Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Less than one week ago, much of the world devoted an evening to welcoming in a new year. But the fact is that celebrating the beginning of the New Year on January 1 is a relatively recent tradition. In England, from ancient times the tradition was to celebrate the beginning of the New Year on December 25, the day that celebrates Jesus' birth. From the 1300s to the 1700s, the tradition changed so that the new year was celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas—in other words, the day that Mary became pregnant with Jesus. The thinking apparently was—since that day marked the beginning of Jesus' existence inside his mother—it was also a good day to mark the start of the New Year. It was not until 1752 that England finally changed and adopted January 1 as New Year's Day.
Today's story about Jesus' baptism certainly isn't about the beginning of a new calendar year, but it is about a new beginning for Jesus. After all, immediately after his baptism, Jesus heads out and begins a new phase of his life as he commences his public ministry. And so today Christian churches around the world celebrate that beginning of Jesus' ministry by calling this day "Baptism of the Lord Sunday." It's a day when many churches will celebrate baptisms during their worship, or at least they'll spend some time thinking about what baptism means, realizing that not everyone in the pews fully understands what that sacrament is all about.
A little boy was sitting with his parents in worship. When the time came for the minister to perform a baptism in the front of the sanctuary and pour water on the baby's head, the little boy turned to his parents and asked, "How come they're brainwashing that baby?" Maybe we should start calling baptism “spiritwashing.”
One of the main things that Mark's gospel wants us to understand about baptism is that it's a time for us to hear voices—in particular, it's a time for us to hear God's voice. During Jesus' baptism, it says that the sky opened, the Holy Spirit came down, and God's voice boomed out, "This is my Son, whom I love." So, the challenge for us who have baptized as well is to realize that at the time of our baptism, and throughout the rest of our lives, God is saying the same thing to us: "You are God's son. You are God's daughter. You are someone whom God loves." Do we hear God's voice saying that to us?
The problem is that it's so difficult to hear God's voice amid all the other voices chattering around us. After all, we constantly hear voices on the radio and on television. We hear voices calling out to us on the telephone and on the Internet. Over a hundred years ago, the author Henry David Thoreau commented about the hurry the country was in to string up telegraph wires from Maine to Texas. He wondered if there was really a need to be in such a rush to do that. After all, Thoreau wondered, did Maine and Texas really have anything that important to say to each other?
Today we live in a golden age of communication. With our cell phones, pagers, and text messages, we have the ability to hear from just about any person anywhere in the world. But the baptism story forces us to ponder whether, amid all those voices around us, we are tuning in and hearing God's voice. Are we hearing what God is saying? Are we hearing that the Lord is calling us God's children and that God loves us?
But even though it's good to hear God's voice telling us that we are God's children and that God does love us, that's not the end of the story. God's voice is a voice that not only gives us a hug, but it also tells us to get out there and be about the business that God intends for us. That is what happened at Jesus' baptism. Right after God announced that Jesus was God's beloved Son, in the next scene we find Jesus being sent out into the wilderness—to be tested by the devil in preparation for his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.
From the moment of his baptism, Jesus' life was filled with changes, filled with new beginnings. There was the change of leaving his parents and brothers and sisters in Nazareth and striking out on his own. There was the change of constantly being on the move from one town to the next.
In the same way through our baptisms, God is also saying to us, "I love you. Now be changed." Just as Jesus lived a life of change and new beginnings, that is what God hopes for us. The problem is that change is difficult. When you get down to it, I don't think anyone really likes change. We prefer to stay with what we know, with what we're familiar with. It's like a bumper sticker that says, "Change is good, unless it happens." In theory, we know change is good. But in practice, when change actually happens and we're affected by it, then we're not so sure that change is as good as we thought it would be. Yet the truth is that to be alive means to change. Every moment of our lives, our bodies are constantly changing: our cells are dividing, our blood is circulating, and our lungs are expanding and contracting. In fact, if those changes didn't take place, we'd die.
In baptism, God invites us to be open to change, so that we can share in the new life, the new day that God is bringing about. The temptation might be for us to want to fold our arms, dig our heels into the ground and tell God that we're not budging. But if we do that, we're going to end up missing out on what God is doing in the world.
