|A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on May 2, 2010.
That day at the Jordan, standing knee-deep in the cold water, with John the Baptist drenching him, the Anointed One signified his obedient journey toward the cross. His baptism intimated where it would finally end. His whole life was caught up in this single sign. Our baptism does the same. The chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but rather the flood that drowns. Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf. It is nothing less than daily death. The Crucified One determines the pattern for our baptism, the adequacy of our present making of disciples.
—William Willimon in The Service of God
We really do not know exactly what happened. We do not know what triggered it in his mind. There is really no way for us to go back and get inside the head of Jesus, but there came a day when his life with the carpenter tools was over. There came a day when it was time to put aside the hammer, the saw, and the rudimentary tools of that particular era. We can imagine that he likely kissed his mother goodbye and left that little village of Nazareth. If he followed the typical path that the pilgrims followed in that region, he went through the valley by Mt. Arbel where the City of Galilee was all spread out before him. He could see the little village of Magdala where Mary Magdalene was from. Off in the distance, he could see Capernum, the place where he would meet Peter, James, John, and Andrew and called them to discipleship. Likely, he walked down the west coast of the Sea of Galilee until he came to the outlet where the Jordan River was flowing out into that desolate area. He followed the Jordan River along until he found the place where John was baptizing.
Perhaps they already knew each other. It seems as if there is a recognition that took place. Luke tells us that they were cousins. Maybe they had meet each other at family reunions or seen each other at family weddings or maybe it was just the aura of Jesus. But John knows who Jesus is and he protested and said, “I have need to be baptized of you.” Jesus said, “No, in order that all righteousness will be fulfilled, let’s do this.” So there in the Jordan River, John baptized Jesus.
For early Christians, this was a real problem. It always seemed that the person baptizing was in charge and the person being baptized was the one who was submitting. John was such a powerful personality, and despite the fact that he said, “No,” a lot of people thought John was the Messiah. He tried to point to someone else—Jesus—but we know that even into the 20th Century there was a sect of people in Syria who believed that John the Baptist was the Messiah. So this was a problem. When the Gospel writers record the story, it was very clear that Jesus was the one who was making the decision here. It was not John that was in charge. Why did John submit to the baptism of Jesus?
Baptisms today are usually all joy. Perhaps you remember your own baptism, and I would dare say that, for most of us, it is an exclusively happy experience and memory. I do have a couple of stories where that is not entirely true.
Barbara Brown Taylor, who I think is one of the most gifted preachers of our generation, tells the story of some family friends who were baptizing their three- year-old daughter. They were part of a faith tradition that baptized infants. The three year old had not been baptized as a small infant, but at age three, they were ready to baptize her and the parents wanted the child to be immersed. In this particular faith tradition, they did not have a baptistery like we do. How do you do that in a church that does not have a baptistery?
I thought the priest was pretty creative. He got a 36-gallon garbage can and rolled ivy all around it so it looked very nice. They came to the moment in the service where the family had come forward with little three-year-old Ellen. When the priest went to pick her up, she tried to get away and started yelling, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
At three years of age, I don’t know if Ellen had ever heard the story of Ambrose but Ambrose was the governor in the northern part of Italy around the time that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
There was a conflict going on in Milan. There were two sides, and each side wanted their candidate to be made bishop of Milan. Ambrose, being a skilled diplomat, went to the city in order to mediate this controversy. He was so articulate, so powerful, and so convincing that both sides decided that they wanted Ambrose to be bishop. Here was a problem. While Ambrose professed to be a Christian, he had never been baptized and it was a little hard to make someone a bishop who had not been baptized.
They voted and decided to make Ambrose bishop, and Ambrose ran away. The crowd hunted him down in the streets of Milan, physically took him back to the church, baptized him, and put the bishop’s hat on his head. This happened all in one day. In one day, he went from someone who was trying to work out a squabble, to being baptized and made bishop. He protested; he didn’t want to do it.
We even have funny stories about our children when they recognize things about baptism that sometimes we forget. A brother or sister picks at a sibling, and the other one says, “You are a Christian and you are not supposed to do that.”
The one doing the picking says, “I haven’t been baptized yet. It’s OK.”
Then there is the brother or sister who is picking at a sibling, and the other one says, “You can’t do that anymore because you have been baptized.” There is a sense that once that moment has come, things are supposed to be different.
