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Baptismal Problems and Promises

San Williams

January 12, 2014
Matthew 3: 13-17

Every pastor knows that various problems are associated with baptism.  There’s always an element of risk and uncertainty.  When I was a brand new pastor, I once got flustered during a baptism and started pronouncing wedding vows instead of the baptismal promises. Another time, I baptized twins who competed with one another to see which one could scream the louder…into my microphone. Then one Sunday in my previous congregation, a gentleman with a backpack who had muttered to himself during most of the service presented himself for baptism just as I was set to pronounce the benediction.  Without a Book of Order to consult and without time to call a Session meeting, I did the only thing I could think to do:  I baptized him on the spot.  A few years ago, one of our couples at UPC who presented their child for baptism wanted to go the full monty, and actually place the naked infant in the font.   I liked the symbolism, but when the baby’s bare bottom hit the water it precipitated a certain other bodily function.   As I say, certain problems can accompany baptism.

And actually, baptism has presented problems from the very beginning.  The first time it was a problem was when Jesus came to be baptized by John.  Jesus had no sooner stepped into the Jordan than a controversy erupted.  John protested, saying that his baptizing Jesus seemed all backward.  “I need to be baptized by you,” John exclaimed, “and do you come to me?”  Jesus granted the awkwardness of the situation and gave both of them an out by saying that this was a temporary condition (“Let it be so for now”) and that in this way they would “fulfill all righteousness.”

But other problems remained.  For example, the church still had to struggle with the question of why Jesus was baptized at all.  John had declared his baptism to be one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Yet if Jesus is the sinless Son of God, why on earth does he need to be baptized by John?   Again, Matthew attempts to address this problem by associating Jesus’ baptism not as a sign of forgiveness, but as a declaration of Jesus’ identity and mission. Thus, according to Matthew, baptism for Jesus was less about forgiveness than it was a confirmation that Jesus was God’s beloved Son, anointed by the Holy Spirit and commissioned to establish justice in the earth. 

Still, Matthew’s attempt to address these two initial problems didn’t settle all the issues surrounding baptism. As many of you know, baptismal controversy erupted once again in the 16th century, over the issue of infant baptism verses believer’s baptism.  One branch of the Reformation, called Anabaptists, insisted that baptism should only occur once a believer declares his or her decision to be Jesus’ disciple.  Other traditions, our own included, allowed the baptism of children as a witness to the truth that God’s love claims people before they are able to respond in faith. 

These historic problems–the awkwardness of John’s baptizing Jesus, the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized in the first place, and the debate over infant baptism verses a believer’s baptism—have all been, if not resolved, at least addressed at great length.  Yet there remains one issue which needs our immediate attention:  What is the significance of baptism in our lives today?  Or, more pointedly, why does baptism mean so little to us?

It’s true that most Christian families I know make a big deal of baptism for their children. On that day, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends may be on hand to mark the occasion.  And on that day, the parents and the congregation promise to raise the child in the faith—but too often the significance of baptism seems to end there.

 I read this week about a teenager who went through the confirmation classes.  His family had not been active in church, but they thought their son should have this rite of passage.  He attended the classes, made friends, and contributed to the discussions.  On confirmation Sunday, he made his declaration of faith, and, not having been baptized as an infant, he received the sacrament of baptism.  Then he disappeared.  When the Youth Pastor called the parents a couple months later to say that he had missed seeing their son, the boy’s dad seemed surprised and said, “Oh, but I thought he was done.  I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything.  Isn’t he done?” That, my friends, is a problem!  Perhaps the church has contributed to this problem by focusing almost entirely on baptism as a washing away of sin.  Such an emphasis has reinforced an understanding of baptism as a one-time, been-there-done-that event.  While it’s true that the sacrament of baptism itself is not repeated, the meaning of our baptism unfolds each day of our life.    

You may have heard the oft repeated story about the Reformer Martin Luther.  Each morning when he woke from sleep his first act was to place his hand on his head and say, “I have put on Christ; I have been baptized.”  Then he rose from the bed as a beloved child of God to live out his baptism in his daily tasks.

If our baptism is grounded in the baptism of Jesus, then it means, first of all, that God loves us unconditionally and just as we are.  We live in a culture that promises acceptance only if we are skinny enough, strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, young enough and so on.  Yet in baptism God declares that we are enough, that God accepts us just as we are.  We are loved!

So, yes, baptism is about grace, but it is empowering grace.  Our baptism empowers us to play our bit parts in Christ’s mission to fulfill all righteousness.  The theologian Stanley Hauerwas tells about how, one Sunday in the church he attends, various members gave testimonials. A young mother of three testified that her life mainly involved raising up the couple’s children as part of the church by teaching them Bible stories, bringing them to church and helping them learn what it means to be members of the body of Christ.  “I know that’s not much,” she said, “but right now I think that’s what God wants from me.”

This young mother’s question is the one we can all ask.  As a beloved child of God, baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, what does God want from me right now?

Listen to how the Palestinian-American Poet Naomi Nye answered this question in her poem called Famous. She writes: 

“I want to be famous to shuffling men
Who smile while crossing the streets,
Sticky children in grocery lines,
Famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
Or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
But because it never forgot what it could do.

Friends, let’s never forget what we can do, what we are called to do, what we are empowered to do, no matter how small or unspectacular our part may be.  On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I hope you will respond to today’s invitation to remember and renew your baptism.

The sermon leads immediately into a litany for the renewal of baptism.