Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a Youth Director in a church in South Minneapolis, I was asked by a high school senior to read his college admissions essay. He was applying to Carleton, or as St. Olaf alums refer to it, The school on the wrong side of the tracks.” His essay question was; “Describe the most important event in your life.” The young man was an accomplished piano player, star cross country runner and an excellent student. I wondered what he would describe as life’s most important event. He surprised me. He chose to write on his baptism. In simple prose he described how he was born premature, and while he was still in the hospital, he was baptized by his pastor father. He went on to say, that he had absolutely nothing to do with this, but it was the event that was most important and transformed his life. Yes, I was surprised that this was to be his college admission essay, and I imagine that the reading committee at Carleton College was surprised as well. But he was admitted- just the same. He was a rare young man who could see in baptism, a defining and formative event.
Readers of St. Mark’s gospel are often struck by the brevity of the story line. There are no shepherds or angels in St. Mark’s gospel. Nor are there wise men and a star. St. Mark never mentions Mary or Joseph, or even the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem. His gospel of Jesus begins with Jesus’ own baptism at the River Jordan. Perhaps more surprising than St. Mark’s simplicity is to discover that Jesus entered the river with others to be washed in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Mark’s gospel John doesn’t argue with Jesus, “Oh, I should be baptized by you.” No, Jesus stood among the crowds who went out to the river to be baptized by John. Mark doesn’t even record that anyone witnessed Jesus’ baptism or that anything unique happened. Though we usually imagine God speaking in a booming voice, resonant and deep, we read that at the River Jordan, the voice from heaven spoke to Jesus alone. It was intimate and direct. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” No one else noticed. But for Jesus, like my graduating senior, his baptism was an important and defining moment.
For all us, there are important events and occasions when we hear God’s voice speaking directly and intimately to you alone. There are moments when God’s will and mission are so very clear that it is nearly impossible to avoid that which God desires of you. And indeed, everything seems possible. Those incredible moments often come with a breath-taking surprise, swallowing up the past and opening before you an unimagined future. You can see with the clarity of hindsight how life changed in the blink of an eye. The birth of a child, or the moment you fell in love, the moment you chose sobriety over addiction
My friends, this morning as we meditate on Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan, let us consider that defining and formative moment for both John and Jesus. Neither of their lives would be same after that day. And the same is true for you. For it is in the timelessness of baptism, that you and I have been given a hope and confidence that will define our lives.
Let us begin with John. John the Baptist had an amazing gift. He had the ability to direct people to reflect on life’s formative moments. We read that “All of Judea went out to him, and so did all of the people of Jerusalem.” This was quite an incredible feat. John’s sanctuary was not at the world’s crossroads. Forget about the old real estate adage, “Location, location, location.” The people came out to the wilderness to hear John preach. They came out to the wilderness to confess their sins and to be baptized. They came out seeking a new beginning to their lives.
Oh, granted John was regarded as a bit unconventional with his fur wardrobe and diet of locusts and honey. But he was tremendously effective because he was a man who lived his message. Many men can preach a good sermon while their own life style denies its truth. They amass a sizeable bank account while speaking of heavenly treasure. They extol the virtues of poverty while residing in a comfortable home. John, however, was not such a man. He confidently lived his message in the desert where he preached of the coming of the God of new beginnings. Jesus himself went out into the wilderness to hear John. And he went down to the river to be baptized by John. It was there among the crowds longing for a new beginning, in the midst of sinners and those with broken spirits, that Jesus would spend his earthly life eating with them, talking with them, healing them, and calling them to be his brothers and sisters. And it all began with John’s invitation to a new beginning in baptism.
Now you may be wondering, but Pastor Haug, how can baptism be such an important event? After all it is just water and words- isn’t it? Mind you, my own sons who were four and six year old when they were baptized were disappointed. They thought we should have used shampoo and warm water. So why do I believe that baptism is such an important, defining moment? Simply said, it is because I believe that everything that happened to Jesus on his baptismal day happens to you and me as well. Baptism is important because is begins your own new life as Christian men and women.
