to begin with, and to taste and see that the Lord is truly good.
Like the baptism of Jesus on the river Jordan, baptism is meant to be both an ordinary and extraordinary moment in our life of faith. It is ordinary in that, just like Jesus, we join with every person who gathers to bathe in the same water and to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved. And it is extraordinary because it sets us apart from the world and on a path of righteousness and forgiveness.
Now, if you know your Bible, then you know that following God and living your baptism is no walk in the park—there are stones and dark valleys ahead for the gathered faithful. And in a world that has grown increasingly secular, and in which fewer and fewer people identify with even cultural Christian norms, we will be set apart by our faith and our values. We will find that at times that there is a personal cost to following Christ. People might find our practices strange or unusual. It may sometimes feel like we are walking through fire or wading through deep, uncharted waters. And we may wonder sometimes what we are doing, whether the cost is worth it. We may look out on emptier and emptier pews and bank accounts and boarded up Sunday school classes and wonder, “Are the best days of the church behind us? Can we possibly hope to turn this around?”
But when you find yourself in that place—when you are wondering and doubting, I invite you to look to God’s Word for encouragement, to hear the voice of Isaiah who promises, to a people beleaguered and despairing: you are not alone. The promise of baptism is this: that God is in the waters with us. And even better: God will use the water and the flame to proclaim the Glory of God through us. Just as the burning bush proclaimed God’s glory but was not consumed by fire, so too will we reveal the presence and power of the Holy Spirit when we claim our baptism and live into it faithfully. As our baptism takes root within our hearts, we will become instruments of the new thing God is bringing into the world, even when we cannot see it clearly. And we will not be alone as we do, for in baptism we have been grafted into a family beyond our blood that will pray for us and with us and will walk alongside us in the valleys and on the mountaintops as we seek and proclaim the Kingdom of God.
So let us take this morning to celebrate our baptism. Let us give thanks to those whose faith brought us here. And let us look to Christ, whose own baptism launched a life-giving ministry of mercy and forgiveness in God’s name to a world that desperately needed hope, and in whose name we worship today. And last but not least, let us pray that God might send us opportunities to share our baptismal faith with others who are coming after us. For surely they are coming, from east and west and north and south, to sit with us at the table of God. Amen.
In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.
God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.
By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.
Let us remember and rejoice in our own baptism as we celebrate this sacrament.
To learn more about the theology behind Baptism in the Presbyterian tradition, click here.