I am Baptized
January 11, 2009
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
T.G.I.F. Thank God It’s Friday. People have been offering up this secular prayer of thanksgiving for years, and the phrase has become so popular that it is attached to a restaurant chain, T.G.I. Friday’s. “Give Me More Friday’s” is their current trademark. This phrase is based on the belief that people are happier on Friday, the end of the workweek. Would you eat in a restaurant that tried to lure you in with the words “Give Me More Mondays”? Probably not. People talk about “Monday morning blues.” Mondays are supposed to bring you down.
But what if they don’t? Recent research suggests that people are not really happier on Fridays than they are on Mondays. Fact is, our moods do not change dramatically over the course of the week. But we remember Fridays as happy days because of the meaning and emotions we attach to Fridays. Friday is when we’re liberated from the chores of the work week. It’s when we turn from business to pleasure. It’s when the door to the weekend is thrown wide open.
Fridays are not that good actually, but in our memories, we make them good. We say everybody feels better on Friday, and because we believe that, we remember Fridays as happy days.
Meaning shapes memory. A bride says that her wedding day was the happiest day of her life. In fact, it was incredibly stressful, but the meaning of marriage turns it into a happy memory.
An adult convert to Christianity says that her baptism was wonderful. The reality is that it was wet, cold and uncomfortable, but the meaning of the sacrament makes it deeply moving to her.
Meaning shapes memory. “In short, Mondays are not actually blue,” says Professor Charles Areni in The Washington Post [Vedantam, Shankar. “When we cook up a memory, experience is just one ingredient,” May 26, 2008, A2.], “but people persist in the belief that they are.”
This insight can help us to better understand the significance of what happened to Jesus in the Jordan River. The Sunday after Epiphany is the day in the church year called “Baptism of the Lord.”
John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the city of Jerusalem and all Judea flock to him, and are baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5). After years of living with a filthy buildup of sin and unrighteousness, people are relieved to be washed clean and made right with God.
They are saying Thank God For John, but then John switches gears and reveals that he’s not simply in the purification business. He proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8). Yet, in what seems like at first glance a total contradiction, this one who is more powerful than John comes to John to be baptized.
As events unfolded by the river, the people gathered there must have experienced a variety of emotions. They are surprised and shocked at the sight of the baptizer’s camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and wild honey (v. 6), but they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness they find in his baptism, but they are confused about the identity of this one who is coming after John.
All of this changes when Jesus comes on the scene, because meaning effects memory. Mark tells us that Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized by John in the Jordan, and just as he is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (vv. 9-11).
This is the meaning of baptism: Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. The mix of feelings up to this point — gratitude for cleansing, surprise at the baptizer’s clothing, confusion about the identity of the powerful one — are suddenly pushed aside. In their place, a new emotion emerges: joy. When Jesus is baptized, we are filled to overflowing with a feeling of joy that God has revealed his Son.
The meaning of baptism is that God accepts Jesus as his Son, and the happiness we feel over this acceptance shapes our entire memory of baptism. Jesus is now, for us, the Word of God in human form, the Way, the Truth and the Life; so we remember the baptism of Jesus because of its meaning, because of what it tells us about Jesus.
And we remember our own baptism, because of what it says about our connection to Jesus. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” asks the apostle Paul. “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3, 5). This sacrament symbolizes that we are children of God, no less loved and accepted than Jesus Christ himself.
This is the meaning of baptism: It represents our connection to the body of Christ, and that connection enables us to die and rise with Christ. It makes us dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11).
We make a mistake, however, if we believe that baptism is always the beginning of a lifetime of perfect bliss. Think about what happens immediately after the baptism of Jesus — Mark tells us that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus “out into the wilderness,” where he is tempted by Satan for 40 days (1:12-13). Then his Galilean ministry begins, and Jesus meets a man with an unclean spirit, a woman with a fever and a steady stream of people who are sick or possessed by demons (vv. 21-34). So there’s no rest for the freshly baptized.
