Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 42:1-9
Why do we baptize our children? We Presbyterians may get turned around backwards on some things but baptism is not one of them. We know, or at least we claim to know, why baptisms are such a big deal. We know, or at least we claim to know, why in the Presbyterian Church baptisms are done publicly in the midst of worship and not privately in someone’s home. And we know, or at least we claim to know, that for the gospel writers and for the early church, the baptism of Jesus was a bigger celebration than Christmas! That hardly seems possible. Imagine Frosty the Snow Man or Santa Claus being replaced a John the Baptist doll, complete with animal skins and a pull string which allows the doll to cry out, “You brood of vipers; who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Sinners repent, for the
is at hand!” kingdom of God
I hate to admit it, but as important as Baptism is in the Presbyterian Church, I worry that we have lost sight of why this event is so significant. When I was a Christian Educator in Charleston S.C., I got an early morning call from the church organist. Nancy was seven months pregnant and as you can imagine much of the buzz in the church centered on the birth of her first child. But this was a phone call no one wants to receive. She had been rushed to the hospital when the pregnancy had gone terribly wrong. The doctors could find no fetal heart beat. Stewart, the minister of our congregation had been with the couple through the night. When I arrived, I sat and prayed with the distraught couple. Then Nancy grabbed my hand and said, “My baby will be stillborn. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t alive yesterday. When he is delivered, would you baptize him? We can’t understand why Stewart won’t do it.”
With tears flooding my eyes I looked at them and gave the wrong answer. I blurted out, “You know I am not ordained. I am not allowed to perform the sacraments.”
Nancy responded, “We don’t care. We just want our child to know God loves him.”
What is Baptism if not a glimpse of God’s expansive love which embraces all people ……. no exceptions! Baptism reminds us that God is beyond our understanding and comfort zone. Baptism marks the moment people first hear the words, “You are my beloved”. It celebrates the moment we begin our journey within the community of faith by proclaiming each of us are participants in God’s Holy covenant.
Imagine being on the banks of the
Jordan River. You have heard about this preacher called
John the Baptizer. Unconventional hardly
defines this man. More beast than human, this crazy Nazarene, stands in the
middle of the water, daring people to come down and join him. His sermons are quotes from the book of
Isaiah, begging the people to remember that from the beginning that they were a
covenant people. He screams out, “One
will come in righteousness. He will open
your eyes. He will open the prisons and
bring out the people who sit in darkness.
He will bring the former things to pass by doing a new thing.”
You are stunned by the words of this mad man who seems strangely sane. You remember hearing about the God of Abraham, Moses and David. You weep as you rejoice in the memory of God’s covenant. You celebrate on being reminded of the ancient promise that in life and in death we have always belonged to God. And then you witness the Baptizer as he looks beyond where you are standing. The Baptizer gazes at a very ordinary man who is approaching the water. In a voice that startles you John declares, “Here come the servant, the chosen one in whom my souls delights. Here is the one I have told you about. Behold the righteousness of our God.”
The man about whom John speaks makes his way into the water. John seems to almost hesitate, unsure what he is supposed to do in this drama. Finally he reaches down, cups the water in his hands and lets it flow over the head of the chosen one. Then a voice larger than even the Baptizer’s is heard from above. The voice spilt the clouds like thunder declaring “This is my beloved son”. Your eye catches sight of what appears to be a dove descending toward the figure in the water. This bird, this manifestation of holiness, lights on the man’s shoulder completing the covenantal coronation.
Yes, Baptism really is a big deal. It is divine action and human response. When a person is baptized, the water poured on the recipients head is a representation of the action of the crucified and risen Lord, uniting the baptized person with Christ and Christ’s church. It is promise by the person baptized to respond to God’s gracious action and accept the role of child of God. None of this is terribly complicated when the baptized person is an adult. The decision and the responsibility following this confession fall directly on the person baptized. But what about an infant? How can an infant understand the significance of the moment? How can an infant confess the desire to repent? How can an infant be held responsible for actions beyond the child’s comprehension?
In the early church, the rite of Infant Baptism became a reminder to the community that the church was forever bound in a covenant relationship with God. This was not something that children just sort of got by osmosis. It had to be taught. That responsibility fell to both the parents and the church. The Magna Charta of the Hebrew religion, Deuteronomy 6:4-7, proclaims, “Hear, O Israel, our God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and mind. These words shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children. You shall teach them when you sit in your house, when you walk along the paths, when lie down and when you rise up.” This is why during baptisms in a Presbyterian Church the parents are asked, “Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to your child.” It is also the reason members of the congregation are asked, “Do you the members of the Church of Jesus Christ promise to nurture and guide, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ to be faithful members of Christ’s church.”
My dear friend Stewart knew he could not baptize the child mentioned in the beginning of this sermon because Stewart felt restrained by his ordination. As Presbyterians we believe Baptism to be more than a magical admission to heaven. It is a sacrament, a sacred promise that the baptized a child will be taught the story of God’s grace. But sometimes our rigidity to doctrine supersedes the cry of the human heart. I am still haunted by Nancy’s impossible request.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury writes, “Baptism is a restoration of the humanity God originally imagined. Jesus steps neck-deep into the swirling waters of our chaos in order that each of us might be reborn.”
Baptism for the most part has become a ritual, a celebration of birth, a pre-wedding ceremony complete with white dress, attendants, and a party afterwards. Presbyterians have tried our best to use baptism as a gentle reminder of parental and congregational responsibility for the Christian upbringing of the child. Along the way perhaps we have forgotten that the original baptism was a transformational event. Baptism reminds us we have been contaminated by death. One cannot go into the waters of chaos without stirring up a lot of mud. In the midst of suffering and pain, in the midst of confusion and disorder Jesus stepped neck deep into our pain. Forty two years ago a childless mother understood this far better than I. She cried out, “We want our child to know that God loves him.”
She knew baptism is a really big thing.
To God be the glory. Amen.