Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why Get Baptized? - A Sermon

Today is the Baptism of Christ, the day we remember how Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John.  It’s also one of the four official days for baptism in the church.  

But that leads to two questions.  If baptism is what John said -- a cleansing from sin -- and if Jesus was perfect, why did he have to get baptized? And really, if God loves everyone, why do WE get baptized either?

Start off with what John was doing.  Baptism of the sort he did was common.  Priests of the temple had to ritually wash before offering sacrifice.  Faithful worshipers had to was their hands and feet before entering the temple as a sign of spiritual cleansing.

There was also the cleansing of sin type of baptism, a form of ritual washing for anyone who wished to seek God’s forgiveness.  How often it was practiced isn’t certain, but many households kept large vessels of water on hand for the purpose.  Some form of baptism was performed on the Day of Atonement.

Then there was baptism of proselytes.  Those Gentiles who wanted to become Jews underwent a ritual washing of sin before they could enter the fellowship.

So baptism was understood by the people who listened to John as a preparation for sacrifice, cleansing of sin, and acceptance into the People of God.

Jesus’ motivation for being baptized:  “seems to be the deep, sympathetic interest which Jesus felt in the work of John and the fitting character of such baptism as a public profession of moral integrity.”

In part, it’s so nobody can say to him he didn’t follow the rules before going about the holy work.  After all, if priests had to do it, why wouldn’t he? Jesus, in all things, seemed to fulfill the law before changing our perception of it.  


And change it he did.  With his baptism, he forever changes our understanding of it.  Because from that moment when he emerges from the water, it’s never the same.  A dove descends upon him (depending on the version you read, either he saw it, John saw it, or everyone saw it) and says “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This baptism changed from one of purification to one of self-revealing and commissioning.  Jesus is revealed for who he is -- and is commissioned for the great work of reconciling the world to God. 

The reason why Jesus got baptized is the same as the reason he did so much -- to change us.  Later, when he tells his disciples to baptize everyone in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he is not sending them out to perform John’s baptism of mere forgiveness of sins.

That’s not the primary reason WE get baptized, even if many think so.  

Yes, we do so as a sign that Christ forgives us once and for all.  Yes, we renounce wickedness and seek God’s forgiveness.

But since Christ emerged from the water, Christian baptism is changed. Now, as it was for him, so it is for us -- a self-revealing and a commissioning.

Because now we reveal ourselves to the world as belonging to Christ.  We say “my path is to follow Jesus.”  Then we are commissioned:  Did you notice the words at the end of the baptismal rite?  “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”

This is a commissioning, and like Jesus, ours is to be a life of work -- in baptism we dedicate our lives to loving and serving God by loving and serving our neighbors.

The funny thing about Jesus’ baptism is that he took all the old practices -- preparation for worship, atonement, entering into the holy fellowship -- and combined them into one moment that shapes all our lives.

The Question for us is, what are we going to do with those lives....?