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Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Does Baptism Mean?

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 13-17
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock Zion Baptist Partnership
January 9th, 2011,, Epiphany 1, The Baptism of Christ. 

Today’s Bible text is most familiar.   In the opening moment of public ministry, Jesus comes to the Jordan River to present himself for baptism.   It seems simple, right?  Wrong!

What happens next is quite amazing.   This strong, earthly, manly John the Baptist who has been pronouncing judgment, fire and the wrath of God, and apparently stands ready to “baptize” anyone who will repent is suddenly stopped in his tracks.   When John sees Jesus entering the water he does not want to baptize him.  In the most humble reversal, John says to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?” 

Are you confused, yet?  At least this was one of the “hottest” issues we used to discuss in my junior boy’s Sunday school class.    About the time in our lives when we were getting baptized, we wondered aloud: Did Jesus really need to be Baptize?   We’re baptized because we’re sinners and John’s baptism was a “baptism” of repentance which confesses sin, so the question came to us: Since Jesus is the perfect, Son of God, the lamb who, as Scripture says, “was without blemish and spot” (1 Pet. 1:19) and was said to “be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1: 29) why did he want to be baptized?  To our young minds, it just did not stand to reason.   Why did Jesus, who did not need baptism, allow himself to be baptized?   And what did he mean, when he tells John: “Permit it to be done, for it is fitting for us TO FULFILL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  (vs. 15).
To help us understand why Jesus was baptized, let’s begin by taking a closer look at John’s baptism.  John the Baptist did not invent the concept of “baptism” but he is the first person in the Bible who goes around baptizing people.   Before John, baptism was normally reserved for Gentiles who converted to Judaism.   Baptism was a ritual of conversion. 

But more than a way to mark “conversion”, John’s baptism also pointed backward to all those ceremonial washings we find in the book of Leviticus.  In Leviticus 14-17, we find rituals of “washing” for various life situations.   You’ll find washing rituals for a person healed of leprosy (Lev. 14:1 ff.) and a washing ritual for a man or woman who has had an infection (15:1ff.), a washing ritual for someone who comes in contact with a dead body (17:1) and a ritual of washing for someone  about to enter the temple of the Lord (16:1ff).  What all these “washing” rituals have in common is that they draw a line, make a boundary and create a distinction between what was considered “clean” or “unclean” holy or profane.  

You can also see that these rituals are not only “religious”, but they were also very practical rituals.   A community which observed rituals of cleanness was able to fight off infection and to preserve its life.  Some of these “washing rituals of cleanliness” were precursors for the some of the most basic sanitation laws of our modern society.   When I go into a hospital today, one of the first signs I see is a sign with the word: WASH!   The best way to prevent the spread of disease is the easiest thing we can all do: WASH YOUR HANDS!   We know this because we all know about germs.   But amazingly, rituals of washing and cleanness predate scientific knowledge of germs, going all the way back to some of the earliest forms of religious rituals of the Bible.   Through these ancient rituals, the ancient Law of God was getting at something very basic to life: If you want to live, you’d better keep yourself CLEAN !

The Baptism of John goes back to this simple, but powerful human need for “cleanness.”   Interestingly, even in our scientific world, this need can become a neglected part of our lives, even forgotten by doctors and nurses.   When I came out of my foot surgery just a month ago, I was preparing to come home.  The nurse came in to take out my IV, and he was not wearing gloves.  As he started his work, he pulled out my IV and blood was going everywhere.  I looked at him and complained, “Hey, you’re not wearing gloves!”  He responded, “Oh, that’s O.K., I’m the one who’s not protected!”  That was pure ignorance and it was right there in the hospital!

When we lose the concept of what is clean and unclean, we are dealing with something that is more than a science problem.   When we take start taking life   for granted and let things slip, we no longer visualize the power of the unseen and invisible around us.  When we do this, we invite all kinds of uncleanness into our lives, not just physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. 

There is a theory of science which promotes a popular idea called “The Butterfly Effect”    The Butterfly Effect says: “that something as small as the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, can cause a typhoon halfway around the world.”  This is a rather popular ways to express a mathematical theory about the interconnectedness of everything.    It is theory of science which has opened up all kinds of new discussions about God at the University.   How do we see chaos theory at work in the world?   Chaos theory is in the constant unpredictability of the weather.   Chaos theory is what makes the Stock Market erratic and impossible to determine.   It is also theorized that Chaos theory is what makes life possible on earth and may very well be the exact place where Science meets God.   In all of this, Chaos theory makes a very important point about life; that even smallest event in one place, or a single action in one single moment of our lives, can change the course of everything else.   

