A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 9, 2011.
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
“Baptist” is not necessarily a name our spiritual forefathers chose for themselves. It was given to them by those who observed their behavior, didn’t like it very much, and chose the name as a form of ridicule. “There go those Baptists, dunking people and putting them under till they bubble. And what’s this stuff about ‘believer’s baptism’? Why, they’re giving Christianity a bad name.”
But, as with the early followers of Jesus who were dubbed “Christians” by those who didn’t care much for this new religious movement they had started, Baptists took the name to themselves and embraced it as a sign of who they were. They had paid for it with their blood and their sweat and their tears… why not claim it as a describer for themselves?
So here we are, you and I, Baptist to the core. It stands to reason, then, that baptism is important to us. We don’t do enough of it around here, but when we do we take it very seriously.
That wasn’t necessarily my experience growing up. Or, at least, I don’t remember it that way. In our church back home, baptism was always done at night, and was tacked on to the end of the worship service. The pastor would preach his usual sermon, extend an invitation, and then we would sing hymns while everyone got ready. When the signal was given, the baptism would commence. It always seemed to me to be an addendum – an add-on – to the worship and not a part of the worship itself.
But even then, I suppose it was important to us. At least we knew how to behave during baptism.
Fred Craddock makes the point that you don’t have to give instructions to people as to how to behave at certain events. “Every significant occasion,” he says, “tends to create its own atmosphere and itself modifies the behavior of people in appropriate ways.”1 He then gives examples.
Consider a funeral. Before the service starts, people are standing around talking about everything under the sun.
“Did you have any pipes that burst?”
“Yeah, yeah. My kitchen floor was all wet and everything.”
“Has Lucille had her baby?”
“Yeah, yeah, she had it Thursday.”
“Really? What is a boy or a girl?”
“Did your husband go hunting?”
“Yeah, yeah, didn’t get anything, never does, but he still thinks he’s the big hunter.”
And then the officiating minister signals for the gathered folk to stand while the funeral director leads in the grieving family. You do not need to give instructions to people as to how to behave in that moment. All conversations cease because the occasion itself determines how you need to act at a time like that.
Last spring, our Georgia grandsons were visiting us during their spring break. It was the week that Peck Johnson died, and Janet was not going to miss his funeral just because the boys were here. So they came to the service with her. It was their first ever funeral to attend. She didn’t have to tell them to be quiet and not disrupt the proceedings, not that they would have anyway. They are our grandsons, don’t you know! Nor did she have to tell them how to respond to the occasion. They knew. There’s just something about a funeral that determines how people are to behave.
And it made a fairly significant impression on them too. A few weeks later they were in church back home in Macon, Georgia and they sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Our younger grandson Matt turned to his mom and said, “We sang that at Poppa’s church.” He was talking about Peck’s funeral.
Or how about a wedding. The groomsmen are standing there awkwardly, not knowing what to do with their hands, all the while plotting as to how they will “decorate” the get-away car… maybe with shaving cream and cans tied to the rear bumper with strings. The bridesmaids are wondering why in the world the bride picked out these hideous dresses. Some of the folk in the pews are waiting to see if anybody in the wedding party faints.
They’re just having a grand old time, aren’t they? Even when the wedding starts, flashes are going off from the small digital cameras or cell phones that everybody carries these days. It’s a joyful occasion, more like a party than a worship service. There are smiles all around, except for the nervous ones standing in the chancel. Who cares that the minister has declared it first and foremost a time of worship? Let’s party!
And then, the couple face one another, look each other deeply in the eyes, and they begin to repeat after one another, “I, John… I Mary… take you to be my wife/husband… for better, for worse… til death do us part.” And other than the quiet murmurings of their voices as they repeat their marriage vows, there’s not a sound in the whole place. If the sanctuary weren’t carpeted, you could hear a pin drop.
You don’t need to tell people how to behave at occasions like this. They know. They just know.
But how do you behave at a baptism? Let’s narrow it down a bit. How do you behave at Jesus’ baptism?
I have a feeling that the scene that day at the Jordan River was not like a typical worship service around here on Sunday mornings. There was no printed order of worship, no choir, no “special” music. What there was was a lot of loud preaching and mud-slinging… “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John the Baptist was never accused of being subtle. What there was was a lot of slipping and sliding on the muddy river bank, accompanied by noise-making as unsavory people – sinners all – came to the Baptist to repent of their sins and receive forgiveness in the waters of the Jordan.
And then in the midst of this raucous scene Jesus of Nazareth comes walking up to the river bank. And like folks at funerals and weddings who do not have to be told how to act, the crowd suddenly gets quiet. You can almost hear Jesus, in a quiet but firm voice, say to cousin John, “I’ve come, John. It’s time. I want you to baptize me.”
