Sermon for Sunday, 9 January 2022 – Baptism of Jesus
By Revd George Mwaura
Loving God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit, and revealed him as your beloved Son; grant that we who are baptised into his name may give up our lives to your service, and be found worthy of our calling.
Three priests got together for coffee one morning. Much to their surprise, they discovered that all their churches had problems with bats infesting their ceilings and making a terrible mess. ‘I got so mad,’ said one minister, ‘I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling, but did nothing to the bats.’ ‘That’s nothing,’ said the second minister, ‘I trapped all of them and drove fifty miles before releasing them in the forest. When I got back to the church they were already there; they had beaten me to it.’ ‘I have no such problems in my church,’ said the third priest. ‘What did you do?’ asked the others, rather surprised. ‘Well, I simply baptised and confirmed them; I have not seen them since.’
If that story does not make you laugh, it will make you cry, because it is a very common narrative right across the churches. People come to church desiring Christian baptism, but once we baptise them, we do not hear or see them again. What does it mean? Alternatively, consider the case of some parents who stand at the altar to present a child to God. They make promises to bring up that child in the household of faith and then they disappear never to be seen again. What did those promises mean?
On this second Sunday of the New Year, our lesson from the Gospel focuses our attention on the place of baptism in our lives. You see, the lectionary time passes so quickly. Barely four weeks ago, we were in Bethlehem with baby Jesus, and today he is almost thirty years old and ready to launch his ministry. I wish real time would pass that fast! Today Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptised by his cousin John. It was an interesting act of contrition on Jesus’ part. John admitted that he was not worthy to lace up Jesus’ sneakers, and yet Jesus joined the multitude that was flocking to be baptised by him. It was a dramatic, revealing moment for both John and Jesus because, as Jesus came out of the water, a voice from heaven was heard saying. ‘This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.’
Baptism has always been at the heart of the Christian faith. It is a sign and symbol that a person belongs to Christ. It is a requirement for membership in most churches. It is a sacrament, a means of grace. Why, then, one wonders, do so many Christians take baptism for granted? Perhaps we need to ask what being baptised really means to us.
First: Baptism means that it is God who saves us. Certainly, it is not the water. Water is simply a symbol. A Presbyterian minister was baptising converts at a revival meeting next to a river in rural Kenya. Up stepped a reformed thief who said he wanted to be baptised too. The minister led the man into the water and asked the congregation the usual question: Was there any reason why the sacrament of baptism should not be administered to this man. After a long pause an elderly woman, who was watching quietly, said, ‘Man of God, I do not want to interfere in your business, but I want to say that right there you have an old sinner, and one dip into the water won’t do him any good. You will have to immerse him deep in that river overnight!’
Funny, yes, but the objector was kind of right. If the hope for cleansing was based on the efforts of the water, the minister was going to needs millions of gallons. Water itself has no saving power. The focus in baptism is not on the believer, but on God. Grace is not something we earn, but something we receive as a free gift. It is God who delivers us from the power of the tempter rather than victory on our part. That is why we always come to Christian baptism in an act of total humility. Baptism is a symbol of God’s grace freely given.
Second: Baptism means that it is God who calls us. Baptism is a free gift from God, yes, but the purpose of baptism is to give us a new identity. The word baptizo is a Greek word that was used in the first century for dipping a light-coloured garment into a dye. Once the fabric was dipped into the dye, it would be changed in its identity from its original colour to a new colour. Equally, through baptism God changes us through the water into new creatures. This implies that we not only give up our old, dodgy behaviour, but that we now walk in the footsteps of the One who gave his life for us. How, then, can some people come for baptism or confirmation and then disappear from the life of the Christian community as if nothing happened?
Finally, baptism means it is God who walks with us in our Christian witness. Just as we do not come to baptism trusting in our own merits but in God’s gracious love for us, neither do we live the Christian life trusting in our own strength. It is said that Martin Luther had his moments of doubt and despair. In such moments he would walk to a mirror, look intensely at his reflection and repeat in Latin baptizatus sum, baptizatus sum – I have been baptised, I have been baptised!
Baptism is a reminder to us that we are not alone in the world. Just as Jesus heard those words at his baptism, ‘You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased’, so we too hear God’s voice saying to us: ‘You are my own child. I am with you. You are never alone.’
In essence, baptism is knowing that God loves us, and that he has made one unbreakable promise to the world. He promised that no matter what happens, no matter how good or bad things may be, regardless of our joy or sorrow, he will be with us to the end of time. That is God’s promise to each one of us and it goes hand in hand with our baptism. To understand this is to understand that through baptism we become a new person. It is to understand that it is God who gives us new life and calls us to a life of service. None of our attempt to self-righteousness or our darkest sins can ever separate us from the love of God that is Christ Jesus, who has claimed us and given us a new identity in baptism. What wonderful Good news! Yes indeed. baptizatus sum. We have been baptised!