You and I know how this to be true, don’t we?  One right or wrong decision can change everything.   You break the law and you can end up in prison the rest of your life.   You send one text while driving and you could wreck.   You say one wrong word, and a relationship ends.   Small things we do, or we don’t do, have a very huge impact on us and determine who we are or who we aren’t.   Right now, I’m thinking about something tragic that happened last week in the local.   A 23 year-old Winston-Salem middle school teacher named Mark Mercer, is facing sexual misconduct charges.   As a result of irresponsible behavior off the school campus, when he sent inappropriate text messages to a couple of young female students, the paper says that the young teacher will suspended without pay and recommended for dismissal.  

 I can’t help but grieve over this young man.  He is so young, and only starting his life, but it seems to be ending before it is beginning.  He didn’t realize the “Butterfly Effect”.  He didn’t realize that there were consequences to his actions.   Isn’t it a terrible tragedy we see too often in our times?   People like us, even “good” and “smart” people, seem not to have a clue about the difference that small things make in their lives.   They seem to be completely “lost” and unable to realize the simple difference between what is “clean” and “unclean”, what is “right and what is “wrong”, what can give life, or what can destroy. 

Your baptism is supposed work like a sanitizer in your life.  It is supposed to be the moment you’ve decided to partner with God to work against all the deadly “germs” of immorality and sinfulness which can destroy your life, kill your spirit, or worst of all, even kill your soul.  When you take your baptism seriously, and you don’t play games with it and when you practice and live it out daily, it is amazing---no, it is miraculous, how such a single, seemingly, small decision to “be” and “stay clean” can have a such a huge, life-changing “effect” on the rest of your life. 

So, at it’s very foundation, John’s baptism was a baptism of cleansing and a step toward holiness.  John took one look at the world around him and realized what a mess it was in.  The Baptism he practiced was a call to a complete cleansing of the heart.   Until the heart was clean---and until we really want God’s holiness, then the future, as John saw it, was going to be nothing but chaos, fire, judgment and destruction.

Now we come back to our question:  If Baptism points to getting our hearts “clean” before God, why is Jesus submitting to it.   Jesus tells John that he wants to be baptized in order to “FULFILL ALL righteousness.”   Maybe we can begin to understand how Jesus “fulfills righteousness” by showing just how important it is for any and all of us, to keep our hearts clean before God.  But still, there is something else going on here in his baptism that should be going on in ours.

When Jesus was talking “fulfillment” of righteousness, he was also speaking about his “commitment” to join with the Father in what he was doing in the world.  To grasp what this should mean for our own baptism, consider how Jesus refers to “baptism” among his disciples.   In Matthew 20, we read the mother of two disciples, came to ask Jesus to favor her sons and allow them to sit next his throne in the coming kingdom.   The disciples then end up arguing over who was going to have the privilege of sitting next to Jesus on the throne.  That is how some of Jesus disciples still wrongly understand the meaning of baptism.   Many only see baptism as a ticket to heaven, a way to be part of God’s inner circle, or “right” to have special privileges.    

Considering what actually happened to Jesus, and what his baptism did come to mean, all this arguing over the throne seems quite comical and tragic.   It is misses the point of baptism altogether.   While the disciples are arguing over the privileges of discipleship, Jesus is preparing, not to sit on a throne, but to die on a cross.   Knowing this, Jesus turns to his disciples, and says rather sharply: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  Are you able to drink the cup, I will drink?  Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I will be baptized with?” (Matt. 20:22).   Still not realizing what this means, they respond in complete ignorance: “Oh Yes, We are able!” “ Ok,” Jesus says rather sarcastically, “ You will indeed drink the cup and be baptized in the baptism I am baptized with, (in other words, you’ll get what’s coming to you) “but to sit at my right hand is not mine to give!” (Matt. 20: 23).

When I read all this, and how the disciples missed the whole point of the meaning of their baptism with Jesus, I’m reminded of how hard it still is for us today to understand, but that could change.   A couple of weeks ago, I told you about a Christian woman in Pakistan, who was about to be hung for her faith, because it was when she was defending her faith, it was claimed that she insulted the prophet Mohammed.   I also told you that a Pakistain governor was trying to get her released, but the hate against her was too strong.  If you were watching the news this week, the Pakistaini Governor who tried to defend her was ruthlessly murdered by his own guard.   Also, right now in Nigeria, a nation that used to predominately Christian, Muslim extremists are trying to take over and are threatening and killing Christians and pushing the nation toward anarchy.  Last week, the cost of Christian commitment came to Egypt, where there has been a large Coptic Christian community since first days of Christianity.  These Coptic Christians were worshipping Jesus on New Year’s eve, thinking they were protected by Egyptian law, when they were suddenly attacked by extremist Muslims and Christian worshippers were murdered.  