God's kingdom isn't in the past. And it's not where we are right now. No, God's kingdom is out there in front of us. And we get there by letting go of our past and our present, as painful and as difficult as that may be, and stepping forward in faith, trusting God to lead us to a new beginning, where we can fulfill the mission that God has for each of us.
Baptism is a wonderful physical and spiritual celebration of God’s presence in our lives. Baptism is a wonderful sign and symbol and spiritual reality that we are directly connected to God. The joy of Baptism comes from many sources. We have the joy of a new life. Baptism gives us the joy of being a part of God’s family in the future, present and past. Baptism gives us the joy of being one with Jesus, and one with God. Baptism is the start of something brand new in our lives. Maybe we should start throwing up confetti at Baptism was well as when the New Year starts.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The young son of a Baptist minister was in church one morning when he saw for the first-time baptism by immersion. He was greatly interested in it, and the next morning proceeded to baptize… you guessed it… his three cats in the bathtub.
The youngest kitten bore it very well, and so did the younger cat, but the old family tom cat rebelled.
The old feline struggled with the boy, clawed and tore his skin, and finally got away. With considerable effort the boy caught the old tom again and proceeded with the “ceremony.”
But the cat acted worse than ever, clawing and spitting, and scratching the boy’s face.
Finally, after barely getting the cat splattered with water, he dropped him on the floor in disgust and said: “Fine, be a Methodist if you want to!” (https://www.funnycleanjokes.com/baptism/)
Two longtime friends were walking in the cool of the morning discussing the mode of baptism. Both had graduated seminary at the same time, moved to the same town, and each started their ministries there: One a Baptist - the other a Presbyterian (Go figure...)
Let's listen in to their conversation:
Presbyterian: So, let me get this straight...you believe a person isn't baptized unless they have been fully immersed in water - is that correct?
Baptist: Correct. We believe in full immersion - not pouring or sprinkling.
Presbyterian: So, if you walked a person into a stream up to their ankles that wouldn't consist in an actual baptism?
Baptist: No sir, no baptism.
Presbyterian: What if you got them wet up past their knees?
Baptist: Still not good enough.
Presbyterian: What about if they waded in to their waist? Would you pronounce them baptized?
Baptist: No, no, no... what about immersion do you not understand?
Presbyterian: Please forgive me, I am slow sometimes...I really do want to understand you and I thank you for your patience. Just a couple of more questions and I'll move onto other edifying topics. What if they were immersed up to their chest?
Presbyterian: What if they walked all the way in, held their breath, and were up to their eyeballs in water?
Baptist: No, they have to be immersed.
Presbyterian: I think I understand now...You and I agree after all! Wait until the next Presbytery meeting!
Baptist: Wha...What do you mean? Did I convince you that immersion is the only way for baptism to be properly administered?
Presbyterian: On the contrary - you gave me great evidence against it!
Baptist: I did?!?
Presbyterian: You sure did. You convinced me that getting your feet wet doesn't make one baptized. You convinced me that getting wet up to your knees or waist doesn't make one baptized. You convinced me that being up to your chest or neck in water doesn't make one baptized. You even convinced me that being up to your eyeballs in water doesn't cut it.
Presbyterian: So, what that tells me is that both of us deem water being administered to the head as sufficient to consider one baptized. (http://sgforums.com/forums/1381/topics/195641)
Baptism (from the Greek noun βάπτισμα baptisma) is a Christian sacrament of admission and adoption, almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally. The canonical Gospels report that Jesus was baptized—a historical event to which a high degree of certainty can be assigned. Baptism has been called a holy sacrament and an ordinance of Jesus Christ. In some denominations, baptism is also called christening, but for others the word "christening" is reserved for the baptism of infants. Baptism has also given its name to the Baptist churches and denominations.
