The Scandal of Baptism

SERMON: January 13, 2019

Luke 3:15-22

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD

We tend to take baptism for granted. For most of us, our baptism was long ago and far away, and I am sure we do not spend a lot of time pondering other people’s baptisms, either. At least not in the Presbyterian tradition. So, despite being a little wet, I hope being sprinkled with water this morning was a reminder you are baptized in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and claimed as God’s own.

Come to that, how many times have you heard the story of Jesus’ baptism? Many times, I’m sure. In the liturgical calendar, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, so we can count on hearing this scripture lesson from Luke’s gospel, or from one of the other gospel writers. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell more or less the same story of Jesus’s baptism by his cousin, John the Baptizer.

Yet, this story we take for granted as part of the Biblical narrative and the church year – is actually quite scandalous! If you think about it for a moment, the logic – or lack of logic – becomes clear. John preaches repentance, and baptizes for the remission of sin. But we confess Jesus was without sin…so why was Jesus baptized? Or are we guilty of contradicting ourselves: is baptism is not about forgiveness, or was Jesus actually not sinless?

You have probably heard this contradiction before. Whenever I hear it, the conversation usually drifts on to something else because the answer is so elusive. These questions are sometimes combined with confusion about the character of John, as well.

Luke says the people have heart-felt questions as to whether John himself is the Messiah. After all, he too has disciples and is a revered teacher. John firmly puts that theory to rest; he cannot or will not be seen as having authority over Jesus, even though he is the one doing the baptizing. John is emphatic about Jesus’ superiority, and makes it clear he is more or less the facilitator of Jesus’ baptism while the Holy Spirit is the true agent.

John calls the people to repent and be baptized so that they may be part of the coming new world. Repenting calls us to turn away from a world with destructive values and behaviors and turn instead to the coming realm of God…a new realm beginning with the earthly arrival of Christ, and concluding when Christ comes again. Baptism – then and now – provides a physical assurance that our final destiny is no longer determined by a broken world, but is new life offered by a loving God.

Perhaps Luke is inviting us to think about baptism in a certain way – a way that is most concerned about what Jesus’ baptism truly means for his ministry – ministry that ends at the Cross. God’s voice, ringing out from heaven, claims Jesus as God’s beloved son. If we are able to hear this as the first century people heard it, we might believe the words have less to do with Jesus’ character and more to do with his purpose. God is not opening a debate about whether or not Jesus is without sin, but instead publicly affirms Jesus as God’s divine, beloved agent in the final transition from the old age to the coming new age.

The whole idea of Jesus is scandalous if we think about it. The Son of God, sent to save the world, the King of the Jews, is a failure, who is ultimately put to a humiliating death.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus is baptized along with everyone else, making this pivotal event seem so passive. Our lectionary reading this morning eliminates a middle section about John’s imprisonment by Herod, which makes the part about Jesus’s baptism sound even more bland – that is, until we get to the bit about God’s voice and the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the gospel writers, including Luke, were not quite sure what to tell the early church about Jesus’ baptism, and found what we call “Baptism of our Lord” a bit uncomfortable and confusing…and yes, even scandalous. Yet, I wonder if they – and all of us – are scandalized for the wrong reason.

Maybe we should be surprised – shocked, really – not that Jesus is baptized just like we are, but that we are baptized just like Jesus. That’s the real stunner here. Baptism is about forgiveness, but it’s also about relationship, about being named and claimed as children of God. No doubt, forgiveness is something we all need, and we all need baptism. But going back to the original question: if Jesus doesn’t need forgiveness, then he doesn’t need to be baptized. So why is Jesus baptized?

Author and theologian David Lose writes, “I think we often tend to think of forgiveness as a mechanism rather than a result…or, most importantly, [a] gift. That is, we can easily slip into thinking that God forgives us in order that we can be named, claimed, and called God’s children. But I don’t think that’s accurate at all. God forgives us not to make us God’s children but because we already are God’s children. Forgiveness is a result of God’s love for us, not a condition of that love. Forgiveness, to say it one more way, is the gift of a loving God and a by-product of that love, not a mechanism by which to achieve it.”

In his baptism, Jesus hears God say incredible words of love, affirmation and identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Have you ever experienced the great good gift of God speaking those words into your own life? In our denomination, we hear these words (or rather, our parents hear them for us) when we are baptized. Sometimes, we get to hear them again. Incredibly, it is often when we are in crisis or at the lowest point in our lives. Or, just like the first time, someone is there to hear them for us, and remind us of their meaning.

I experienced that myself many years ago when I renewed my baptism. It is what (after a long period of discernment) sent me off to seminary. If I get right down to it, the strongest reason I have for being a minister is to guide people to the place where they can really, deeply, truly hear and believe those words are from God to them.

We all need to hear the “you” as Jesus did. “You are my beloved child.” And we are all called to say that “you” to others in Jesus name. You, the passed-over one, the poor and needy, the marginalized, you are a child of God.

Athanasius, an early church father wrote that Jesus became one of us so that we might become like him. It is the same for us as it was for Jesus; baptism says we are claimed by someone special who then calls us to do something special. We are claimed as God’s children to be helpers in this wounded, broken and weary world. Claimed and called. We are to represent God’s kingdom to the world.

What ought to surprise us then is not that Jesus is baptized like we are, but that we, the undeserving, get to be baptized, and named as a beloved child, just like Jesus is. So yes, baptism is about forgiveness, because in God’s unconditional love for us, we are promised renewal, forgiveness and restoration…at all times, and throughout our lives.

Amen.