Mark 1:4-11 January 14, 2018
John came into the world to prepare the world for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. He appeared out of the desert dressed like one of the prophets of old. He preached a gospel of baptism for the repentance of sin in preparation for end times. We’ve read it so many times that it doesn’t seem strange that people would come to John to be baptized. But from a first century Jewish perspective, this would have been unusual if not almost blasphemous. It was not that baptism was unfamiliar to the Jews; it was just that it was not for them. For a first century Jew, the only way to forgiveness was through sacrifice in the Temple. Of course Jews bathed ceremonially in preparation for worship, but that was not the same as baptism. Baptism was reserved for Gentiles who chose to convert to Judaism. This baptism symbolized a death to their old life and a taking up of their new faith. Jews did not need this cleansing. They were already God’s chosen, special people. But the Bible tells us that the people went to the wilderness and willingly received John’s baptism and its promise of forgiveness. Why would they do that? Maybe those who came to John were the same people who were excluded from the Temple and therefore had no access to the usual means of forgiveness. Or maybe it was something else. Luke tells us that John was filled with the Spirit. Have you ever noticed how people begin to listen when the Holy Spirit speaks? Things change. People listen even if the message is not something they want to hear. I believe the people were responding to the Spirit, not just to John.
All along John said that his baptism of repentance was incomplete. What the people needed was new life. Life lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus came to receive John’s baptism things changed. John baptized for forgiveness of sin, but Jesus had no sin. His baptism was not an act of repentance; it was an act of obedience to God’s call. And through that obedience, Jesus received confirmation of what he had known all along. More importantly, we received a vision of the oneness of God. God the Father spoke and revealed Jesus as His son. God the Son received the blessing of His Father, and God the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, the whole Trinity got involved.
As we listen to ourselves talk about baptism, we make it sound like baptism is something we do. We talk about surrendering our lives to God. We say, “I have decided to live my life according to God’s will. We claim that we are accepting the sacrament of baptism out of our great love for God. Some faith traditions even go so far as to claim that baptism is only for those who can understand its meaning and make an informed decision about how we will live.
I think in this type of discussion we have our understanding almost right. We do receive baptism out of love. We do begin to live according to God’s will. But baptism is not something we do. Loving God and living according to God’s will are not things that we can do on our own. Our sin nature, inherited in the Garden of Eden, prevents us from loving anyone but ourselves. We are even, or maybe especially incapable of loving God. We may be able to put on a show of love and obedience for a while, but eventually when we are given the choice between following our own will and obeying God, we will choose our own selfish way. It’s just the way we are. But God has never given up on us. God has continued to reach out to us to restore the loving relationship that God always intended for us. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to restore our ability to love and obey God. Only through God’s grace can we respond to God’s love. When we do respond by realizing and accepting the justifying grace that is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, God claims us as God’s own; just as God claimed Jesus as his own. In baptism, God works first through God’s grace to give us the ability and the will to respond. Baptism is a gift from God. And as a gift, we don’t need to understand it; we simply need to accept it.
God is the primary actor in our sacrament of baptism, but God in God’s grace invites us to participate. First, the person being baptized or their sponsor is asked to reject evil and sin and is invited to rely on God’s grace to order their lives. Next, the entire congregation does the same and commits to teaching and modeling what it means to be a Christian. In baptism God claims each of us as a child of God. God welcomes us to God’s family. Then God expects us to act like a family and nurture each other in love with God.
Today we are invited to remember our baptism and be thankful. Many of us who were children or infants when we were baptized may not be able to remember the actual event, but that’s OK. We are not remembering the act, but the effect. We remember that God has claimed us as God’s family. And for that we are thankful. Amen.