The usual form of baptism among the earliest Christians was for the candidate to be immersed, either totally (submerged completely under the water) or partially (standing or kneeling in water while water was poured on him or her). While John the Baptist's use of a deep river for his baptism suggests immersion, "The fact that he chose a permanent and deep river suggests that more than a token quantity of water was needed, and both the preposition 'in' (the Jordan) and the basic meaning of the verb 'baptize' probably indicate immersion. In v. 16, Matthew will speak of Jesus 'coming up out of the water'. The traditional depiction in Christian art of John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus' head may therefore be based on later Christian practice." Pictorial and archaeological evidence of Christian baptism from the 3rd century onward indicates that a normal form was to have the candidate stand in water while water was poured over the upper body. Other common forms of baptism now in use include pouring water three times on the forehead, a method called affusion.
Quakers and The Salvation Army practice Baptism with the Holy Spirit instead of baptism with water. Among denominations that practice baptism by water, differences can be found in the manner and mode of baptizing and in the understanding of the significance of the rite. Most Christians baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (following the Great Commission), but some baptize in Jesus' name only. Much more than half of all Christians baptize infants; many others hold that only believer's baptism is true baptism. Some insist on submersion or at least partial immersion of the person who is baptized, others consider that any form of washing by water, as long as the water flows on the head, is sufficient. The term "baptism" has also been used to refer to any ceremony, trial, or experience by which a person is initiated, purified, or given a name.
The English word baptism is derived indirectly through Latin from the neuter Greek concept noun baptisma ( "washing-ism"), which is a neologism in the New Testament derived from the masculine Greek noun baptismos (βαπτισμός), a term for ritual washing in Greek language texts of Hellenistic Judaism during the Second Temple period, such as the Septuagint. Both of these nouns are derived from the verb baptizō ("I wash"), which is used in Jewish texts for ritual washing, and in the New Testament both for ritual washing and also for the apparently new rite of baptisma. The Greek verb baptō (βάπτω), "dip", from which the verb baptizo is derived.
Being called by God can be a fearful event. Gregory Nazianzen, who eventually became one of the great leaders of the ancient church, was at first reluctant to accept the mantle of leadership. When asked to accept ordination, he initially refused, saying that the pastorate was "too high" for him. Eventually, however, he acquiesced and agreed to be installed as a minister. He was duly ordained on Christmas Day. A short time later, though, Gregory lost heart and ran away from his church. His congregation begged him to return. By the time he finally did come back at Easter, in 362, his people were so angry with him that many refused to come and hear him preach. Following Easter, Gregory wrote a letter to his congregation in which he attempted to explain why he had deserted them. He indicated that he felt that he was unqualified for so lofty a task as the priesthood. In the end, though, he returned, he said, because he was more fearful of disobeying God than of being a pastor.
God's call to us often comes at unexpected moments. During a boisterous church meeting in Milan, a young attorney named Ambrose entered the cathedral and witnessed the commotion that was taking place. During the tumultuous debate, someone—tradition says that it was a little child—began to shout, "Ambrose, bishop!" Others then joined in that call. Soon the cathedral resounded with the chant, "Ambrose, bishop!" At the time, Ambrose had not even been baptized. He initially hesitated to accept. Yet finally he was baptized and then was ordained as bishop. He went on to become a major figure in the history of the early church, and perhaps is most remembered for being the teacher of Augustine.
More than four out of every five Americans say they have experienced God's presence or a spiritual force close to them. Nearly half say it has happened to them many times.
A baptism is a time for us to consider our birth, or re-birth, through Christ. We often think of the Renaissance as being a period of history from long ago. Yet, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, the name Renaissance, literally "rebirth," came into the vocabulary of European civilization mainly through the teachings of Jesus—"unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In that respect, every baptism is an opportunity for a Renaissance (Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985], p. 145-46).
Thomas Long tells about a pastor of a new seeker church who ribbed his mainline clergy counterparts by commenting, "Wasn't church a lot easier when God didn't show up? Then you knew what time you'd get home for Sunday dinner" (Thomas G. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars [Alban Institute, 2001], p. 11).
A central aspect of baptism involves the naming of the one who is being presented for the sacrament. The Dunlop Tire Company mailed out packets of information to 1000 Canadian families who have Dunlop as their last name. The company offered to pay up to $16,000 if any families would officially change their last name to "Dunlop-Tire." One of the down sides of the offer is that all who took the company up on its offer would split the prize money. For instance, if 50 families made the name change, each would only receive $315. A company spokesman admitted that the promotion was primarily a stunt. She commented, "First and foremost, this is about having fun. If there are people who don't appreciate what we're doing, well, I think they probably just don't have a sense of humor."
