A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 15, 2012
In seminary, we practiced baptizing. Really. My class took a field trip to the Baylor Student Life Center. We brought our swimsuits, covered ourselves with white baptismal robes, and climbed in the swimming pool—all 20 of us, and practiced on each other. I imagine it looked as if some strange cult had arrived to occupy the campus swimming pool. I don’t know if the pool was reserved for us that morning, or if everyone just politely and fearfully cleared out when they saw us coming.
It was one of those rare days in seminary where what you learn is practical rather than abstract. For example, it was the first time it ever occurred to me that except in cases of small children, I will baptize people who are bigger than me 95% of the time, and I learned it takes a certain amount of artistic finesse to lower people into the water, especially when you are smaller than average.
Some people are scared to be baptized, even after they are ready to be Christian, and I can’t say I blame them. Giving someone the authority to purposely dunk your face under water is uncomfortable. What if the water is cold? What if the minister holds you under the surface while he prays a long-winded prayer? What if those white robes are see-through, or what if you swallow water and come up coughing? What if your pastor drops you because you’re bigger than she is? You don’t get to be in control during your baptism, and it’s not exactly comfortable. It looks weird, and it’s even weirder to try and explain to your nonChristian friends and family.
And I wonder if John the Baptist’s baptisms were all the stranger still. I mean, at least my class did their practicing on a Baptist campus. John was out in the wilderness dunking people in a river by the hoards, as if John’s wardrobe and diet weren’t enough to make people suspicious.
Baptism is a big deal if you’re Baptist—hence the name. Some people believe that one of founders of our denomination, John Smyth, believed so strongly in believer’s baptism, that he baptized himself, since there were not yet any other Baptist ministers who could do it for him. As a Baptist, I suppose today’s text should be one of my favorite Bible stories—Jesus getting himself baptized. What better biblical support could we Baptists ask for?
But if I were to be perfectly honest with you—there is a lot about baptism that I just don’t understand. Or, at least, baptism hasn’t always moved me in the way I would want it to.
There at least two reasons (that I know of) for my struggle to comprehend baptism. First, I grew up with a Christianity that exerted a lot of energy denying works-righteousness, which meant you had to be very careful when you talked about baptism, because baptism could easily be misconstrued as a “work” by which people thought they could be saved. We don’t want that, so it’s better to downplay baptism than have people mistakenly look to water and rituals to save them rather than God’s grace. I get that.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that in our very attempt to preserve grace, we may have crippled our means of dispensing it, kind of like a treasure that you lock away but never spend. We may have done so much to “protect” the treasure of grace, that we’ve made it hidden and inaccessible. What I mean is: Baptism has never been a way to earn salvation, but baptism has always been a mysterious and sacred gift through which we encounter grace in our very bodies in an inexplicable fashion. You see, we can talk about grace, we can think about grace, we can read about grace, we can sing about grace, but there is nothing in the whole Christian practice quite like the physical wave of grace that hits your very skin in the waters of baptism. The only thing I can think of that comes close is when we taste grace with our tongues in the bread of communion. There are so few things among our religious practices that help take grace beyond an abstract concept and make it tangible. God’s grace is so heavenly, so divine, so esoteric, so huge that we need something tactile, earthy, common, small—like the waters of baptism and the bread of communion—if grace is to be translated to our human flesh.
No, baptism is not a work that we do. It is a mystery that we enter. And if we downplay baptism for fear of missing true grace, well, we might just cut ourselves off from a God-ordained channel of communication.
The second reason I think the meaning of baptism got lost on me is that our brand of Protestantism tends to be anti-ritual. Of course, it’s generally troublesome when you define yourself by what you are not rather than what you are. But more to the point: rituals are good and wholesome. The problem is when we disconnect our rituals from the rest of our living, thinking, and being. Then it becomes an empty ritual, and an empty ritual ceases to be a ritual at all—it is more like the gesture of a clown, meant to entertain, or the wave of a magician, intended to deceive. But living rituals are an absolute necessity for anyone who hopes to get their faith past their heads into their hearts and out into their daily life. Rituals help engage our whole being, and not just our thoughts. Baptism is a ritual, and it’s a mighty good one for a Christian.
However, all that being clarified . . . it is still curious that Jesus shows up for baptism because he doesn’t need saving grace the way we do. He doesn’t need repentance in the way John’s followers needed it. And surely he doesn’t need a ritual to connect him to God, seeing as how he is God. So why, of all people, does Jesus get baptized?
Some say Jesus was baptized in order to an example to us. I kind of buy that . . . but I’ve already been baptized. So what’s the point of reading about Jesus’ baptism year after year, if I’d already done the deed myself?
Maybe Jesus did it because baptism is messy and physical, and the symbolism is so real it slaps you in the face like a splash of cold water.
When we were growing up, my younger sister was notorious for sleeping in. She would turn her alarm on its loudest setting—loud enough to wake up everyone in the house, except for her, who would sleep right through it until it shut itself off. She kept setting her alarm earlier and earlier, to give herself “time” to wake up—which meant that the whole family was waking up earlier and earlier while she continued to snooze peacefully away. My mom tried everything to teach my sister to wake up, but nothing was working. One day, we had all had enough, so my mom tried a new trick. She took a tiny cup, filled with just a couple ounces of water, and when the alarm started blaring and my sister kept right on sleeping—surprise! My mom woke her up with a splash in the face.
We still laugh about that story today, and my sister claims that she woke up convinced that she was drowning. Just a few ounces of water and she thought she was drowning . . .
Committing to faith can feel like that, I think. Just dip your toes in, and you’ll fear for your life. Feel the sprinkle of a few drops, and you just might think you are drowning. But to put your whole head under? To let a whole new way of life rush over and around you like a flood, to place yourself wholly in the confidence of someone else’s arms, such that you will suffocate if they are not reliable, to hold your breath in the hopes that dying to self really does mean new life on the other side? That’s crazier than it looks from the sidelines. The riverbank spectators may mock, but they don’t even know how insane this business really is. No one knows, until they’ve already waded in up to their waist, and by then, there’s not much choice but to go under, and hope you come back out, alive and clean.
I think this story is supposed to be strange, and odd, and mysterious. I think we’re supposed to wonder why Jesus would get himself baptized, because we’re also going to wonder along the way why we let ourselves get baptized. All that is certain is that we did it, and that it changed us somehow, and that there’s not really a good way to go back to the safety of the sidelines, even if we wanted to. There’s the hope, of course, that the Spirit descended on us, just as it is descended on Him, and that God’s favor was spoken over us in some visible way, that grace was bestowed, and that we were called children of God.
So may we know somewhere in our hearts that even on the worst of days, we would still choose the icy waters of baptism over the numb existence of the sidelines. May Jesus, the beloved of God, beckon us to stand in the waters by his side, and look up, and see the heavens torn asunder, and the Spirit coming to meet us. May we choose the river, mysterious and torrential though it may be, because we’d rather be drenched in grace than remain dry and dehydrated on the riverbank. May we dive in, and meet Jesus. Amen.