Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Taking the Plunge”
Rev. Art Ritter
January 13, 2019
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Thomas Long, professor at Emory University’s Chandler School of Theology, tells the story of how back in 1976, a very creative writer came up with an interesting idea. Since the nation was celebrating its 200th birthday, the writer believed he could find someone alive at the time who was old enough that when they were a child, they could remember someone who was old enough to have been alive at the founding of our nation. He thought this would be a living link to the beginning of the country. Sure enough, the writer found such a person. He was a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was over 100 years old in 1976; and he could remember that when he was a little boy he was taken by a wagon to see his great-great grandmother who was then over 100 years old herself. She was a little girl when George Washington became the first president of the United States. When the writer asked Burnham what he remembered about that day, he said he remembered being taken into his great-great grandmother’s house. She was very feeble. She was blind. She was sitting in an old chair in the dark corner of a bedroom. Burnham’s father told her that they had brought their young son to see her. The old woman turned toward the voice, reaching out with her long bony fingers and said in her crackling voice, “Bring him here.” Burnham recalled that he was afraid of his great-great grandmother. They had to push him across the room toward her. But when he got close enough for her to touch, she reached out her hands and began to stroke his face. She felt his eyes and his nose, his mouth and his chin. And then, apparently satisfied, she pulled young Burnham close to her and held him tight. Finally the old woman said, “This boy is a Ledford. I can feel it. I know this boy. He’s one of us.”
Baptism is kind of a tricky thing in the church. I frequently get calls from people within and outside the congregation requesting baptism or baptism for their children. I usually ask these people why they want to be baptized and sometimes it is hard to get an answer. For some people, baptism is the initiation to joining “The Jesus Club.” We know that we have to do something to join the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts or Kiwanis or Rotary. We figure that baptism is the admission requirement to Christian faith and once in, all we have to do follow God’s rules or at least have the best of intentions to follow to stay an active member of the club.
For others, baptism is a ticket to heaven or at the very least, insurance from hell. I have spoken with parents and grandparents who want their infant children and grandchildren baptized as soon as possible just in case something bad happened to them. One grandmother at a church I previously served wanted her grandson baptized before he got in a car and left the hospital.
For still others, baptism is a cultural thing. We get baptized or have our children baptized because it is part of the timeline of life. There is no real grasp of the promises of faith or of the power beyond the experience. Baptism is a marker of a certain time in life like getting your driver’s license or graduating from high school. It is a one-time social event with little significance for the future. Throughout my ministry with four churches I have received many phone calls from people requesting baptism or baptism for their children who are mystified or even angry that I ask them to attend worship a few times before discussing the sacrament. Much of society today fails to understand that baptism isn’t something that you can do alone. It has to be learned and celebrated and lived out in community.
Why does baptism matter? Perhaps we haven’t done a very good job of answering that question. We are all aware of the declining attendance at most mainline Protestant churches. People, particularly young people, have left the church and haven’t come back. In the old days, when people left your church it was because they went to another church. Today, more than likely, when people leave your church they are just leaving. They stop going to church, period. They see little connection between what happens on Sunday and the rest of their busy, over-scheduled life. People may still believe in baptism but they no longer know what baptism means. We still practice baptism, but once baptized we don’t consider the impact that baptism should play over our lives. We have taken baptism less seriously, celebrating it too thoughtlessly, making promises too casually, and neglecting its place in our identity too easily.
This morning we contemplate the story of the baptism of Jesus according to the gospel of Luke. The Scripture passage we heard is really more about John the Baptist, about his warning of the Messiah who would follow him. “He is more powerful than I am! I am not worthy to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with his unquenchable fire.” John’s description of Jesus is a bit awesome and powerful, yet we must admit it is more than a little frightening.
Then quickly, almost without fanfare, Luke describes the baptism of Jesus, the first official act of Jesus’ public ministry. Apparently Jesus was part of a crowd of others getting baptized. Perhaps he just wanted to blend in. If you read the gospel of Luke carefully, you will note that the narrative says that John the Baptist was already in prison- so we don’t even know if he was the one who baptized Jesus. But Luke says that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and a voice cried out, “This is my beloved Son. With you I am pleased.”
We need to remember that while only two gospels contain a story of Jesus’ birth, all four gospels tell a story of Jesus’ baptism. And in each gospel that baptism is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It speaks to God’s promise upon him and that he belongs to God. In baptism, we are too are named and claimed by God. Jesus’ baptism spoke of God’s hand, or of the hand of the Holy Spirit in his ministry. In baptism, we are reminded that our life is about God’s purposes and that we no longer live just for ourselves but to, for, and with God. The lesson of Jesus’ baptism is that our baptism is just as important as his. It is a serious thing meant to be taken seriously.
I recall many years ago I was asked to participate in a baptismal ceremony for the Greater Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. That inner city church and my church in West Bloomfield had shared some worship services and fellowship activities together. When I arrived at the church where the baptisms were being held, I was quite surprised. I was dressed in a suit and tie but was handed some chest high waders and a long white robe and told that I was going into the water. Many of you know that water is not my favorite environment to function. But the next thing I knew I was standing waist high in the waters of a large baptismal pool at the front of a church that I had never entered before, helping men and women and even children out of the water back onto a deck where they could dry off. I remember the water coming up over the top of my waders and my legs and feet getting wet. I remember feeling most unstable trying to move along the bottom of the pool. I remember holding onto wet strangers, embracing them and having them share their baptismal waters with me. It was not a comfortable experience for me. But I it was a powerful experience. Because it was so uncomfortable and so out of my control, I sensed the presence of the Spirit in the water, as well as the faces and embraces of the baptized. We were claimed by God in the same family of God. We belonged.
Perhaps my experience is how we need to start viewing the sacrament of baptism and even our own baptisms. While we don’t have to construct a baptismal pool or take babies and baptismal candidates over to Meadowbrook Lake, we need to see baptism as something more than a tame and repetitive ritual. Baptism should matter. Baptism teaches us about our identity as God’s creatures and about God’s work through us. It is the moment when we are claimed by someone special when God holds us close and calls us by name and says “This one belongs to me.” It is a moment when we called to do something special, when we express God’s love for us and our love for God by how we do our living in this world. It is the moment when we join with saints of the Kingdom of God, taking our place in the work of bringing God’s way into being, having the responsibility of living and speaking with God’s authority.
Baptism is not a once and done event but something that we must remember and revisit daily. Each day, perhaps many times each day we must recall that we are baptized and take the plunge into the holy mysterious waters. There, like Jesus, we find who we really are, whose we really are, and what we are called to be.