"The people who live in the past must yield to the people who live in the future. Otherwise the world would begin to turn the other way around" (British novelist Arnold Bennett).
"Many of us fear being grasped by an invisible presence we cannot control" (James Forbes, The Holy Spirit and Preaching [Nashville: Abingdon, 1989], p. 23).
While struggling with the sudden horror of a classmate being shot, a very young teenager struggling to make it right in his mind, said that: "Christ would take care of it." Hearing this, the supposedly compassionate commentator turned away and changed the subject with an embarrassed smile.
Even children today have difficulty hearing the voice of God over the noise of other voices. Just as adults are wooed to listen to the voices of fear in our world, children especially fear those voices heard in the deep silences of the night—the voices of monsters. Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, had regular nightly visits of monsters from beneath his bed. One night, as Calvin and Hobbes are tucked into bed, the sound "Achoo!" comes from under the bed. Calvin and Hobbes look at each other and say, "Gesundheit!" In the next frame, the eyes of both are wide with fright as they realize where the sneeze came from. Calvin shouts, "Okay! How many monsters are under my bed tonight?" A small voice answers, "Just one."
"That's good, Hobbes," says Calvin. "We outnumber him!" Just as Calvin and Hobbes plan to clobber the nighttime visitor with a baseball bat, the voice in the night is heard again— "Quit shoving, you hogs!" The next scene shows Calvin and Hobbes beneath the covers, shouting, "Mommmmm!" And, the voice from beneath the bed whispers, "Nice going, Maurice" (Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury [Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1998], p.63).
Sarah grew up in a Jewish home. Even from youngest childhood, Sarah envied her Christian friends, simply because they had a Christmas tree. Since she so much wanted a Christmas tree, her good Jewish parents bought a tree every Christmas of her childhood, pulled the drapes across the windows, and decorated it with lights and ornaments.
Sarah's envy of her Christian friends followed her into adulthood and eventually resulted in attending worship at a local church, and then, spiritual counseling with the pastor. Sarah told the story of how she had always wanted to be a Christian. At the pastor's suggestion, Sarah prayed with her pastor, committed her life to Christ and was baptized.
Sarah's commitment to Christ soon led to newness that was difficult. She had landed a job perfect for her skills, with the pay she needed to sustain herself as a single person. All too soon, it became obvious to Sarah that the new job did not fit into her "job description" as a Christian. Her boss asked her for favors which were not consistent with her new identity. Sarah made the difficult choice to quit the job and to step forward in faith to the future with God.
Although today we think of a gossip in negative terms, originally a gossip fulfilled a spiritual responsibility. A gossip was someone who acted as a sponsor for a person who was to be baptized. The gossip's role was to speak on behalf of the child or adult and was to promise to offer spiritual guidance as the individual grew in their faith. In essence, a gossip was a godfather or a godmother.
Baptism of the Lord Sunday is a particularly appropriate time for Christians to consider whether, like Jesus, we are listening for God's voice and obeying it, or whether we're following some other path. For years Rwanda was a predominantly Christian nation. For the past ten years, however, people have been abandoning the churches in droves, and the number of Muslims has doubled. Why is that? The beginning of that decline almost exactly coincides with the genocide that took place in Rwanda during the early part of the 1990s as the Hutus waged brutal assaults against the Tutsis. Both tribal groups are predominantly Christian. Yet that apparently did not prevent the one group from rising up in violence against the other. As a result, looking back at those years of bloodshed, many people in Rwanda have concluded that if that is what it means to be a Christian, they want to explore what other alternatives there are.
Our baptism reminds us that our election as Christians is not the result of our own doing. Rather it is the result of someone else, namely God. In the first presidential elections in the newly formed United States, candidates did not campaign for office. The thinking was that campaigning was beneath the dignity of the office. Instead, the candidates held to the belief that the people would do the choosing, and if chosen, the candidate would serve in response to the invitation. The first presidential candidate to break with that tradition was Thomas Jefferson. But even then, Jefferson campaigned rather modestly, and when asked if he was directly involved in his own election effort, he publicly denied it.
