Down By The Riverside
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
"Down By The Riverside"
(Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11)
In one of my favorite commentaries, the comic strip "Peanuts", Linus says to Charlie Brown: "I guess it's wrong always to be worrying about tomorrow. Maybe we should think only about today." To that, Charlie Brown responded: "No, that's giving up. I'm still hoping that yesterday will get better."
Haven't you ever fellt like that? The Good News is that Jesus says "YES" even to our yesterdays. He accepts us as we are, forgives us and renews us, and as one preacher put it, "Washes behind the years." Because of the life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ, and through our baptism in His name, we have healing for the past, help for the present and hope for the future.
I. WHY & WHAT TOOK PLACE:
A. All of that was made apparent on the day Jesus was baptized. The Bible is a little odd at times. It can go into the most minute detail about an event that took half a day and then it can jump 30 years in the blink of an eye. One Sunday, in the Lectionary readings, the Wise men are celebrating the first Christmas and standing in awe of the babe in the manger. Then, "Boom!" the next Sunday, seven days later, the babe in the manger is thirty years old and coming to be baptized.
The events of the first Christmas revelation had faded from memories long before. Time passed and it became nothing but a vague memory. However, in making that leap from the first Christmas to the day of Jesus' baptism, we find out that the revelation of God isn't confined to a baby in a manger. It is no longer a quiet whisper in Bethlehem. Here at the side of the Jordan river, at the hands of John in his outlandish garments and his raucous call for repentance, it becomes a public announcement through the voice of God shouting with joy and delight.
Yes, they knew what it meant. Both God and Jesus knew the course and the end to which it would eventually lead. The shadow of the cross was ever present in all that Jesus did. It always loomed on the horizon of his future. But this was the day of his baptism. This was a special day and the cross was forgotten for awhile. And just like all parents, God stood tall and proud and announced to the world, "That's my boy!" God's smile of joy and delight descended like a dove to light on Christ and brighten the world. And to Jesus, just like a father bursting at the seams with pride, God said, "I'm proud of you, Son." Mark 1:11 tells us: "And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" The whole world was moved. Nothing and no one was ever the same.
B. Now we know that Jesus didn't NEED to be baptized. Especially by John's baptism which was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, the perfect, sinless Son of God didn't need to repent of anything. So why did he submit to baptism? In Matthew's Gospel we're told that John at first refused to baptize Jesus, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, why do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." After that, John consented. (MAT 3:14-15)
Jesus didn't NEED baptism but in offering and submitting himself to baptism, he became the supreme model for our Christian lives. He set a precedent. His whole life was one of obedience to God's will. Even in baptism, Christ modeled this life of obedience which we are called to follow. Jesus also modeled the meaning of baptism as he symbolically died to the old life and was raised to new life, fresh and clean. Just at the moment that he rose from the water, God's mark of approval was placed on Jesus and His ministry. That mark was more than just a laundry mark, it was more than just a watermark like that on fine stationary. It was the mark of the beginning of the New Creation, the invisible mark of the Kingdom of God. When we offer ourselves for baptism we, too, are marked with this invisible watermark of the kingdom. We, too, are approved for the work and ministry of the kingdom of God.
II. WHAT IT DOES FOR/TO US:
A. None of you know it, but our family has its very own Saint. My brother-in-law Carl and his family moved a couple of years ago and began attending a small United Methodist Church in their area. They fell in love with the folks and joined recently. None of Carl's family, except Carl, had ever been baptized, so the whole family, including three-year-old Rachel, went through a confirmation and membership training class together. Mary's folks went out for the big day. When describing to Grandpa what was going to happen, three-year-old Rachel said, "I'm going to be canonized!"
Apparently she got a little confused about the words but we've all had a good laugh about Saint Rachel. But in actuality Rachel wasn't totally confused. She knew that something important was going to happen and that she would be different because of it. Because of our baptism, because of the invisible watermark of God, we can never be the same. Baptism does something to us and for us.