Now, I want you to know that I’m not an alarmist.  I’m do not hate Muslims.  I respect all religions that are sincerely seeking the truth.   I think Christian can live in peace with other faiths and we all seek God.   But I tell you all this, because of what an Egyptian Christian attending Fuller Seminary, wrote this week in a letter to Egyptian leaders, demanding they take a stand against extremism in Islam.  Ayman Ibriham wrote:  “Muslim fundamentalists want to destroy Christians and to form a completely Muslim nation.  They want to destroy all others they call “infidels”.  He called upon Egypt’s leaders to save Christians from Muslim fundamentalists.”  (

What we need to realize today, more than ever before is that there are evil people in this world who totally committed to evil, to hate, to murder and to destroying anyone who doesn’t agree with them.   They are totally committed and will die for what they believe.  I wonder, today, just how committed we are to just the opposite?  How committed are we to love each other, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, even do the most impossible task of loving our enemies?   What Coptic Christians, Nigerian Christians, and Pakastani Christians know very well, is that their baptism is not some kind of privilege or status, but it is serious business, and it is a gift and a it is a true calling of God to live a life of love, of compassion and of service to Jesus, in life and death. 

This is what “baptism” has always meant, but somehow, some keep missing it.  Even some who go to church, hold back their heart of full commitment to Jesus, and they keep making “baptism” only what they want it to be, rather than submitting to what God has called them to be.  I keep wondering, how and why this happens?  Why do some Christians taking their baptism so lightly when others in the world take their own faith so seriously?  How could this happen? 

Maybe some people are confused by the differing traditions and practices in the churches.  Some churches celebrate the baptism of Infants, celebrating the birth of a new baby and the faith of the parents that these children will someday be confirmed in their faith in Jesus Christ.   I don’t see anything terribly wrong with this, even though it is not our tradition.   I think God can work this way, if people really want him too and if our hearts are in the right place.   Other churches, like ours in the Baptist tradition, celebrate the baptism of a coming of age child, or of a repenting adult, who decides to accept Jesus as their personal savior.    This can also be wonderfully used of God to point us to Jesus, but even in this very biblical tradition, we can still miss the whole point of what baptism means.  Even if we think we are doing baptism “right”, we can still do “baptism” wrong.   Whether we “sprinkle” water on infants or “dip” children or adults under water, we can we can still miss what those first disciples were missing about their own baptism.    

What we must understand is that our baptism must mean what Jesus’ baptism meant: a full and total commitment of our life to service and faith in Jesus Christ.   If we mean anything less, than that our full commitment to Christ, it will not take long for other “powers” of uncleanness to take over.  Evil is real, and what we all know too well, is that evil also uses religion to destroy, and it can even use a false form of Christianity that does more harm than good.    Any kind of Christianity that is not of our “whole” heart will not does bring healing to our souls, but it can makes us weaker, sicker, or even meaner, and it is a baptism that doesn’t have the power to save us from anything because it doesn’t mean anything! 

At his baptism, Jesus committed his whole self to God, even if it killed him.     And this is exactly what Baptism is supposed to do. It’s supposed to “kill you”!  In Paul’s letter to the Romans (see 6:1ff.) baptism means nothing less than total commitment, even a commitment to “death.”  It meant death to sin, death to the old self and the old life, and it also meant taking your new life so seriously, that everything else in your life would take a back seat and would die so that you could live fully and completely in God’s fullness until the very last day you lived.    

Today, I wonder how many of us still take our baptism with that kind of “dead” seriousness?   As I look at the evils lurking in our world, the roaring lion of Satan that still “seeking whom he may devour,” I’m concerned about how lax many have become in living their baptism and what it might mean for our future.  I wonder and pray about what we can and should do to renew our commitment to follow Christ with all our lives.  When I reconsider Jesus’ baptism today, as see how he entered those “baptismal” waters in the Jordan, I realize that he knew very well that this was not a “baptism” to try to be a “better person” nor, merely get a ticket to God’s heavenly throne.   When Jesus entered those “baptismal” waters, he was fully committed to live his life for God, even if it killed him.   And it did!  And that is how we are all saved.

Today, I ask you to consider again what your baptism means to you?  Is your baptism one that both kills the old you and offers you new life at the same time?   Is yours a baptism lived every day that makes real demands upon your life, but also gives you the deep joy and peace that is fully known in your heart?  That’s what baptism should be, but what a shallow substitute we can make of it?  Our baptism is supposed to have God’s voice of affirmation, saying in our hearts: “This is my beloved child, in whom I’m well pleased.”  Who doesn’t need that kind of positive voice in their head and heart every day?   Who doesn’t need a life of forgiveness, not guilt; a life lived in hope, not despair, and a life lived for truth and justice, not with lies and regret.  This is what your baptism should be, and must be, if you want the life Jesus gives.   This is what God meant as you were baptized with water and with his Spirit.  What did you mean?  Amen. 

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