My childhood church baptized a lot like John did – with lots of water. We didn’t use a river, though we weren’t opposed to them. We just liked the convenience of being indoors and having warm water for our baptisms. That probably increased our volume of converts. We were highly suspicious of those who used less water. I didn’t buy our party line, though. I figure we must have more, or bigger and better sins, so we’d need more than a sprinkle or splash to clean us up. I came to learn, though, it’s not the amount of water that matters, but what God does.
Jerusalemites would burn a vacation day to go hear John preach in the wilderness, topping off the day with a religious dip in the river, indicating repentance, sins are gone, so you could be ready for Messiah’s arrival. All was going well until Jesus shows up and gets in line. Initially John resists, “Why in this world does Jesus want baptism?” Good question. I suspect they both knew why?
Why do we baptize people? Here’s what I think. I think it’s more for us than for God. For us, baptism makes us church members, opens access to the sacraments, and gets us to heaven when we die – even though Jesus never mentions any of these. He seems more concerned with our inner state than keeping outward rituals. Wherever it’s done, in a river, pool, or at a font, we now are connected into the eternal life of God in Jesus. That’s critical for us to know.
Baptism is a gift – a moment we can look back, name the event, to know we have now entered a different world, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Age of baptism or level of knowledge doesn’t matter. Baptism is a beginning, not a goal. Keep that in mind. It’s a covenant God offers and we accept. If we are serious, our values change. We live differently in this world. Baptism restores us to who God makes us to be to begin with. Baptism is our daily response to what God has done, and continues to do – and increases God’s life in us we pay attention to our vows. God’s gift is given in grace, and grown by our response of and to love.
Do you know who you are? Super Bowl ads are beginning on TV. They’ll tell us, “You lack. So here – eat Doritos and drink a Pepsi. You’ll feel better about yourself.” And the crazy thing, many believe it. That’s why we have to endure TV ads – stop buying their products. Lots of people want to tell us who we are, and not all of it is true or good: “You’re no good; you’ll never amount to anything. You’re worthless.” If you’ve heard such voices do you ever ask yourself, “Is that true? Is that what God thinks of me?”
That’s why the Jordan River is so important for us. God in Jesus not only comes to be with us. Jesus gets in the waters with us, so we will know we can never go where he hasn’t been. No failure, no sin separates us from God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and presence. By baptism we now know it, and vow to trust it. That’s the righteousness God sends in Jesus.
We recently saw Philomena, a painful, true story of a mother searching for a son, who’d been taken from her and sold into adoption. I’m reading the book now, after seeing the movie, as Karen has recommended. It fills in the gaps. Renamed Mike by American parents, he loves serving in the church. He worked to get the liturgical forms and words right, thinking it would keep evil forces away. He dutifully went to confession each week. At the end of confession, Mike would panic – worried he forgot to name a sin. Instead of finding healing, love and grace, he felt awful, worthless, damned and hopeless before God. I read that, moved and saddened that someone would think that way, especially in the church. I fear that too many have not heard or remembered their baptism when God calls us “Beloved.” Even voices of the church can falsely tell us otherwise. Do we really believe we are beloved of God? If so, do our lives look like it? We are imperfect, sinners, and more. We are God’s, beloved forever. Only such love can change us to live as Christ-bearers in this world. We know who we are by knowing whose we are.
We return to the font, to the river. Remember, here we have been buried with Christ, and raised already to walk in newness of life. Early Christian converts coming up from the water were given a white robe to remind them whose they are – clothed in Christ, who waited for them in the water so they can also receive the name God gives Jesus, “My Beloved.” That’s the only voice who has the right to tell you who you are.
What was the first hymn you learned in Sunday School? Mine was “Jesus loves me, this I know, for my teachers tell me so,” or something like that. It’s a good children’s song, as far as it goes. Some though would sing, “Jesus loves me, but I’m not so sure about you.” Some forget Jesus gets into the water to fulfill God’s righteousness – not just for the chosen, or for the few of us gathered here today – but for the whole world – everybody, our enemies, those unlike us – always and forever. In God’s life, nothing God makes ever is lost.
Shortly we shall renew our baptismal vows. You may not know a lot about sin and salvation, church history or doctrine, life or death in God’s economy. Know who are – God’s beloved. God names us beloved and sends us out to the world to bear divine love and life through us, so others who don’t know – are not sure, will know who they really are too, because of whose they are. Strap yourselves in. Let’s get over ourselves and on to God. It’s a great and wonderful life we are given to live – all because this God-man gets into the water to mix it up with us.
 Sixsmith, Martin, Philomena. Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., 2009 (with Forward by Judi Dench, 2013), pp. 117-118.