B. First, Jesus' last words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew are: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (MAT 28:19) From that time forward, baptism has been the Church's ceremony of initiation proclaiming God's grace and welcoming new members into the Body of Christ. Through baptism, we are brought into the body of Christ, the fellowship of believers known as the Church. Baptism tells us we belong.
In his book, MISTREATED!, Ron Lee Davis tells about two altar boys. One was born in 1892 in Eastern Europe. The other was born just three years later in a small town in Illinois. Though they lived very separate lives in very different parts of the world, these two altar boys had almost identical experiences. Each boy was given the opportunity to assist his parish priest in the service of Holy Communion. Ironically, while handling the communion cup, each boy accidentally spilled some of the wine on the carpet. It's there that the similarities end.
Seeing the purple stain on the carpet, the priest in the Eastern European church slapped the little altar boy across the face and shouted, "You clumsy oaf! Leave the altar!" That little boy left and grew up to become an atheist and a Communist. He grew up to be the ruthless dictator of Yugoslavia from 1943 until 1980. His name was Josip Broz Tito.
A couple of years later, across the ocean, the priest in Illinois saw a similar stain near the altar. This priest, however, knelt down to the little boy's level, looked him tenderly in the eyes and said, "It's all right, son. You'll do better next time. You'll be a fine priest for God someday." And he was right. That little boy grew up to become the much loved and honored Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. (1)
Just like those two young boys we all need to feel loved, accepted, and appreciated. We all need somebody who believes in us. Somebody who sees us as we are and still loves us; someone who sees our worth and sees us as we could be. That's exactly what happens in baptism. In baptism we are affirmed and accepted and included in the new creation of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. And we are connected to others through the church, others who have had the same or similar experience and who have made the same commitment.
C. Secondly, baptism reminds us that we are raised to new life. According to Arnold R. Beisser, in his book FLYING WITHOUT WINGS, an ad appeared in the Madison (Wis.) CAPITOL TIMES. It read: "For Sale: one used tombstone. Splendid opportunity for family named Dingle." (2) The first time I read that I couldn't stop laughing. Why would anyone no longer need a tombstone? Did they make a mistake and only think the person was dead, like in Monty Python? "OOPS! this ones not quite dead yet." Or are we just dealing with a disgruntled or tightwad heir who decided to cash in on the deceased relative in any way possible?
It seems ludicrous, but then, the more I thought about it, the more I'm convinced there really ought to be a row of used tombstones lining the altar of every church. In offering ourselves and submitting to Christian baptism, we have each been raised to new life in Christ. We don't really need a tombstone. Our final resting place will really be that place prepared for us by the hands of our Savior. Not that little plot of ground in a cemetary.
D. Third, through baptism we are given a new name. I read a story about a newcomer to America who took his pregnant wife to the hospital. It wasn't very long before the doctor came into the waiting room and told the man that his wife had delivered twins, a boy and a girl. The man was so surprised that he fainted. It was the custom of this man's country to name the newborn children immediately. Since he was unconscious, his brother was asked to give names to the babies.
When the father finally came to, he was told that his brother had already named the twins. The new father was shocked and upset. "My brother named the children!! You let my brother name the kids? My brother is an idiot, a numskull, a moron. OK, What did he name the girl?"
A friend answered, "He named the girl Denise." The father looked relieved and said, "Denise? Well, that's not such a bad name. I kind of like it. Denise even sounds a little bit American. That's a good name. And what did he name the boy?"
The friend replied, "He called the boy, De Nephew."
When we were each born, we were given a name, Denise, De Nephew, Lee, Dorothy, Mary, Billy . . . we were all given different names. But when we were baptized; when we were initiated into God's Kingdom, we were given a new name, a name we hold in common with each other. That name is Christian. It defines us. It defines our purpose, our beliefs, our loyalties and our Savior.