How do you behave at a time like that?
Well, if you don’t ask it of the person next to you, you certainly ask it of yourself. “Why Jesus?” And you would be in good company. You see, John, the one who was also called the Baptist, asks the same thing. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” There’s a question mark at the end of that sentence, but it really isn’t a question. John thinks things are turned around from the way they ought to be. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, he needs to be the one doing the baptizing.
John had this notion – and rightly so – that baptism was a way for sinners to have their sins washed away. Stands to reason, then, that Jesus is the one who should be doing the baptizing. He, John, is the one who needs to go under the water in the hands of this One who has come to redeem the world. I daresay there’s not a person in this place even today who would disagree with that.
Jesus’ response to John’s statement-in-the-form-of-a-question doesn’t help matters much. In his first recorded words in the gospel of Matthew, he says, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Okay, if you say so, Jesus. But what did you say?
What Jesus is saying – I think what Jesus is saying – is simply this: “John, let’s do it. It’s God’s will.”
A lot of people cover up a lot of stuff – not all of it good – by calling it God’s will. But when Jesus does it, he knows what he is talking about. Still, it’s hard for us to understand, isn’t it?
And what do you think is going through John’s mind as he baptizes the very Son of God? All these religious folk have come out from Jerusalem thinking they are righteous, yet asking for baptism because it’s the in-thing to do, and John is giving them what-for for their hypocrisy. Now, here comes One who is righteous – righteous to the core, righteous in a way that no other human ever has been or ever will be – who is the last person on earth in need of baptism, and demands that he, John, do this “to fulfill all righteousness.” It just doesn’t make sense.
But then again, kingdom things often don’t make sense. We are told that in order to live eternally we must first be willing to die… to self. To be wise we must become fools… fools for Christ. If you want to be great, you must first be willing to serve. The first shall be last and the last first. If you want a seat of honor at a banquet, sit in the back. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the host will call you up to the front.
It is the way of the kingdom. To the world in which we live, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Very often, to us, it doesn’t make sense. But, it is the way of the kingdom.
So why should Jesus’ baptism be any different? No, it doesn’t make sense that Jesus should be baptized. But, it is the way of the kingdom.
When we have baptism here, as soon as the candidate emerges from the water he or she hustles out of the baptistery to dry off and get dressed, so as to participate in the remainder of the worship service. We always have someone from the baptismal team to assist them in doing so. I encourage them to be as quiet as possible because the sounds coming from upstairs reverberate down here in the sanctuary. But before they go, especially with the children, I give them a little hug. It is my way of encouragement in the journey of life and faith that awaits them. It may not mean much to them at the moment – they’re more concerned about the water dripping off them and into their eyes – but it means a great deal to me. Baptism is important, and how we behave at a baptism is important too.
One reason I give that little hug is because of how I picture in my mind the way it might have been the day Jesus was baptized. This is how I picture it… When Jesus emerges from the Jordan, with water dripping off his beard, he wipes his face and gives Cousin John a big grin and a bear hug. They embrace as all the other folk, some dripping wet from their own baptisms and others awaiting theirs, watch in reverence and in awe. Then, as Jesus and John embrace, the folks on the river bank do the same with one another. I picture a joyful scene on the banks of the Jordan River that day when Jesus is baptized.
There’s Levi, the tax collector, and Simeon, the camel trader. They act like they’re long-lost brothers. Miriam, the prostitute, embraces Joanna, the seamstress, and they wipe away one another’s tears… tears of joy over their repentance and the promise of eternal life their baptism brings. If I were an artist, the first thing I’d paint would be this kind of scene at Jesus’ baptism.
So, if you want to know how to behave at Jesus’ baptism, that’s as good an answer as anything else. Hug someone near you, whisper in their ear, “Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism.” It is a joyous occasion when sinners recognize just how much they’ve been forgiven.
If Jesus had done it our way, he would never have gotten in that water. Oh, he might have declared himself a friend to sinners, but never would he have wanted to be mistaken for one of them. He could have stood on the banks of the Jordan and given a blessing to all those who emerged dripping wet. He might have even given the Baptist a hand in administering some of the baptisms. He could have said to the people, “I feel your pain.” He could have acted like one of them without being one of them. But as with all things, Jesus became one of us.
So how do you behave when you attend Jesus’ baptism? You remember your own baptism and vow once again that if Jesus chose to become like you, the least you can do is try to be like him. That too is the way of the kingdom.
Lord, may each of us know how to behave at a baptism… with joy and great delight that others have accepted your invitation to grace. Find us grateful for the way you make your will known in us, and continue to show us the way of the kingdom. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Fred Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 17.