Water We Here For?

The story of Jesus being baptized may be more familiar than our own baptism stories, especially if we were baptized as infants. Whether or not we remember the event, what do we need to remember about the meaning of baptism?

Read Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9 here.

Listen to the sermon here:

Watch the entire worship service here:

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What do you remember about your baptism?  I do not remember mine, because I was just a baby, and apparently nothing notable happened. Unless something unusual happens, we may not remember.

I don’t remember my children’s baptisms because they were too long ago, but I do remember my grandchildren’s baptisms.

  • Raegan got baptized the same weekend I graduated from seminary when all the family was in town.
  • Lila was baptized by me. All the baptisms that I get to do are special but that one’s a little extra because she’s my granddaughter.

I do remember our friend’s daughter being baptized. Rob and I sang with the choir, so we were sitting up front right behind where the parents were standing holding their daughter who was about 9 months old.  Rob had taught her to put her finger in her nose whenever he did. So, in this solemn and sacred moment, as the pastor was speaking the words of the liturgy that come before the baptism, this little girl was looking over her father’s shoulder and had her gaze fixed on Rob, who greeted her by putting his finger in his nose, and so she greeted him back by putting her finger in her nose.  I think we’re glad I don’t have any pictures of that.

Today we read the story of Jesus’ baptism.  There’s lots about this that makes it memorable and helps us see what baptism means for us.

We tend to think of baptism as a purely Christian practice, but if that were true, why was John the Baptist already baptizing people?  Certainly he wasn’t baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the way we do.  But baptizing didn’t start with Christians.  Long before Jesus came, the tradition was a part of the Jewish faith. What was happening there at the Jordan River was the Jewish practice of Mikvah – ritual cleansing that’s prescribed in Leviticus, and still practiced by Jews today.[1]

800px-Bethany_5-1-BetaniaThis is a picture of what may have been the site where Jesus was baptized. It’s specially constructed for mikvah because it’s connected to the Jordan River so that the water is living water, but sheltered from the current of the river.[2]  This ceremonial cleansing was to happen before coming into the presence of God in the temple. Also before getting married.  And if someone did something that made them unclean, like touching a dead body, then a mikvah would make them clean. [3]

John the Baptist was preaching about repentance, and it is customary for people to do ritual cleansing as part of their annual celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

mikveh wichitaMikvah is still practiced today.  This is the mikvah at the synagogue in Wichita, specially constructed so that it’s living water, because it’s connected to a cistern that gathers rain water.

Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry – living out his purpose and the call on his life. Though Jesus didn’t need cleansing from sin because he was without sin, a mikvah is also a way to mark a new beginning, and this was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s kingdom here on earth.[4]

In all four gospels, this is the first time we see Jesus as an adult.[5] In Matthew, Jesus’ story begins with the genealogy and the angel appearing to Joseph.  Then the magi come to visit, and Herod goes on a rampage, so Mary and Joseph take baby Jesus to Egypt until that blows over.  The very next thing that happens in Matthew’s telling is Jesus meeting John the Baptist in the desert.

All four gospels tell us that as Jesus was being baptized by John, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.  In John’s gospel, John the Baptist says,

“When God sent me to baptize with water, he told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.” (John 1:33-34)

The Spirit descending was an outward sign of an inward truth about who Jesus was – God in the flesh, God’s beloved Son.  That must have been quite a sight.  For me, the most memorable part of Jesus’ baptism is the sound, the booming voice from heaven, God saying, “This is my beloved son.”  You may have noticed that we heard similar words in our reading from Isaiah 42 for today:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptizer who is offering a mikvah for repentance, and it becomes an ordination, an anointing for ministry.[6]

We remember Jesus’ baptism because of who he is, and what he did in his life and death and resurrection. What does baptism mean for us?

For us, baptism is also an outward sign of an inward truth about who we are – God’s beloved, people in whom God puts his Spirit, people who obey God’s word and show God’s love, and who are called to be a light to the world.  We read this morning from Isaiah 42:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,

That’s about Jesus, and it’s also about us.  We are called to be a light to the people around us.

Baptism is an outward sign of an inward truth.

