The Big Deal of Baptism
Pastor Brian Rajcok
St. Matthew Lutheran Church
January 12, 2019
On a podcast this week one of my seminary professors told the story of his trip to the Holy Land last January. The group he was leading just so happened to visit the Jordan River on Baptism of our Lord Sunday, the day we celebrate today. They didn’t expect it’d be any different from an ordinary day at the Jordan, probably some lines at the gift shop and a few visitors taking pictures. But they were shocked to see massive crowds of Christians from all over the Middle East! Groups from the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church and other traditions were crowding the river. Worship services were being led on both sides of the river by Palestinian Christians on one side and Christians from Jordan on the other. The Coptic pope came up from Egypt. Police were directing traffic and barricades were set up to organize the huge crowds. Members of their group almost got trampled! It sounded like Time Square on New Year’s Eve! People were belly-flopping, doing cannonballs, and getting baptized. It was a huge celebration! All to the astonishment of these American Lutherans who were amazed and a little confused about what the big deal was.
There’s tremendous joy about the Baptism of our Lord in the church global. In some traditions it’s a bigger day than Christmas! I didn’t realize it either until I heard Dr. Skinner’s story. I’m not sure why this is lost to those of us in the Western church, but I guess I’ve never really looked at this day as being super significant. Maybe we’re missing something that our Middle Eastern sisters and brothers understand and celebrate.
The cause for their celebration is that they realize what a big deal Jesus’ baptism is. The church has historically understood this day to be the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. One theologian Fredrick Bruner says, “The first thing Jesus does for the human race is go down with it into the deep waters of repentance and baptism. Jesus’ whole life will be like this. It is well known that Jesus ends his ministry on a cross between thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he begins his ministry in a river with sinners. From his baptism to his execution Jesus stays low, at our level, identifying with us at every point, becoming as completely one with our humanity as…he is…completely one with God in eternity.”
So this day is to Holy Baptism as Maundy Thursday is to Holy Communion. Bruner says, “Jesus inaugurated Christian baptism with his ministry-opening baptism in the same way that he inaugurated Holy Communion with his ministry-ending meal.”
This is powerful stuff! That’s why today’s so special! Today is a celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry AND the day we celebrate the inauguration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Today is a day we remember our own baptism and are reminded of the good news that Jesus came to identify with sinners and save us from all that separates us from God! Jesus took on the human condition, entered into the depths of repentance, took on our suffering, and lived the experience of sinners—so that sinners could share with him his divine Sonship.
At Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened, Jesus was declared God’s child, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. And ever since, whenever a Christian is baptized into Christ, the same exact thing happens: the heavens open, we are declared a beloved son or daughter, and the Holy Spirit descends on us.
This good news for us. For we, who know all too well the suffering that sin can cause. We see sin’s consequences in our lives with broken relationships and we see it in the news with international conflict and war. We see sin present in ourselves, judging and hating, and suffering from whatever our ego’s addiction is. Living in this world is hard. And sooner or later we all experience the depths of sin, and hopefully of repentance too and the new life we find in Jesus.
As Martin Luther said, “Jesus was not washed and cleansed from His own sins (since He had none), but from my sins and the sins of the whole world”. Jesus fully embraces the human condition and identifies with sinners—the good and the bad of humanity—and enables us to find that same identity as children of God in baptisms of our own.
So when we feel distant…when we feel pain…when we feel like our world is crashing down…remember that Jesus entered into the fullness of humanity to redeem YOU! Not just all of humanity in general, that’s true of course, but you specifically. Jesus was baptized for you. Jesus died for you. And that same voice that called Jesus a beloved Son of God declares to you that you are a beloved child of God. And because of Jesus’ entrance into that river at the beginning of his ministry and his execution on the cross at the end of it, we get to participate in the life and mission of God by sharing these same Sacraments and by participating in the same ministry of reconciliation where God is made manifest to the world.
Let us be filled with gratitude for the gift of Holy Baptism. For Jesus’s baptism and our own. For God not only sending His beloved Son but naming us beloved children as well. And for endowing us with the same Holy Spirit and the same identity as daughters and sons of God. This day to truly a day to celebrate!