Remember Your Baptism
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Someone once teased that most everyone goes to church at least three times-when
theyre hatched, matched, and snatched. Well, this mornings gospel lesson
focuses on the "hatched" stage of life: baptism. How many baptisms have you
attended? Some of you have been to nearly as many baptisms as you have to weddings or
funerals. Apparently, Matthew has been to his fair share too, for he writes about this
baptism as though hes quite familiar with them. He begins his gospel with a baptism
and he ends his gospel with Jesus command to "Go into all the world and make
disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you."
Do you recall what your most memorable baptism was? November 1st, 1985, Williamsburg,
Kentucky is forever etched in my soul. Several students from Cumberland College who
attended the storefront church I pastored had recently come to faith and had decided they
would like to get baptized before returning home for Thanksgiving break. In the eastern
coal region of the Appalachia, baptism only "took" if one was completely
immersed; no squirting, flicking, sprinkling, or effusing allowed. And that presented a
problem: we had no baptismal tank.
I had counseled that graduation week might be a better time to make a bold statement of
faith. But out-numbered and at least glad to have folks to baptize, we marched down to the
Cumberland River to get baptized. Late autumn had brought with its chilly temperatures
torrents of rain that caused the Cumberland to swell its banks. But we marched on.
We were on a holy mission. A mischievous lot the night before had obviously been on a
different mission: strewn along our path to the river were the remains of animals from
some Halloween ritual. We stepped over the steers head, dodged despicable things and
continued our pilgrimage to the riverbank.
I judged the temperature to be about 47 degrees when I first stepped in the water.
Didnt matter by the third step. With each step my clogs sunk deeper into the muck
and mud on the river floor. Each candidate stiffened as they entered the water, shocked
silly by the water. I think we had ten candidates that afternoon. The customary
testimonies about Gods saving grace didnt last more than a few seconds. The
first candidate set the ambience for the service.
"Bonnie, would you like to say a word for the Lord?" I chittered through blue
lips. She did have a word to say. As I recall now, it was more a word to rather than for
I think she spoke in such quick succession, it sounded like, "Heck, its cold in
here. Glad Im saved." So on her affirmation of faith, I baptized Bonnie in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost on Sunday, November 1st, 1985.
Now Matthew pulls those same pieces together that we experienced in the Cumberland
River-the water, the witnesses, the leader, the candidate, and the testimony. Something
about hearing holy words said over someone that hushes even our most unholy moments.
Here Jesus presents himself for baptism. Hes about thirty years old. Thats
older than most who come to the waters of baptism. But maybe there was an important reason
for the older age. According to one scholar, in Israel, anyone entering into public office
did so at age thirty. Maybe hes sitting in the synagogue and listening while others
are dozing off, and right then and there, something rises up inside him and he says,
"I must to be baptized." Could have been that way. Or maybe hes been of
late taking long walks away from the carpenter shop; hes praying, opening his soul
and listening deeply to his life and to what the Father is saying. And then on one of
these walks, he knows. He just knows that the compass in his soul has just turned in a new
direction and that baptism will mark this new change. So he heads for the river.
What brings people to the water? Parents bring their infants sometimes. They want God
to bless their little one with a long and safe life shielded from harms way.
Sometimes they just want the pastor to "do" their kid; to offer them a sort of
formality without any commitment. Its a festive time to enjoy a newborn with friends
and to celebrate. Sometime it happens that way.
But the Spirit moves in many different ways. John says that you dont know whence
it blows in from or where in the world it will show up next. The Spirit that broods over
baptism is like that, John says.
Sometimes the Spirit moves parents in a completely different direction. It begins back
in the delivery room. Dad is holding that six and a half pounder that beats anything
hes ever caught before. The couple is close together sharing intimate joy and tears.
And then from deep inside they just know what to do next. They head for the river with
their baby. And when that baby is baptized and promises are made, somewhere unseen a dad
and mom renew their own baptisms and make new promises to nurture their child in
Gods way and with Gods loving community.
Who would ever have guessed that Ron would show up for baptism? Ron doesnt always
make it to AA on Wednesdays. Isnt a twelve step poster kind of guy. He slips every
once in awhile, sometimes more often. But he shows up one morning at church. Who brought
him? No, his friends did not bring him. His family wouldnt have, thats for
sure. The county prison released him, but they didnt dump him in front of the
church. The wind did. The Spirit just blew him to the doors.
Something in him just says, "Youve made a slobbering mess of your life. You
need God. Go to this church, NOW." Thats the way Ron tells it. So he shows up
one Sunday. And the next. And a year later, hes still showing up. "Hell,
its cold outside," he may tell you matter-of-factly. But God continues to stir
his heart, turning him toward home. Usually cries in church-even when hes sober.
Says this is the only place where he feels he is treated with dignity and respect. So he
works odd jobs, helps out the community as best he can. And now has decided that hes
going down to the river to get baptized. So soon, those sacred words will again hush even
the cynics to holy silence: "Ron, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit."
You have your own stories, dont you? Youve seen the same thing. Someone
works six months here, six months there, moves somewhere else and does a little of this
and little of that. Then suddenly, a transformation. Now the person has a purpose, is on a
mission. What happened? No one really knows. Or why.
We dont know what concurrences of circumstances converged to bring Jesus to the
river Jordan to be baptized on the particular day that Matthew writes about. All we can
say is that one day, he just folds his carpenters apron and lays it on a table, puts
his tools away and walks out the door. Keeps walking all the way to the river and beyond
baptism, into a new life, a mission to do Gods will.
And as Jesus gets up out of that water, he hears a voice beyond the crowd that says,
"This is my son." Everyone hears that! "This is my son." The only time
those words are uttered are when a new king is presented to Israel. Comes from Psalm 2,
the Coronation Psalm. Oh, so that means that Jesus is a King and can ride around on a
chariot and dress in silk and say kingly things. "Dont touch me, Im
Gods Son, the King."
Could be interpreted that way, except for what follows: " . . . in whom my soul
takes pleasure." Thats a quotation from Isaiah 42 which describes the suffering
servant of God-the one who gives his life. "In whom my soul takes pleasure" is
the calling of a servant-loving, touching, going, doing, caring, and healing.
So we have in Jesus baptism that melds together royalty and servanthood. Still
wet from his baptism, Jesus leaves the Jordan to go about Gods business. Every
crying person, every hungry person, every lonely person, neglected person is his business.
And so in our baptism, the Spirit impels us and leads us into the ministry of doing
Gods work in the world We are touched by royalty, but called to serve the needs of
every human being.
Remember your baptism.
And be thankful. Amen.