  • The water on the outside can’t actually clean what’s on the inside, but it’s symbolic of what happens on the inside when we profess our faith in Jesus. By his blood we are made clean.
    • When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. -Titus 3:4-5 (NLT)
  • Baptism is an outward sign of the inward truth that we are forgiven, and also that we are adopted as God’s children, and made part of God’s family, the church. When we baptize, the pastor will say,
    • “Child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
    • That’s a permanent mark. The water on the outside goes away, but the inner reality stays.  It’s like an invisible tattoo.
    • When we are baptized, it’s symbolic of that mark that God has put on us that marks us as his own—that we’re set apart as his people. (Eph 1:13)

In our scripture we see the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.  But whether we see it or not, the Holy Spirit is there.  The Spirit is the one who does the acting.  That’s why John said, “I baptize with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

  • The Holy Spirit is the one that goes to work in us through our faith in Jesus Christ.
  • The Spirit renews us and sets us apart.
  • The Spirit makes it so we’re dead to sin—able to resist temptation
  • And made alive in Christ—able to understand and obey God and love people even when we might not want to.

So the act, the water, is the outward sign of the work of the Spirit inside us, the action, the work that God is doing:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.”  (Ezekiel 36:25)

Baptism marks the beginning of our lives in the kingdom of God – living out our purpose and the call on our lives, as people living in obedience to God.  That’s the commitment we make in our baptism vows, or that our parents made, if we were babies, and that we make again when we are confirmed:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? I do.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? I do.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? I will, with God’s help.

In the Presbyterian church, we emphasize the importance in baptism that we’re all serving God together. One of my favorite parts about our baptisms is that we ask the church to make a commitment to the person being baptized, whether they are an infant or an adult:

Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture [child] by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church? The people respond: We do.

We promise to help each other know and follow Christ.  There was a man who lost his wife to cancer at an early age (she was in her late 20’s). They had two children, who were both very young. At her memorial service, the man got up to speak to the congregation and with tears flowing down his face, he said to the crowd, did you really mean it when you vowed to teach my children at their baptism, because if you did then I need you now more than ever. [7]

Remembering our baptism means remembering our promises to God and to one another, and God’s promises to us.

How often do you commemorate your baptism?  Methodist pastor and writer Adam Hamilton encourages his congregation to remember every time they step into the shower, and he has given them a prayer that reads, “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe I remember my baptism. Wash me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.”[8]

  • Wash me by your grace.
  • Fill me with your Spirit.
  • Renew my soul.
  • Help me to live as your beloved today and honor you in all I do.

When we are baptized, even if it happened when we were too young to remember, and even if the sky doesn’t crack open and no glowing white dove comes down, and no booming voice speaks, the Holy Spirit is there and God is still saying, “This is my beloved child.”

What do we need to remember? That we are God’s beloved.

Whether or not we remember the day we were baptized, every day is a new opportunity to live as God’s beloved and forgiven people, to live out God’s call upon our lives to be the light of Christ to the world around us, and to give thanks to God for Jesus and for God’s amazing grace.

Thanks be to God.

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[1] Rabbi Albert (Abraham) I. Slomovitz, PhD, A New Look at Rabbi Jesus: Jews and Christians Finally Reconnected (Murrels Inlet, SC: Covenant Books, 2019), pg. 87-88.

[2] https://free.messianicbible.com/feature/mikvah-baptism-the-connection-between-immersion-conversion-and-being-born-again/

[3] “Ceremonial cleansing is prescribed in the Bible on a number of occasions: women after childbirth or their monthly cycle and men after sexual discharge (Leviticus 15:19–30) and after contact with a dead body (Leviticus 19:18–19). Clothing and utensils could also be cleansed by ritual immersion (Leviticus 11:32). Later, ritual immersion—baptism—became part of a proselyte’s conversion to Judaism.” https://www.gotquestions.org/mikvah.html

[4] Mihee Kim-Kort, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/january-12-baptism-lord-matthew-313-17?code=x0ifNPF0Ug58Xnae63lT

[5] Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1

[6] Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7, pg. 268.

[7] Joe Pruett commenting on https://garynealhansen.com/remember-your-baptism-what-about-it-heidelberg-catechism-q71/

[8] Hamilton, Adam. Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition, Chapter 9.

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