Sermon "From A Manger to Baptism"
Rev. Lonnie Richardson
Sunday, January 9, 2000
From a Manger to Baptism
All four gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Therefore it evidently was very significant in the life of Jesus and impressed the gospel writers. Yet there is something strange about this baptism. As we saw at the beginning of advent in the sermon about John the Baptist, a remarkable spiritual awakening had broken out in Israel. Thousands of people were leaving their homes, their jobs, their families, and streaming out of the cities down into the desert to listen to this strange, remarkable man, John the Baptist say things that touched the core of the souls of people, and spoke to their need.
Yet when Jesus came out of Galilee to John to be baptized, John protested. Matthew tells us that when Jesus came, John said to him, "Why do you come to me? I have need to be baptized by you." That is a remarkable statement, especially if you remember that John did not know at this time that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, the gospel of John tells us that John the Baptist knew this only when he saw the spirit of God descending upon Jesus and remaining upon him, for that was the sign God had given to him. Then he knew that this was the one who was to come, the one he had been announcing.
So why was Jesus baptized? Jesus' baptism was an act of identification and affirmation. Jesus was identifying himself with us. The gospel account paints a rather dramatic picture. The heavens were torn open and a dove descended upon him. Then the voice of God came from the heavens and offered the affirmation- "You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased." It was also an empowering moment when the spirit descending upon him like a dove.
I think that it is interesting that a dove us used as a symbol of the powerful presence of God. Football teams sometimes use birds as emblems or signs of their power and ability. We have the falcons and the eagles---even the ducks. But did you ever hear of a team called the doves? No team would ever use a dove as a symbol of its power. Jesus later emphasized the fact that doves are harmless, he said we are to be harmless as doves. But what is a dove? A dove is a gentle, non-threatening bird, one that does not resist, does not fight back, and yet, amazingly enough, is irresistible.
This is the power that Jesus is describing---the power of the irresistible love of God. Love that can be beaten and battered down and put to death, and reclaim it's life, until it wins the day---that is the amazing love Jesus released. The greatest force in the world today, without a doubt, is the love of God. And yet it is the kind of power that does not threaten or break apart or destroy; it gathers and heals. It is rejected, turned aside, and beaten down; yet it rises again and again. So the dove is an apt symbol of the new life our Lord came to teach.
Baptism also tells us who we are. A little boy who was caught in some misdeed by his father. When the boy's father confronted him with this wrong and threatened to punish him, the lad drew himself up to his full four-foot height and said proudly, "You can't touch me, I'm baptized!" Now there, is a young man who knows the facts of life--and the facts of faith and baptism. Baptism tells us who we are. It is an indication that every child born into the household of faith is a child of God.
Back in 1904, a ten-year-old girl named Virginia Cary Hudson wrote a series of essays for school. The essays reflect her own childishly clever take on the world, and especially on the religious life in her small southern town. For instance, here are Virginia's thoughts on the sacraments: "Sacraments are what you do in church. What you do at home is something else. Cooking and sewing and running the...sweeper and eating and sleeping and praying and scrubbing yourself are not sacraments. "When you are little and ugly, somebody carries you in church on a pillow, and you come out a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. They pour water on your head and that's a sacrament." I like that! "When you are little and ugly, somebody carries you in church on a pillow, and you come out a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven..."
That says it all, doesn't it? Baptism is a sign and seal that we are children of God. Or as the little fellow said, "You can't touch me, I'm baptized!" Baptism tells us who we are and the baptism of Jesus tells us whose he is.
The renowned Albert Schweitzer, who gave up a prominent theological teaching position to found a mission in Africa, once wrote a book called the quest for the historical Jesus in which he tried to determine who Jesus was. After all was said and done, he determined that who Jesus was is not as important as who Jesus is. He concludes the book with this beautiful poem about our search for Jesus. "He comes to us as one unknown without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "follow me" and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in this fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is."
Thank you, heavenly Father, for the good news that Jesus came preaching, the amazing good news that a way has been found out of the human dilemma, that hopelessness and helplessness has been broken into by the God of glory and of grace. May we accept that, Lord, from the hands of Jesus. Help us to believe him, to believe in the gospel, to rest ourselves upon it---not merely to believe it as true, but to act upon it and live by it. Amen.
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