Pastor Joy McDonald Coltvet discovered this for herself when she led a group of young people on a trip to Mexico. This trip was a complete immersion into Mexican culture, and the young people were totally overwhelmed. Said one student, “I feel like I’m drowning.” This student was experiencing the flood of the world’s pain. That’s why it’s called an “immersion” trip. Coltvet says that it’s when we feel like we’re drowning — overwhelmed by the flood of the world’s anguish, pain and loss — that “we are reminded that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.” Then we realize that “baptism is daily dying and being raised to new life.” Then we discover that we are “raised up, gasping for air, and the breath of God fills us.” [Coltvet, Joy L. McDonald. “The baptism of our Lord: January 13, 2008.” Currents in Theology and Mission, October 2007, lstc.edu/resources/publications/currents/currents_toc_10_07.html.] That is what happens when we are truly connected to Jesus, we have the very presence of God in our lives, and that is what baptism represents.
We don’t want to overstate the importance of baptism. The thief on the cross was not baptized and Jesus said to him, “Today you will be in paradise with me.” Whether you were immersed or sprinkled or had water poured upon you by the gallon, that does not save you.
When I was in the Holy Land, I saw a lot of people who made a big deal about being baptized in the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized. There are a couple of places on that oversized creek that they call a river that have been identified as the very spot where Jesus was baptized. I don’t know who identified these spots—some unscrupulous tour guide probably. If you give them an extra tip, they will take you right down to the river and dunk you or sprinkle you or whatever.
And if that is meaningful to a person, I don’t have any objection to it, but I did not feel any need for it, because whether you are baptized in the Jordan river or the Catawba river does not make any difference, you are not saved by baptism anyway.
Baptism is a sacrament. The traditional definition of a sacrament is: “an outward sign of inward grace.” We baptize children because we hope that one day they will confirm their baptism by testifying to the inward grace of God in their lives. We baptize adults because they already testify to that same inward grace.
Now that raises a question. What happens when we administer the sign, and there is no inward grace, not now, not ever. We baptize a child and the child grows up and never makes any sort of profession of faith, or we baptize an adult and a year or two later the adult drops out of church and never comes back.
Baptism is the outward symbol. If the person never has the inward fact, then they are never a child of God. Even if they are baptized 50 times, they are not more Christians than they are cows.
So the inward life in Christ, the inward connection, is the main thing. To have the presence of the great shepherd in our soul, that is what it is all about; that is life and breath to a believer; and when we have that, that makes our baptism memorable. The inward grace gives meaning to the outward symbol. If we do not have Christ in our soul, baptism is no more meaningful than taking a wet wash cloth and plopping it on our head, the Lord’s Supper is no more meaningful that a midnight snack of peanut butter and crackers.
But when we have that inward grace, that mystic connection, our baptism, either as a infant or an adult, becomes one of the more blessed things that ever happened to us. Meaning shapes memory.
Furthermore, it is an essential truth to say not only that “I was baptized,” but “I am baptized.” If I say, “I was married,” you assume that my wife has died or I am divorced, but if I say, “I am married,” you will assume I have a wife and that on a certain date I was married and still am. Now it is essential for a Christian to say, “I was baptized.” At some time in the past, as an infant or an adult, my baptism happened, but it is also essential to say, “I am baptized.” That is I am still connected to Christ; I still live in his presence; I belong to the mystical body of the only begotten Son.
More than anything else, baptism represents our birth as Christians. It involves a process that is every bit as wet and messy as the physical birth that brought us into this world, but it is also every bit as permanent. Through baptism, we are identified as the children of God. “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now,” wrote the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, “is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.” [Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York: Crossroad, 1992.] The chosen child of God. This is not just Jesus … it is each one of us. Precious, beloved, safe in an everlasting embrace--that is our true identity. That is the meaning that makes our baptism a wonderful memory.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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