The first step

December 9th, 2019

Matthew 3:13-17

We don’t think about it much, but for most of us, one thing that brings us to church on Sunday is the fact that we were baptized. Some of us were baptized without being given any choice in the matter. Cries at the baptismal font are not interpreted theologically. Some of us were baptized because we turned ten years old and decided that we were sick and tired of not getting to drink the grape juice. Some of us went to a worship service where the minister made us cry and invited us to be baptized. Some of us have never been baptized because we’ve never seen any reason why we should be. Some of us haven’t been baptized, but we’ve had to work hard to avoid seriously considering it.

It’s good that we learn the meaning of our baptisms after the fact. None of us fully knew what we were doing on the day we were baptized. Years later, as we make our way slowly into faith, the purpose begins to unfold. We discover what our baptisms mean after the event rather than before. That’s how it was for Jesus too, at least in Matthew’s Gospel.

The story skips from Jesus as an infant to Jesus as a thirty-year-old, and we don’t have a clue as to what happened in between. One day Jesus puts down his hammer, takes off his tool belt, hangs a “Closed” sign on the door of the carpenter’s shop, and asks, “What does God want of me?” Jesus heads south and finds his cousin John, standing in the muddy Jordan in his camel-hair baptismal robe, smelling of locusts and honey. Jesus gets in line and waits his turn. He wades out into the water, right next to real live sinners like you and me.

While three Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, only Matthew records the curious conversation prior to the baptism. Jesus is eager to be baptized, but John hesitates. They stand hip-deep in the river and engage in a fervent theological debate concerning who should baptize whom. The first time Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel, it is to say that he needs to be baptized, because baptism will help him learn who he’s meant to be. Jesus leans back into the water because he believes that God is calling him to a different kind of life.

When Jesus stands up, the waters of the Jordan dripping down his face, he sees the Spirit descending like a dove to rest upon his soggy head. The Spirit comes, not as an all-consuming fire of judgment, but with the flutter of hopeful wings. A voice says: “You are my child. I love you. I’m delighted with you.”

Then Jesus goes into the desert for forty days to think about what it means to be God’s child. Jesus spends all the days and years that follow that afternoon in the Jordan discovering the meaning of his baptism. Jesus gives everything—his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life itself. Jesus gives himself to God’s people, takes his place with hurting people. Baptism was Jesus’ commissioning to ministry.

During the week before his death, the leaders of the temple challenge Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21:23). Jesus answers with a reference to his baptism: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not? I was baptized. That’s why I do the things I do.” In the waters of baptism, Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth and live with grace.

So Jesus doesn’t die of old age. He dies because he takes his baptism seriously. When Jesus cries on the cross, “It is finished,” it is his baptism that is complete.

Baptisms, like most beginnings, find meaning long after the event. Beginning is often easy, while finishing is often hard. The significance of any decision takes a while to emerge. Moments of initiation are meaningless until we are true to the promise of that beginning. We’re handed a map, but then we have to take the trip. It takes our whole lives to finish the journey we begin when we’re baptized.

So what does it mean to us to live out our baptisms? If we are true to our baptisms, we cannot make ourselves comfortable, cannot do only what will be appreciated, and cannot be satisfied with the way things are. Our baptisms demand that we struggle with what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s important and what’s not.

The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.

Baptism is our ordination to ministry, our vow to live with more concern for the hurting than for our own comfort, and our promise to take issue with ideas with which everyone else agrees. Baptism is the commitment to share our time with the poor and listen to the lonely.

What did it mean when you were baptized? The meaning of your baptism is seen in what you think, feel, and do this day. Have you done anything today that you wouldn’t have done if you had not been baptized? We are forever answering the question “Why was I baptized?”

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