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Remember Your Baptism
Matthew 3:13-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Someone once teased that most everyone goes to church at least three times-when they’re hatched, matched, and snatched. Well, this morning’s 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 he’s 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 steer’s 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. Didn’t 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 God’s saving grace didn’t 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 the Lord.

I think she spoke in such quick succession, it sounded like, "Heck, its cold in here. Glad I’m 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. He’s about thirty years old. That’s 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 he’s 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 he’s been of late taking long walks away from the carpenter shop; he’s 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 harm’s way. Sometimes they just want the pastor to "do" their kid; to offer them a sort of formality without any commitment. It’s 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 don’t 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 he’s 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 God’s way and with God’s loving community.

Who would ever have guessed that Ron would show up for baptism? Ron doesn’t always make it to AA on Wednesdays. Isn’t 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 wouldn’t have, that’s for sure. The county prison released him, but they didn’t dump him in front of the church. The wind did. The Spirit just blew him to the doors.

Something in him just says, "You’ve made a slobbering mess of your life. You need God. Go to this church, NOW." That’s the way Ron tells it. So he shows up one Sunday. And the next. And a year later, he’s still showing up. "Hell, it’s 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 he’s 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 he’s 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, don’t you? You’ve 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 don’t 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 carpenter’s 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 God’s 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. "Don’t touch me, I’m God’s Son, the King."

Could be interpreted that way, except for what follows: " . . . in whom my soul takes pleasure." That’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.