First of all, just as Jesus’s own baptism gave him a sense of call, baptism gives you a new purpose, relationship and accountability. A small, country Baptist church was having a “baptism” in a river on a cold January day. The preacher asked one baptism candidate, “Is the water cold?” “Naw!” he replied. To which one of the deacons shouted, “Dip him agin’ preacher, he’s still lyin’.” It’s not that baptism makes you perfect before God. You will still fall short of his glory. But in baptism God gives you a purpose. We often are asked, “What would you like to do with your life?” And as graduates of liberal arts schools, we answer, “I’m keeping all my options open.” But when you are baptized, there is another question, “What would God like you to do with your life?” My friends, have you struggled to answer that question. As you begin this new year, consider again, What purpose does God have for you and your life- Or are you simply keeping all your options open? Baptism, you see, is a defining moment.
Secondly, just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism, the Spirt descends upon you offering his gifts. There is an old saying, “Remember… The will of God will never take you, Where the grace of God cannot keep you, Where the arms of God cannot support you, Where the riches of God cannot supply your needs, Where the power of God cannot endow you.” Unfortunately, many today lack the vitality and will to use God’s spiritual gifts. It is strange. The world accepts enthusiasm in every realm except religion. An enthusiastic salesman is knows as an achiever. An enthusiastic lawyer is an asset to a legal firm. An enthusiastic farmer, as the saying goes, is outstanding in his field. But an enthusiastic Christian is perceived as unwelcome guest. In baptism, God empowers you with his spiritual gifts to be an enthusiastic disciple.
Baptism is more than an instantaneous conversion. It is a life long journey. As Martin Luther said, it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ. Sadly, many who are baptized stop growing, simply because they grow complacent and smug in their faith. As a child learning to walk, you will fall down and make mistakes, but you continue to walk and grow. Ask yourself, have you allowed the world to snuff out your enthusiasm and to hide away your spiritual gifts- or are you still growing? Baptism has the potential to be an important and defining moment if you will use the gifts the Holy Spirit offers.
Finally, when Jesus was baptized a voice from heaven spoke, and its message was simple and intimate, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” That same voice calls you by name as well. St. Mark is both dramatic an intentional in his description. He writes that the heavens are torn open. It echoes the words of prophet Isaiah, who said, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known.” We read the words again at the end of St. Mark’s gospel as Jesus hung upon the cross drawn between heaven and earth, and when he breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, just as the heaven were torn apart when he was baptized. There was no voice from the darkened heavens that day, however. God was silent. But there was a voice not far off. A Roman centurion stood at the foot of the cross. When he saw that Jesus had breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And that my friends, is God’s greatest promise.
You see, not all of life’s important and defining moments are positive. There are moments that tear your heavens apart with sorrow: the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of disease, the heart attack, or the accident, moments when the forces and voices around you drown out the clear direction that once had been given to you.
My friends, is there a torn place in your life? A place, a loss which has been torn apart. Let me assure you. In these torn moments of life, God will not abandon his beloved children- and he will make his presence known- calling you by name.
From the moment Jesus was baptized and raised from the river Jordan, leaving behind his carpenter’s tools and commencing his public ministry, his own identity and purpose would be unquestionable; his ministry to the lowly, sinful and forgotten, unalterable; and his march to his death on the cross, unstoppable. From the moment he rose from the waters, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, his work and mission were clear and obvious. And he would do so with the affirming words of God ringing in his memory. “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That is your promise as well.
Jesus’ baptism teaches us that in the torn places of life, in those torn places that never again close as neatly as before, God appears and comforts us. From the day Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, he went forth with the assurance that he would never find himself alone. He would still have the Father’s gracious hand of blessing and the Holy Spirit’s company with him. That was the assurance my former high school senior described in his college essay- why baptism was such an important event in his life. My friends, let baptism be your defining moment as well, in the joyous moments and in the torn places, with the voice of God ringing in your thoughts. “You are my child. With you I am well pleased.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.