This Sunday is called the Baptism of our Lord Sunday, hence we read an account of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist. John protests, saying that their roles should be reversed. He recognizes that the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world should be the one baptizing him.
But John consents and plunges Jesus under the waters of the Jordan. The heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and God the Father said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We’ve got a stained-glass window depicting the event, although I don’t know how accurately the artist captured the moment. Some people call it the 6 pack Jesus, because our Lord has such well-defined abs. Nonetheless, you can see Jesus emerging from the baptismal waters.
We had 49 baptisms at Christ Church in 2019. I was really hoping for 50. Many of you postdated your checks to Christ Church to make them count for your 2019 taxes. Maybe I could do a postdated baptism? While we were in California after Christmas, I baptized one of the Buddha statues at our Air B and B house, but I suppose that doesn’t actually count.
You might imagine that there a some parts of a minister’s life that get tiresome as the years add up, put baptizing people is not one of them. You just can never lose the wonder or the privilege of making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead and saying “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Those are some powerful words. I remember saying those words to an adult during a baptism, making the sign of the cross on her forehead, and she just broke down weeping and weeping and weeping.
I wonder if we all would and should do the same thing when we hear those words? What do those words mean, really? We are finally on the other side of the 12 Days of Christmas. Seems like eons ago, but Epiphany was just last Monday. I love W.H. Auden’s very accessible poem about this time of year called For The Time Being. In it he reflects on our annual experience of Christmas.
“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes — Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school. There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week — Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully — To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers.”
Grossly overestimated our powers. Many of us do that trying to all we do at Christmas, or even in our imagined new regimens for the New Year. Grossly overestimated our powers – seems like a motto for anytime of the year. And the same is true when it comes to our relationship with God. Auden then says, “Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.”
We cannot keep His word for long, which is why baptism –and what it represents- is so powerful. TheBook of Common Prayer tells us that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward and visible sign in baptism is water. The grace conferred is that you are marked as Christ’s own forever, no matter what you do, no matter what is done to you. We cannot keep our word for long, but God keeps His forever. You are His child, and with you He is well pleased.
And don’t we ever need God to keep His word as we go through life. In Dave Matthews’ song Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin), he remembers the exquisite joy of the birth of his child. “Oh joy begin / Weak little thing / More precious there’ll be nothing, no / Oh joy begin.” He wants to recall that newborn joy because he also recognizes that as we grow up, we enter a world filled with difficulty. “Let’s not forget those early days / Remember we begin the same / We lose our way in fear and pain.”
We lose our way in fear and pain. I saw a tee shirt recently that said “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” If that is true, I’ve got plenty of weakness just lollygagging around in no hurry to leave. I’ve got plenty of fear too; maybe it’s just too afraid to leave the body.
We lose our way in fear and pain – that is what is so poignant and powerful about baptizing a baby. No matter how hard we try to protect our children, they too will lose their way in fear and pain at some point. Sometimes being marked as Christ’s own forever is all we have to hold on to. Or better yet, all that holds onto us.
There is a profound baptism scene in the movie The Peanut Butter Falcon. Zach is a young man with Downs Syndrome. He has escaped in nothing but his underwear from a Nursing Home. By happenstance he connects with Tyler, another young man who has lost his way in fear and pain. These two outsiders team up and journey to a defunct Pro Wrestling School in the boonies of North Carolina. Attempting to scavenge materials to make a boat to expedite their trip, they are shot at by an elderly blind man named Jasper who turns out to be a preacher. He senses the young men’s need and desperation and offers – commands them really – to be baptized.
As he baptizes Zach in the river in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the preacher says these words. “Today is the first day of your life. Nothing can touch you now, under the grace of the Lord. Accept his blessing. Let all the wolves of your past be laid to rest.” Not exactly what we say when we make the sign on the cross in baptism, but pretty darn good for a Shia Labeouf movie. In Christ, your wolves are laid to rest.
There is a good reason we can know that our wolves are laid to rest. Jesus’ baptism is the first public act of His ministry. But it foreshadows the very reason that He was born for us in this Time Being. His submersion into the River Jordan is a harbinger of his submersion into the darkness of death on the cross. For our sake, His Father who pronounced Him Beloved did not protect Him from the fear and pain of death. There on the cross is where the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world. And yet, his emergence from those same waters of baptism signal is emergence from the grave on the third day.
And He did this for you, that you might be marked as His own forever! The Apostle Paul says it this way. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Just like Jasper says – today is the first day of your life. Nothing can touch you now, under the grace of the Lord. And you cannot overestimate His power.