How do we understand Jesus’ baptism? How does it help us to understand our own baptism? The baptism of John was for the repentance of sins and that is another problem for us about Jesus. All of Christianity hinges on the fact that we believe that Jesus was without sin and, therefore, the perfect sacrifice. Why would Jesus come and submit to a baptism that was for sinners?
I think it is really very clear. He came and stood with the sinners. That is what his whole physical life is about. Think of all the times where he articulates this by saying things like, “It is not those who are ill that have need of a physician but those who are sick.” He said, “I came to seek and to save that which is lost.” What his enemies meant as a criticism has become, for us, one of those things that we say about Jesus that we are most fond of: He was a friend of sinners.
Jesus was baptized to stand alongside of those who are in the most need, to stand alongside of us who recognize that we need the forgiveness that baptism signifies in our lives.
For Jesus also, it wasn’t just a moment. This was a moment that signified the rest of his life. If you will read the meditation text, it was a moment that signified everything that was going to take place in his life. In that moment when they were on the road to Jerusalem and James and John said, “Jesus, could you just go ahead and settle this right now and decide that we are going to sit on your right hand and your left hand when you come into your kingdom.” They wanted to be the Prime Minister and the Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be in the seats of authority. Jesus said, “It is not mine to give, but can you be baptized with the baptism that I am about to be baptized with?” It became a way that he spoke about his death. We need to remember that, for Jesus, this act that he performed with John in the Jordan was a way of indicating what the rest of his life was going to be about. John was just a tool of God because Jesus, at some point, needed to signify to everybody who would be a witness that he was submitting to the will of God, including whatever that may be, even death on a cross.
Ambrose was old enough, and perhaps experienced enough, to recognize that something like that was going to be asked of him if he was baptized. Little three-year-old Ellen’s response may be an illustration that maybe we should be more timid about approaching the event. It is not simply a moment in a life, but it marks the beginning of something new. It marks the beginning of that chapter in which we put away all the old things, deny self and live for Christ, and when we leave everything else behind. It is not an act that nice people do just to do a good thing, but it is an outward sign of what has taken place within. Something really is different and the old way of living and thinking are no longer true.
We think of baptism as washing. Most of our hymns talk about being washed clean when we baptize. There is one hymn in our new hymnal that mentions the idea of dying to self, but if you read the New Testament, this leaving everything behind and starting over again is so distinct that the only way the New Testament knows to speak about it is that it is like death. When we are baptized, it is like being buried with Christ. It is dying to self and being raised to walk as Christ walks.
When friends in other faith traditions, sometimes in good humor and sometimes not, describe the way we baptize as Baptists, they often talk about dunking. “Did they dunk you? Did they take you down and did they hold you down?” If I am going to baptize someone who is a friend of someone else, they will say, “Now hold him under for a long time because he is really going to need it.” All the emphasis is on the part about going down into the water. But the act of baptism, as we experience it in the Baptist church, is not done until the person comes back up. It is not over until we are raised in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection.
Have you ever noticed how much everybody wants a new life and some life-changing experience that they are even willing to buy the book? “This book will change your life. Buy this product, and your life will never be the same again.” Everybody wants a second chance. Everybody wants a new life. Everybody wishes that in some way they could be reborn and get a do-over. That is what Jesus Christ offers us. The deal is nothing can be resurrected that has not died.
Every time the invitation is demonstrated when someone comes to join in the baptismal waters, we are reminding ourselves that nothing that has not died is raised. It is an invitation to leave the things behind that hurt us, to leave the things behind that have been such anchors on our lives, to leave the sin behind that has done nothing good for our lives, and to do it in such a way that the only way to describe it is like being dead.
But it is an invitation to life. It is an invitation to be raised to a life that is everlasting, abundant, and obedient. It is an invitation to be raised to a life in which the Living God who made heaven and earth, who sent his son, Jesus Christ, and who supplies us with the Holy Spirit, wants to share his life with us. All we need to do is die first.
It is so easy to emphasize the dying and want to run away or to emphasize that and see it as losing all and say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” But if we are not willing to go there, the gift of life in Christ is not possible.
So come to the baptismal waters. Come and mark that new chapter in life. If we could see in the light or in the truth all the things that we leave behind, we would drop them and throw them away as quickly as we could. Come and be raised to life, real life, in Jesus Christ.