III. OUR RESPONSE:
A. Because we are baptized we can never really be the same. Baptism proclaims our new creation in Christ. Through Baptism we are claimed as part of that new creation by Almighty God. It doesn't make any difference when it happened or by what means. The important thing is that we have been claimed. God looks at that invisible watermark, sees the changed name and the risen life, smiles and says: "Yes! This one is mine."
Baptism is sort of like a wedding ring, they both symbolize a sacred transaction, a sacred covenant. A wedding ring symbolizes marriage and love, just as our baptism symbolizes salvation and forgiveness. But we need to remember that wearing a wedding ring doesn't make you married any more than being baptized makes you saved. To extend the parallel, if a person, especially a woman, doesn't wear a wedding ring, most people assume that the person isn't married.
That's sort of the way it was in New Testament times. If a person wasn't baptized, you could probably assume he or she wasn't a believer. But like a wedding ring, baptism is such an effective symbol, that it should never be taken for granted. A wedding ring is not a ticket to a marriage and a life lived happily ever after and baptism isn't a sure fire ticket to heaven.
We need to remember that there is more to it than just being claimed. God reaches out, claims and accepts us but we have to make a response to that claiming. We are called to respond positively. Baptism is that time of life and faith when life itself is intersected by the Holy Spirit and we are enabled to live as full heirs of the promise of God's Kingdom, and people of the new creation. Baptism is also a commission into the service and work of Christ and the Church. We are all called into the general ministry of the Church through the virtue of our baptism. We are called into the ministry of caring, the ministry of sharing the Good News through our words and our actions.
B. Our baptism makes us stewards. Part of our response to our baptism is to be good stewards. A steward is simply a person who manages the affairs and assets of someone else. Stewardship is being a good manager. God has entrusted the world and all it contains to us. We are the managers, the stewards, the servants of God. As managers, we are responsible for the manner in which we use what God has put in our hands.
Stewardship is also being a good manager of our God given talents. When we invest our talents in a life of service we see them multiply over and over again. Through our Prayers, Presence, Gifts and Service in stewardship we use all of our talents to our best advantage, to the best advantage of others and all for the honor and glory of God. A good steward is one who responds joyously, with faithful discipleship and service, to the love and grace and acceptance of God experienced in and through their baptism.
I want you know that being baptized doesn't mean all the problems in your life in the New Year will be solved. Life has its ironic twists and turns. There is an O'Henry short story entitled, "The Cop and the Anthem." In this story, it's a couple of weeks before Christmas. The setting is New York City. A bum named Soapy sets out to get arrested so that he can spend the winter months in jail, warm and well-fed. At every misdemeanor Soapy commits, because of the season, fate steps in and prevents his arrest. Finally, in disgust, Soapy is returning to his park bench when he hears beautiful Christmas organ music coming from a church. As he stands outside the church listening to the music, old memories flood in. Soapy wipes his eyes and he begins to plan and resolves to change his life's direction. A smile of hope fills his face as he squares his shoulders for the days ahead.
And just at that moment, a police officer steps up and arrests him for loitering, and he is sentenced to spend the next 3 months in jail. (3)
Life has its odd twists and turns. Baptism won't solve all your problems. But it will mark you as one of God's. It will help you to know that you are accepted and loved by God even in the midst of those problems. It will give you a new name, Christian. It will say "YES" even to your yesterdays. It will give you healing for the past, help for the present and hope for the future. It will make you a steward. But most importantly, baptism is a statement to yourself, to your family and to the world about where and for whom you stand.
This is the Word of the Lord for this Day.
1. Ron Lee Davis, MISTREATED, (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah, 1989).
2. Arnold R. Beisser, FLYING WITHOUT WINGS (New York: Doubleday, 1989).
3. O. Henry, "The Cop and the Anthem," in THE FOUR MILLION (The West Virginia Pulp and Paper
Co., 1960), pp. 67-79.