Sunday, January 8, 2017

Public Notice --Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17
January 8, 2017

            Long trips are perfect for audio books. They make the time go faster. They keep me alert and awake while I’m driving. One of the best books I’ve listened to in a while has been Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This was her “lost novel,” published in 2015. Like her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman also tells the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her relationships with her father and family in Macomb, Alabama. Watchman begins with a grown up Jean Louse on a train from New York, coming home to Macomb for her annual visit.
            Although the story is set in Jean Louise’ present, she has flashbacks, memories, of her childhood with her brother, Jem, and their best friend, Dill. One of these memories centered on the annual revival that was an annual summer event in Macomb. It was a joint effort of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Scout, Jem and Dill had been attending the revival, along with everyone else in the town, for three nights. On the fourth day, a hot, hot, hot summer day, the three children were trying to come up with a new game to play. Dill suggested they have a revival.
            Jem was the preacher. Dill and Scout were the choir and the congregation. Jem preached a longer sermon than any Scout had ever heard from any adult. Dill jumped up to be the usher and took the two nickels Scout had in her pocket. She warned him that he better give them back to her when they were done. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” Then it came time for anyone who wished to unite with Christ to come forward. Scout went forward. 
            Jem asked her if she repented. She replied, “Yes sir.”
            Jem asked, “Have you been baptized?” “No sir,” she said.
            Jem dipped his hand into the fishpool they were gathered next to and started to sprinkle Scout on the head, because Jem and Scout were Methodists. But Dill jumped in and said that this was a Baptist revival, so it had to be a Baptist baptism.
            “You’ve got to duck her.” Dill decided since he was the only Baptist, he would also be baptized. But Scout threatened him. Dill had gotten to do everything else. She was going to be baptized.
            She took off her overalls, the only item of clothing she was wearing. But before Jem could baptize her in the dark, slimy water of the fishpool, Dill ran into his aunt’s house. He returned covered in a sheet that he had cut two eye holes in. When Jem asked him what he was doing, Dill replied, “I’m the Holy Ghost.”
            Scout stood in the pool and Jem stood on the edge. The Holy Ghost stood next to Jem and “flapped its arms wildly.” Jem dunked Scout and had just begun to baptize her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, when Dill’s aunt came after him with a switch. He had taken her good sheets off the bed and cut holes in them. They were taking the Lord’s name in vain. She switched him and got him out of the water, then marched him back to her house.
            Jem and Scout turned to go home, and saw their father standing there watching them. Two people were with him, the minister who had been preaching every night at the revival and his wife. [1]
            The memory goes on from there, but I’ll let you read it for yourselves.
            When I heard that scene, I laughed so hard I almost had to pull over to the side of the road. But along with being hilarious, this moment in the book is a wonderful illustration about some deep seated beliefs concerning baptism.
            Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is powerful. We meet John at the beginning of chapter 3. He came from the wilderness in Judea, and called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People were coming to him to be baptized in the river Jordan. They were confessing their sins. As I understand it, baptisms or ritual cleansings were fairly common. Jesus did not institute a whole new practice when he was baptized. But when Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he confronted them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” John went onto preach that while he baptized with water for repentance, one was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Sometime after John preached this fiery proclamation, Jesus came to him from Galilee. Jesus came to be baptized. John not only questioned Jesus doing this, Matthew writes that John would have stopped him from being baptized.
            “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
            Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
            I have to be honest, I am not sure I fully understand what Jesus meant by these words. Commentators point out that Jesus coming to John was as a response to John’s message about repentance. That seems confusing, because why would Jesus need to repent of sins? There is a sense that Jesus was deliberately illustrating that his ministry chronologically followed John’s.
            Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’s words to John about letting it be, or as one commentator said, “permit it,” is not about legalism but about discipleship.
            Jesus being baptized was the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration and a confirmation of his identity as the Son of God and as the one who issued in the kingdom of God. Certainly that became apparent when heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove, and God’s voice was heard proclaiming that Jesus was his Son, his beloved Son. In his baptism, Jesus proclaimed who he was. It was a moment of discipleship, and it was a moment of commissioning. It was a public notice of who Jesus was, what his presence ushered in, and what he was there to do.
            At the YMCA Bible study last Thursday, I asked the people around the table to tell the stories of their baptisms. Although a couple of people spoke about being baptized as infants, most of the folks talked about being baptized as believers. It was part of the ongoing debate over which is better – believer’s baptism or infant baptism. They also spoke about being baptized and being saved. They accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and they were baptized and saved.
            I don’t argue with their understanding of baptism and salvation, but it isn’t the language that we generally use as Presbyterians. Certainly we talk about accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We take salvation seriously. But we do not necessarily consider salvation and being born again in the same way. We baptize infants, and the reason I am comfortable and confident in doing so – my children were baptized as infants – is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we recognize it, understand it, get it or not. To be honest, I think that’s how grace works in my life all the time – not just when I was younger. I rarely recognize grace in the moment.
            Yet, looking at this story of Jesus being baptized and seeing it as a moment of identity formation, of commissioning, of giving public notice about Jesus’ ministry, is causing me to consider our baptisms in a new light. When we are baptized, whether or not we are believers or babies, our identity is being marked. As a believer, we claim that identity ourselves. As babies, the people around us promise to help us know and grow into that identity. Identity formation is a lifelong process. It is not complete at our baptisms, no matter how old we may be. But baptism marks a beginning. It is public notice that we are at the beginning of a life of discipleship, of growing into Christ, of being molded and shaped by the Spirit, of being in relationship with God and with others.
            Our baptisms are public notice, that we are a new person, that we are disciples, that we are beginning a life that is marked by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Go Set a Watchman, Dill dressed as the Holy Ghost stood by the fishpool and waved his arms. In our baptisms, the Holy Spirit descends on us, perhaps not as apparent as Dill or as the dove that descended on Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is there, marking us, making us, molding us. As we prepare to reaffirm our baptisms, let us once again see this moment as public notice of our discipleship and of our commissioning to be bearers of God’s love and light and hope. The world needs all three. The world needs to hear from us. This is our public notice.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “Go Set a Watchman.” Copyright © 2015 by Harper Lee. 

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