The act of baptism reinforces our belief that although God is our Savior, at the same time God is also our Lord, one who deserves our attention and obedience. In the New Testament, there are sixteen times that Jesus is referred to as "Savior." Four hundred twenty times, though, Jesus is called "Lord."
The baptism liturgy involves calling the baptized person by name. That act emphasizes that not only does God love humankind as a whole, but that God also loves that particular person as an individual. In other words, baptism reminds us how precious our names are. A man on trial in East St. Louis, IL, apparently thought that his name was very precious. Frederick James, on trial for drug charges, sent the judge in his case a bill for $151 million. James claimed that he had copyrighted his name. Therefore, since the judge and the prosecuting attorney had spoken his name 302 times during the trial without his permission, he demanded royalty payments for the use of his name, at a rate of $500,000 per use.
In listening for God's voice, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish that voice from all the other voices we hear. Two Canadian sea otters were taken to a wildlife sanctuary in Scotland. But they didn't receive a very warm welcome. Eventually the rangers at the wildlife area had to separate the Canadian sea otters from their Scottish counterparts, because the Scottish sea lions repeatedly attacked them and tried to drive them away. Although the two sets of sea otters outwardly appear to be identical to each other, the rangers believe that the Scottish sea otters were able to distinguish a slightly different accent in the Canadians' barks. That difference seemingly motivated the Scottish sea otters to look upon them as unwanted foreigners.
Baptism is the sign and seal that all Christians from every time and place belong to one family of faith. Last year a super colony of ants was discovered in Europe which stretched for thousands of miles from the Italian coastline all the way to northwestern Spain. The colony consists of billions of Argentine ants that live in millions of different nests. What is particularly remarkable is that the various nests cooperate with each other, not seeing each other as rivals or enemies. If an Italian ant from that super colony is transplanted to part of the super colony in Spain, that ant is welcomed and accepted. Somehow the ants in the super colony are able to identify which other ants are part of their super colony and which ones are not.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
(Based on Psalm 29)
Leader: Be aware, everyone, of the Lord's glory and strength.
People: We come to You, O God, seeking Your strength and hoping to glimpse Your glory.
Leader: Give credit to the Lord the glory of God's name; and be in awe of the Grandeur of the Lord.
People: Accept O Lord, our worship this morning, that all that we sing and say and do might be worthy of Your glorious name.
Gracious and loving God, in our baptism You accepted us and commissioned us to be a part of Your people, sent out to share the good news of Your love for the whole world. We, however, many times have failed to live up to our calling and have set a poor example many times by being thoughtless or cruel with words or acts or inaction. In the silence of this moment, as we recall and confess our sins of the past week, please hear and forgive us. (Silent prayer) Only because of the great sacrifice of Your Son upon the cross can we offer up these sins to You in the assurance that You forgive and accept us back. Renew us and strengthen us that we will better serve You in the week to come. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen
O God, may these gifts symbolize our love and faithfulness to You, as we bring them to Your table. Remembering that You specially remade us in our baptism to give our all to You, may we continue to be true to that call. Amen.
Gracious and merciful God, we have seen in Your Word how Your Spirit hovered over the waters before creation and brought order out of chaos and how You led Your people through the waters of the Sea of Reeds to freedom. As we remember again how Your Spirit descended upon our Lord Jesus at his baptism, so we would recall again our own baptisms and those of our children. Continue to work in our minds, spirits, and hearts that we might see that You do not call us to lives of safety and security, but to lives of service to others. We ask You to bless our church, and us, making us more effective tools of Your love. May we be more sensitive to the needs of those in pain at our offices, schools, and neighborhoods. May we be more courageous in speaking up when we see or hear someone injuring another. Lift our eyes beyond our own families, neighborhoods, and nation, that we might see how through You we are connected to the whole world. We also pray for ourselves, that You might strengthen us and enable us to live in hope and love. May those who are hurting receive Your healing; those worn down by poverty receive what they need, to the end that the brokenness of our world might be mended. These, and many other concerns, spoken and unspoken, we bring before You in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.