The Rev. Laura A. Csellak, Chaplain
This past Sunday, January 8th, many congregations celebrated the Baptism of our Lord. This festival commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Originally the Baptism of our Lord was celebrated on January 6th, the Day of the Epiphany, along with the coming of the Magi and the wedding at Cana. Whew! Three epiphany events in Jesus’ life, all jam-packed into a single day. Over time, however, the celebration of the Jesus’ baptism came to be commemorated as a distinct feast apart from the Epiphany. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans now celebrate this on the first Sunday following the Epiphany.
In one congregation I served, I invited folks to submit their questions about baptism. These questions and my answers then served as the sermon on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. One parishioner wrote in, “If I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior, do I really need to be baptized to live forever in heaven?” I replied that in Mark 16:16 we read, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved”. Baptism and faith itself are gifts from God to us. It is God who always acts first with our response following. That’s why in many tradition we baptize babies as well as adults. Before the child can say, “I love you Jesus!” God dives into the holy water and proclaims, “You are my precious and beloved child forever!” I invite you to say these same words often to yourself: “I am forever a precious and beloved child of God.
Here’s another question submitted about baptism: “Why was Jesus baptized? If he is perfect and sinless why did he ask John the Baptist to baptize him?” Good question, one that many of us have asked. Jesus’ baptism was not to cleanse him from sin, rather to initiate him into his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. It is significant that it was John who baptized Jesus, inducting him into his public ministry. John was well known at the time as the “voice crying in the wilderness”, fulfilling a prophesy given long before by the prophet Isaiah. John was Jesus’ forerunner, calling people to repentance in preparation for their coming Messiah. By baptizing Jesus, John was declaring to all that here was the One they had been waiting for, the very Son of God.
Jesus’ baptism by John takes on an added dimension when we consider that John was of the tribe of Levi and therefore a direct descendant of Aaron. Indeed John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were both of the Aaronic priestly line. One duty of a priest was to present sacrifices before God so that the Almighty would forgive the sins of the people. John’s baptism of Jesus can therefore be seen as presenting the One who would be sacrificed for the sake of the whole Earth. John’s words the day after the baptism have a decidedly priestly air to them: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus’ baptism thus inaugurates him into his ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. That same forgiveness and reconciliation is here for you. Where in your life is Jesus offering forgiveness? With whom might you be reconciled because of Jesus’ mercy and love for you?
A third question presented about baptism is this: “How can I celebrate my baptism in everyday life?” Every time you splash water on your face, turn on the shower or jump into a pool is an opportunity to remember your baptism. Martin Luther, especially in the darkest days of his life, would cry out, “I am baptized!”. It was a way to stick it to the devil, as if to say: “Take that, you Evil One. My Lord is stronger than anything you try to throw at me!” The same goes for you and me. When the devil tries to throw our sin and shortcomings at us to lead us into despair and hopelessness, we have a response: “Yes, I know I am a sinner. What of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also”.
In the Rite of Baptism there is a section sometimes call The Renunciations. It is an invitation offered those gathered around the font together with the congregation. The presider begins by asks a series of questions: “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Each time the candidate and assembly are invited to cry out, “I renounce them!” Jesus, the One baptized to begin his public ministry, who later died on the cross and rose again victoriously — he is stronger than anything the devil, the forces that defy God, the power of this world, and the ways of sin throw our way. This calls us to celebrate in this season of Epiphany and throughout our lives. Amen!
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