... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Baptism of the Lord Year
Message January 10th, 2016

Baptism: identity and Response

Text: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts: 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

From the stories of Jesus’ birth through the revelation of God’s actions at Epiphany, we jump straight into the account of Jesus’ baptism. Much like the Gospels the liturgical year acknowledges the birth narrative but proceeds quickly into Christ’s ministry which commences immediately following his baptism. And with each annual celebration of this commencement we are faced with the questions concerning Jesus’ baptism our baptism and the role of this sacrament in our communal life as Christians.

The significance of Jesus’ baptism has long been a topic of study in seminaries when debates frequently take place among faculty and students alike on the subject. If Jesus was Son of God and without sin, why did he need to be baptized? Was his baptism different than that of others at the time? Was his baptism a rite of passage, an awakening to his true identity? A test of the Father to the Son? A revelation to the people? A marker of transfer of ministry from John to Jesus? The questions and answers to the questions could fill tomes if not a library. While this insight into seminary exercises might appear academic and perhaps a little obtuse, the reality is that baptism holds a seminal position in our identities both individually and as church. And so it seems most appropriate that we too should look at question and debate Jesus’ baptism and its significance for us.

Yes, Jesus knew who he was! Yes, he understood his relationship to the Father! Yes, he was aware of his mission! Yes, he was without sin! All attested to by the Gospels themselves. However, Jesus’ baptism was a necessary undertaking before he would embark on his public ministry. He had to be truly one of the people in order that his ministry could be effective meaningful and lasting. The story is told of a priest sent to minister to a leper colony and while he was a very good pastor and preacher his ministry was never effective: he was a priest, an outsider and could not relate to those suffering from the disease. He reported that he didn’t really understand this until he contracted the disease and became one with the people whom he served. It was then that he came to know the people and that his ministry took on a profound importance in the life of the community and the lives of the people. It’s really hard to serve and to work with people without empathy and it’s just as hard to be community if people do not know one another or trust one another. And perhaps this is one of the reasons we have trouble in our churches deaneries and dioceses these days! But we will touch on this a little later.

The church has always looked at baptism as the sacrament which gives us membership in the Christian family and before going further to see how this impacts each of us, we need to do a short quick comparison of Jesus’ baptism and ours. Jesus was sinless, we are racked by sin. As previously mentioned Jesus unites with us by his joining us in a baptism of water and repentance. We in the meanwhile acquiesce to the need to be open to our sin, repent of it and be ceremonially cleansed. The Holy Spirit was with Jesus all along but comes at his baptism as a word of pleasure from the Father to the Son. The Holy Spirit is neither so open nor joined in our baptisms – we take it by faith and often are closed to reveal when we are touched by the Spirit. Finally we need to ask what God accomplishes in Jesus’ baptism and what is done in ours?

In Jesus God gives us a sense of who we are, to whom we belong and what unconditional love looks like. In our baptism we are given a chance to respond to grow into self-awareness and knowledge and how we might respond to unconditional love.

While the questions concerning baptism are raised by the Gospel accounts and the association of Spirit and water by the Epistle readings, the answers or rather the starting point for the answers lie in the Old Testament reading. A general introduction is provided by the psalmist of Psalm 29 in which we hear the absolute majesty of the Lord. God is the creator and holiness and glory belong to Him alone. It is the Lord who makes all things to be, all things to happen, all creatures to behave as they ought. Despite this awesome majesty, despite the gulf that exists between the divine and the earthly, the Lord looks upon the people, blesses them and gives them what they need.

And it is these same people we meet in Isaiah but at a different time and in different circumstances. While the people are free at the psalmists’ time, at Isaiah’s writing they are in exile, their future is bleak clouded and despair rules their existence. And even though they are at the bottom of the barrel it seems, and this appears as a truism, that it’s only then that there comes true reflection, true awakening and an earnest desire to comprehend the relationship God gives.

W. Carter Lester in the Pastoral Perspective commentary on Isaiah 43 gives modern day examples of people in angst pondering an unknown future: the freshman student looking out on the sea of strange faces in a strange university and not even checked into a residence, the parent looking in on the child’s room, the child recently taken by illness or tragedy, the older person who had been so active now bed ridden by a stroke or the inmate who upon release returns home wondering what lies ahead and if the true sentence for the crime is yet to be served up.

The commonality of these people lies their wondering, “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” “What makes me worthy? “What will become of me?” All these questions are borne out of fear, out of mistrust and out of ignorance. Worse still is that we try to find the answers in all the wrong places. The people in exile looked to their political leaders and the policies of the day. We look to our jobs, our work our friends our associations and of course our families. But the answers we get are only partial answers, and then only temporary. They cannot entirely or adequately fill all our needs. And so the prophet tells us that in the end our identity, who we are, lies not in self-description but in our relationship to God – God calls us precious honoured and beloved. We are defined by our creator and we belong to God. And like parent who loves the child despite all the temper tantrums, despite all the heartaches and despite all the betrayals, continues to love the child, God continues to love each and every son and daughter called by the name of the creator.

Perhaps if and when we could get our heads around the implications of this understanding of who we really are, to whom we belong and how God’s love for us is unconditional, we might be liberated from our fears, from the divides which separate us and fear the angst of ignorance concerning the future and learn to have empathy with and for one another.

Imagine what could be if we were totally open with one another, free of fears of hurts, retaliation betrayal, free of having to be one-up on the other or needing to protect our own over against the other! Empathy would abound, we would be more open to look at the common needs and the best for all scenarios. We would have no fear of giving testimony of how the Holy Spirit has come or spoken to us. We would be communities of healers, nurturers and enablers. And it all starts or started with baptism! Baptism is our awakening to God’s calling us, our identity as children of one God and hence brothers and sisters to one another and a call to respond in love. May we continue to grow in our baptism and reach its ultimate pinnacle in unconditional love for our creator and one another!