Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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 heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
This Sunday, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. As I was thinking about the sermon for today, I thought I would begin by asking this question: “What is baptism?” [And no, this isn’t a rhetorical question... What is baptism? How do you understand baptism? Or perhaps you might be brave and humble and say that you aren’t really sure what baptism is, but you know we do it occasionally, and it involves sprinkling some water over a babies head and that sometimes they cry, and sometimes they stay fast asleep.]
So since we have various understandings of what baptism is, I thought that we could use the story of Jesus’ baptism by the John the Baptist to better understand the Sacrament of Baptism, the Sacrament of Baptism that we proclaim to be an essential part of our Christian faith. And using our gospel reading it might be helpful then to look at baptism as being: 1.) Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. 2) Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing. 3.) A gift from the Holy Spirit. 4.) Joining the body of Christ. 5.) And a sign of the Kingdom of God.
1.) Baptism as a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection…
As John the Baptist speaks to the crowd that has gathered he paints an apocalyptic scene, “His winnowing fork 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.” This apocalyptic image might not seem like good news, in fact, it’s quite a scary image, but I these words from John the Baptist encapsulate our first point as we seek to understand what baptism truly means. Because what we will find is that there is a shedding of the old things, that are undesirable, and a putting on of what is new, leads to the life-giving things.
John talks about separating the chaff, the worthless part of a grain crop, from the wheat. This imagery is not too far off from the way that early Christians viewed baptism. They often saw baptism as a type of “funeral” service, that celebrated the death of the old self and the rebirth of what is new and founded on the grace of God. The early Christians would go down to the pool or another body of water and take off their old clothes, which symbolized their life before Christ. And after they were baptized and got out of the water, they were given a new set of clothing that represented their new life in Christ. We don’t do that anymore, but it gives you something to think about. Baptism is an act where we “die” with Christ, where we cast off the ways of this world, and clothe ourselves with the holiness of God. A holiness that is life-altering.
2.) Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing…
John the Baptist had a cult following. He had a group of people, a group of disciples, who followed him and his teachings. Of course, the establishment, the teachers of the law, weren’t fans of John the Baptist. They wished that John the Baptist would stop spreading his teachings about the cleansing that can be found in baptism. What we see before this morning’s passage is John the Baptist addressing the teachers of the law and the other religious leaders who had followed him to the place where he was teaching. And as the teachers of the law and other religious leaders looked on with scorn at John the Baptist, you might remember John the Baptist’s famous words to them, yelling out to them, “You brood of vipers!”
We don’t like to talk about sin, we don’t want to talk about things that make us uncomfortable or uneasy, the things that make us take a hard look at ourselves. I’m sure that the religious leaders who came to see John the Baptist didn’t like having a mirror held up in front of them so they could take a look at who they were… They didn’t like having their hypocrisy and other flaws being exposed for all to see. But that’s what we do when we take time to remember the cleansing that occurs during the Sacrament of Baptism. In the waters of baptism we remember the cleansing power of the love of God, the love that challenges us and calls us to live a renewed life, a life without fear, a life that is filled with the life-giving waters that soothe our soul, renews our weary bodies, and gives us strength to carry on.
3.) A gift from the Holy Spirit…
In our passage this morning, we hear of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven in the form of a dove. The sky opened up, the skies separated, and a voice from heaven boomed forth with the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.” In baptism, we remember the gifts that we have received from the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we remember that each of us is created in the image of God, that each of us is a reflection of God and that our various skin colors, ethnicities, cultures, and traditions add to the rich and multifaceted nature of the divine.
When did we stop celebrating these gifts of the Holy Spirit? When did we decide we wanted to box in the Spirit of God and try to contain it and shape it in a way that pleases only ourselves? This time I’m speaking rhetorically, but at the same time I’m asking for us to think about the times when we have put a stop to the free-flowing gifts of the Spirit, because we didn’t like where it was taking us, or we didn’t like the kind of people whom it attracted to our church or the times when we weren’t willing to have an inclusive vision for the body of Christ that we know we are called to embrace and cherish. When did we allow that to happen?
Just picture the faces of the people who stood there and saw the heavens being torn apart in a violent manner, and out of the chaos and confusion a dove, a symbol of love and peace, descended from the heavens to remind them, to tell us, that we are God’s beloved, and with us God is well pleased if we are willing to use the gifts we have been given to seek out justice, peace, and compassion.
4.) Joining the body of Christ…
I think that it’s a beautiful thing that after Jesus was baptized, others were baptized as well. When we are baptized, we are joined to a larger body, a broader community, that spans across many centuries and continents. When we are baptized, we are joined to the body of Christ that connects us with all those who have come before us and those who will come after us. Now I’m not great with metaphysics, so I can’t explain how we are connected to such a large body of saints, but I can tell you that we are indeed connected to something bigger, something more substantial, something that goes beyond ourselves… And as we live in a world that places so much emphasis on the self, when do we take time to focus on others?
As we bear witness to the Sacrament of Baptism we make promises… We make promises to care for, to love, to nurture, those who are baptized and brought into the body of Christ. We promise to not only do all those things that I’ve already mentioned, but we also promise to help them grow in their journey of life and faith and to be open to receiving help from them as well. I don’t think we always do an excellent job at fulfilling these baptismal vows and promises… And I know that life is hard… I know that people move, that kids grow up and go away to college and sometimes never return… But what would it look like to live those vows in our everyday lives? What would it look like to live as people who have been baptized and to live as lives that are being transformed and transforming other? I imagine that we would build a much stronger community not only here in this place, but wherever we go as well.
5.) A sign of the Kingdom of God…
John the Baptist was a human being that baptized people with water, but his baptism was really a preparation for the coming of Christ who would come and baptize with the fires of the Holy Spirit. You might say that all of the previous points lead to this… You might say that they all lead to us, remembering that baptism is a sign of the Kingdom of God. And it’s a kingdom that is unlike any earthly kingdom, any earthly country, it a place where the waters of baptism act as a liberating force, just as the waters of the Red Sea liberated the people of Israel from the lands of Egypt.
The waters of baptism act as a liberating force that breaks down the barriers that divide us, calls for a permanent revolution in our way of thinking, waters that remind us that the first shall be last, the widows and the orphans shall inherit the Kingdom of God, the strangers, the foreigners shall be welcomed, and all of this is in addition to the glorious part where these waters continue to flow into the Kingdom of God, bringing all who hunger, who thirst, into its borders regardless of where they have come from, irrespective of who they were before, regardless of who others think them to be. The waters of baptism remind us that God is here. That God is here right now in this very place, that God is here, waiting and watching to see how we will respond to the promises we received in the Sacrament of Baptism and how we will carry out the vows we made to others as well.
Baptism is a visible, a visceral sign that calls us to live a renewed life in God, an experience that asks us to learn hard into the promises, the compassion, and the grace of God. And to live as one who has been baptized means that we are to live lives of radical love, knowing that God is here with us and with those who have been wandering in the wilderness seeking answers to the puzzles and mysteries of life and faith. That God is here and is doing a new and good work in us. That God is here and waiting, waiting for us embrace who we are, to embrace who others are, to embrace who we together have been called to be, a community, a body, that is reflective of Jesus Christ.
So let us remember the baptism of Christ as a means of recognizing our own baptism… Let us not forget how we have died and been reborn anew in Christ, let us not forget how we have been cleansed and renewed, let us see the gifts that the Spirit of God has given us and given others, let us admire the beauty and rich diversity of the body of Christ, and let us remember the Kingdom of God where the waters of baptism bring all who are seeking, all who are heaven laden, and all who have been forgotten and marginalized. Amen.