What is Baptism?

Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Ritual baths to cleanse away impurity have always been an important part of Judaism.  They’re called mikvehs.  Have you touched a dead body or someone with a disfiguring disease?  Mikveh.  Have you just finished menstruating?  Mikveh.  Have you just recovered from some gross or disturbing medical condition?  Mikveh.  Are you converting to Judaism?  Mikveh.  Getting ready for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar?  Mikveh.  Did you just buy new dishes from a gentile?  They need to be purified in a mikveh.  Unlike the Christian sacrament of baptism, mikvehs in Jewish religion are something that people do many times throughout their lives, any time someone needs to be ritually purified.  John the Baptist was part of this long tradition.  He invited people out to the Jordan river for a mikveh that would cleanse them from the impurity of their sin.  But he probably wasn’t expecting this to be a permanent change in their spiritual status, any more than any other mikveh was.  It would be something that needed to be repeated over and over again throughout the person’s life.

This is why John the Baptist was so confused and horrified when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized.  John’s baptism—John’s mikveh—was all about sin and ritual purity.  Jesus, as God’s son, was not sinful.  He was already pure.  He didn’t need to be washed and made clean.  But in the process of being baptized, Jesus was doing something new.  Jesus was taking the ritual bath of his Jewish heritage, and turning it into the Christian ritual of baptism.

On the surface, they are very alike.  Both involve water symbolically washing away impurity; and while modern Jewish mikvehs don’t usually have anything to do with sin and repentance, John’s version did, and so do Christian baptisms.  Yet Christian baptism is not just about repenting from sin.  If sin and repentance were the only part of it, we’d need to re-baptize people all the time.  Baptism is a lot of things.  Here are some of them:

Baptism is an initiation rite.  In baptism, we become part of the Christian community and fellowship.  The person being baptized (or their parents, if they are too young) make promises to be a part of the Christian community, and the congregation responds by promising to support them in their life of faith.  Through this we become part of the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.  We confess the same faith as all Christians in every time and place.  We begin our service to the same Lord, and our worship of the same Savior.

Baptism is an adoption.  In baptism, we are claimed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the seal of the cross of Christ forever.  The words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism—”This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”—are also the words God speaks over every person being baptized.  We are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters with Christ and with every other Christian who has ever been or ever will be.

Baptism is a washing away of sin, but not on a temporary basis.  We are not cleansed by the water itself, but by God’s promises of forgiveness.  It is that promise, and not the water, we trust in; it is that promise to which we turn, and it is that promise that will never be rescinded, no matter how much we sin after our baptism.  It’s the first time we experience the grace of God, which showers down upon us for the rest of our lives.

Baptism is new birth.  Just like being born from our mother’s womb means passing through the waters of birth, so too does being born from above mean passing through the waters of baptism.  By the way, if you’ve ever been asked if you have been born again, the answer is yes: it happened when you were baptized.

Baptism is death.  In the waters of baptism, our old sinful self is drowned, and we rise out of the water as new people, tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  As Christ died, so too we will one day die; as Christ rose from the grave, so too will we one day rise from the grave, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

Baptism is when the Holy Spirit first enters into us.  It is when we are anointed with the power of God.  Every time there is a baptism in the New Testament, the Spirit is there.  Sometimes the Spirit appears before the baptism, sometimes during it, sometimes after it, but in all cases, the Spirit is there.  The Spirit is planted in us like a seed, and helps us grow in faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit helps us prepare for and participate in God’s coming kingdom, to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is both God’s gift and our response to that gift.  It is God reaching out to us to claim us as God’s own, and it is how we accept and reach back to God.  It is something that God does to us and in us, and it is something we choose and claim as our own and affirm and incorporate into our lives.

Baptism is a sacrament.  It is something commanded by God, which combines a promise of God with a visible symbol for all to see.  Baptism takes something intangible—God’s promises and our faith—and unites it with something which we can see, touch, taste.  It takes something absolutely ordinary and every-day (water!) and turns it into the most extraordinary thing imaginable.  It connects us with God.  It is the living water which sustains our souls.  It reminds us of God’s presence and God’s promises and our own promises every time we turn on the tap or cross the river or go to the beach.

God shows no partiality.  The gift of God’s grace, the gift of living water, the gift of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, these gifts are open to everyone.  All we have to do is receive them.  God has done the hard work already—God has sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to call us, to teach us, to heal us, to claim us, to die for us, and to rise from the grave for us.  All we need do is respond to what God has done and is doing in us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; nothing that can invalidate the promises God made at our baptism.  We can go astray, leave the faith, abandon God, and still when we come back our baptism is just as valid as it ever was.  All we have to do is say ‘yes’ to it again, say ‘yes’ to God again.

This is the foundation of the Christian life.  This is the foundation of the Christian calling.  This is the foundation of everything that we have and everything that we are, which is why in many ancient Christian traditions, the Baptism of Jesus is a far more important holy day than Christmas.  God calls us to do many things, to love one another, to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those in prison and free those held in bondage by the injustices of the world.  All of these things have their foundation in baptism.  We are children of God.  We are members of the body of Christ in the world.  We are brothers and sisters of all God’s children.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  We are claimed by God and sent out into the world to do God’s will.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

2 thoughts on “What is Baptism?

  1. Thank you Pastor Anna – I’ve always enjoyed your writings – we miss seeing you in sunny, warm ND – 😉 Sharon Nelson Washburn, ND

    • You’re welcome! While I miss many of the people in North Dakota, I am quite happy to be back in the Pacific Northwest.

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