January 12, 2020
What if I told you there was some guy living out in the woods by the Kaw river, wearing clothes made of horse hair, eating wild plants and bugs, emphatically quoting Old Testament prophets, and dunking people in the river?
It’s odd, right? Odd that the guy exists in the first place. And also odd that people would go find him and let him “baptize” them.
You know what else is odd? Jesus just shows up as an adult. The last we knew of him in Matthew’s Gospel, he was a child being moved by Joseph to the town of Nazareth in an attempt to protect the family from political hostilities. Now suddenly he’s a grown man travelling alone and demanding baptism?
It’s a strange story all around.
When I taught a course called “Christian Thought” at Ottawa University, one of the exam questions read: “What was the significance of Jesus’ baptism?” And one (or two or three) students would always respond: “It’s when Jesus became a Christian.”
Now that response is obviously not correct. But what is the correct answer? I mean, I should know, because I wrote and graded those tests. But honestly, it’s a pretty complicated question that doesn’t have a crystal clear answer.
For most of the people baptized by John, it was a baptism of repentance. The baptism signified God’s forgiveness of their sins and the people’s commitment to live a new, more righteous life. But–according to standard theology at least—Jesus was without sin. So this couldn’t have been a baptism of repentance for him.
Maybe this is why John himself is confused by Jesus’ request for baptism—why he’s hesitant to baptize Jesus. Because the “sinless One” has nothing to repent of, so why should he be baptized?
But Jesus insists and John complies. Then the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descends “like a dove” and lands on Jesus. Then a voice comes out of nowhere.
It’s a very odd story.
Really, when you think about it, the act of baptism itself is pretty weird.
There’s a joke about two pastors talking about baptism. A Mennonite pastor who poured and a Baptist who dunked. The Baptist insisted that a true Baptism was only from dunking. The Mennonite said, “Well, what if I just put someone in the water up to their waist?” “Doesn’t count,” said the Baptist. “What if I dip them down all the way to their neck?” “Nope. Doesn’t count.” “What about their eyebrows?” “Nope.” “So,” says the Mennonite, “it is about getting water on the top of the head.”
It’s all so strange.
I remember going into a Methodist church when I was in college and seeing the baptismal font—which is basically a brass mixing bowl. And I was so confused. How can they fit a person in that little thing? My Methodist friends were equally baffled by the “big bathtub” in my Baptist church.
Baptism is weird.
And that’s as it should be. Because there really is not a logical way to do what it is we strive to do in baptism. Whether it is a baptism for repentance or a baptism to become a Christian and enter into church membership . . . or for whatever Jesus’ baptism was for . . . In baptism, we are doing something physically to suggest a change in our inner, spiritual reality.
According to Christian belief, the body and spirit are connected, to be sure. So there should be a physical indication of our spiritual renewal and commitment. Still, there is no way to show publicly the transformation we hope to realize in our spirits. So we grasp at metaphors: anointing, cleansing, dying and rising. We are sprinkled or poured over or dunked. And that somehow connects us more deeply to God and puts our lives on a different path.
For Jesus, his baptism is considered the inauguration of his ministry. Immediately afterward he is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” to be tempted, and then begins the teaching and healing and other miracles we read about in the Gospels.
For Christians, baptism is a public sign that we are committing ourselves to try to live according to the example and teachings of Jesus. For real. Forever. There probably won’t be an immediate change in our lives the day after baptism, but we have a clearer goal, a firmer commitment, for the long-term trajectory of our lives.
And for us, as Mennonites, baptism also inaugurates us into membership in the church. It is not only, or even primarily, an event of individual experience and significance. It is a time for the community to welcome a new member. It is a time for church members who have already been baptized to commit to love and support that person as the church seeks to follow Jesus together.
Baptism is all of that. It’s a lot. The spiritual and physical. The individual and the communal. Entering into something new. Making a life-long commitment.
How could baptism not be strange? And awkward. And argued about. And, ultimately, no matter how you do it, inadequate.
Because the water—whether it’s in a brass bowl, or a baptistery, or a cattle trough in our sanctuary, or a swimming pool, or a lake, or the Jordan River—the water is not magic. It’s just water. Amazing, beautiful, life-giving—but not magic.
It’s not the water that does the work. And—here’s the good news—it’s ultimately not even us who do the work.
“Suddenly the heavens were opened to [Jesus] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Whether you feel it or not, baptism is a time for the Spirit to alight on you. Whether you hear it or not, baptism is an opportunity for the voice of God to speak over you: “My beloved.”
It is this Spirit, these sacred words, that strengthen Jesus for his temptations in the wilderness and his ministry that follows. It is this Spirit and these sacred words that enliven and support us in our efforts to follow the way of Jesus in this world.
For those of you who have been baptized, I pray you can feel the alighting of the Spirit whenever you need it. I pray you can hear the voice of God speaking over you each day: “My beloved.”
And here’s the closest thing to an alter call you’ll probably ever hear in this church: For those of you who haven’t been baptized and think that you may be ready to make a commitment to the way of Christ, I invite you to talk with me soon. We can explore your questions, study scripture, and talk about how much water to use.
This story of a camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating, sinner-baptizing prophet . . . is an odd one.
This grown man who emerges from the Christmas story of just a few paragraphs ago to demand baptism and be landed on by a Holy Spirit bird . . . is somewhat hard to understand.
This ritual we practice of getting people wet to show their spiritual commitment to the way of Jesus and the people of the church . . . it’s a little strange.
It is also quiet beautiful. A mysterious gift. A gift for Jesus. A gift for the earliest church. A gift for our Anabaptist ancestors in the faith. And a gift, still, for us today.
Thanks be to God.