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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 9, 2011.
Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

We called it “Big Rocky,” the only name that paid homage to its ability to instill fear in our hearts. From the safety of a boat at lake level it was the craggy overlook towering high over the slough that opened up to the larger body of the lake. But even before the dam was built that created the lake, this was a prominent bluff overlooking a deep limestone valley carved over thousands of years by the rainy runoff of the land that alternated between the wet spring season and the bone-dry days of summer.

Off the sheer edge of Big Rocky the braver kids of my youth group, mostly boys, would leap into the water below. It wasn’t for the faint of heart because it was a good thirty feet to the deep blue surface of the lake. No one knew how deep it was but no one worried about touching bottom because it was obviously deep. The fear was singular – it was that moment when you hit the water knowing your body would hurt somewhere when you plunged deep into the water.

Looking back our fear should have made us question the logic of jumping at all, but we were young and foolish and besides, not jumping would cause you to incur the shame of your friends. No matter now, guardian angels were with us and we survived. As the weekend youth minister of the lake community Baptist church, it was the perfect way for the high school boys to show off for the high school girls.

Jumping off Big Rocky put an element of risk in our lives and once you jumped and surfaced, there was a thrill of looking up the face of those rocks knowing you had faced your fears, endured the pain, and done it! Believe me when I tell you, it put a whole new spin on the saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

Thinking back on all that today, the baptismal metaphor about jumping off Big Rocky was less about hitting the water as it was taking the leap.

I

Today is called “The Baptism of the Lord Sunday” in the church year. It’s the day we think about Jesus leaving his home and making his way to the Jordan River where his cousin John was preaching. John’s gospel tells us the location was “across the Jordan” where John the Baptizer was preaching to the crowds that came to hear him. If so, this puts Jesus in the country known today as Jordan.

In Stanley Hauerwas’ book on Matthew, he titles the third chapter of Matthew simply as “The Baptist.” In doing so, he’s not linking John the baptizer to us Baptist Christians because we didn’t come along until the sixteenth century. Contrary to Dr. W.A. Criswell falsely tracing Baptist history along “the trail of blood” all the way back to Jesus’ baptism, we’re an outgrowth of the 15th century Protestant Reformation.

No matter because we have taken this part of Jesus’ life as our signature text because we’ve taken seriously the literal symbolism of immersion – some would say we’ve overdone it. But in generosity, let’s consider our favoring of believer’s immersion as no more than our particular, if not peculiar, way of valuing the rich symbol of joining Jesus at the river. It’s a part of our Anabaptist history, not a form of one-upmanship over other groups who choose to think and practice baptism differently.

We share a truth with all other Christian denominations in that for most of us, we are baptized before we begin learning what baptism means to us. Baptism is “a first step” marking the beginning of a long journey. Baptism is a beginning to that which is to follow.

Every now and then, someone will ask me to re-baptize them. They usually say something about not really knowing what their first baptism meant and how they’ve come to a place in their walk with God where they want to start over. Usually asking to be rebaptized is evidence they want to experience it because now they understand what following Christ means. Their faith has gotten off track and now they want to give it a fresh start. While things might not have gone like you hoped in your baptism, it was only the beginning. Make a fresh commitment to God to live out your baptism, the baptism that marked your first steps of living in faith.

II

I like the way Brett Younger speculates about what this meant to Jesus:  “In Matthew’s Gospel the story skips from Jesus as an infant to Jesus as a 30-year old without a clue as to what happened in between. One day Jesus puts down his hammer, takes off his tool belt, hangs a “Closed” sign on the door of the carpenter’s shop, and asks, ‘What does God want of me?’ He heads south and finds his cousin John, smelling of locusts and honey, standing in the muddy Jordan in his camel hair baptismal robe. Jesus gets in line and waits his turn. He wades out into the water, right next to real live sinners like you and me.”[1]

So Jesus was baptized, just like sinners like us. When Jesus rose up out of the murky water, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove that rested gently upon his wet hair. The Spirit didn’t come as the fire of judgment, but the hopeful goodness buoyed up by the words he heard:  “You are my child. I love. I’m delighted with you.”

Father Richard Rohr sees this for what it was as Jesus considered how to take the leap of faith. He observes, “There are two major tasks in the human spiritual journey.  The task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer some central questions.  “Who am I?”  “What makes me significant?”  “How can I support myself?”  “Who will go with me?”  The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.  In other words, the container is for the sake of the contents.”[2]

By meeting John at the river, Jesus became a spiritual revolutionary outside the chambers of the Jewish faith. John himself was an uncontrolled power that the Jewish power brokers could not rein in. Worse yet, he was popular with the commoners who would easily choose him over them if they were put to it. John operated outside their rules and baptized any who would repent. The sign of baptism by immersion was a symbol of being washed clean of their sins.

That observation raises the question: If baptism was a sign of cleansing from sin, why did Jesus come to be baptized? It’s Matthew’s gospel that answers that question by claiming Jesus said he was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, it was a sign of his obedience to God, and like everyone else who joined John in the Jordan, Jesus was indicating a new beginning, a new direction in his life.

Clearly, after Golgotha when Jesus was crucified and after his coming back from the dead as a resurrected Messiah, we can see that Jesus not only “fulfilled righteousness,” but he took the symbol and deepened it by making it a sign of the death and resurrection itself.

When we are buried under the water, we’re saying to the church that we have so unified our lives with Christ that we’ve come to the place of our deaths and are willing “to be crucified with Christ” as Paul puts it. I occasionally remind our baptismal candidates that if we left them under water long enough, they would literally be dead to their sins!

It’s in our rising that we symbolize the resurrection itself. So we are buried with Christ when we are submerged. But we also testify to the world that we believe in the resurrection.

III

Keep reading in the gospels and you realize Jesus left the river and climbed into the hills, in what is called the Judean wilderness where for forty days to think about what it meant to be God’s child. The wet hair and skin dried long before he got there, but his immersion in the river and the visit of the Spirit in the form of a dove lingered in his thoughts. We can guess that Jesus spent time thinking about his baptism. It was, in effect, his commissioning to ministry.

Paul Tillich once claimed that Jesus has been the only one of us who’s been completely true to the Voice. Jesus gave it all, all of himself to the world God loved, and focused himself on the plight of the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed.

My friend Brett Younger reminds us that upon our baptism we’re given a map and by receiving it, we discover that we’re being called to then take a trip, a trip that takes our whole lives to live out. He pushes this idea further by claiming if we’re true to our baptisms, we cannot hope to make ourselves fully comfortable, that we cannot only be satisfied with the way things are. “Our baptisms demand that we struggle with what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s important and what’s not.”[3]

Our baptism was a beginning, our first steps, and now we find ourselves living out its meaning in the way we live and in the way we think about things. To be sure, we handed over to you at your baptism more than just your church membership or the privilege of receiving communion. Maybe we’re guilty of handing over so much responsibility to you when you weren’t quite ready to receive it. But you’re up to it. And that’s why we need each other in the church. So we can remember our baptism in those moments when it takes more courage than any one person can hold by him or herself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but mustering the courage to leap off Big Rocky back then may have prepared me to ask today, “What is it about faith that’s a risky decision?” What fears are holding us back from taking a running start and letting go of the surety beneath our feet into the uncertainty of the open air and the cool deep water below?

What would it take in you to take the plunge and follow Christ anywhere?

[1] Brett Younger, “The First Step,” McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta GA

[2] Fr. Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace, October-December 2010, Vol. 23, No. 4, 3

[3] Younger, Ibid.

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