The Difference of Baptism (The Baptism of Our Lord)

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As most of you know, a couple of weeks ago at the celebration of Pr. Christine’s 10th Anniversary of Ordination, we signed the final check to pay off the church mortgage!  And so we entered this new year and this new decade with no debt for the first time in 30 years.  And don’t things look and feel different around here now?!

Actually of course, nothing really looks different.  And nothing probably feels different, unless you were part of a relatively small group of folks who worked with the finances over the years trying to figure out how to pay down the debt.

That’s what makes debt reduction campaigns so hard to do.  There are basically three kinds of capital campaigns that churches do.  There are campaigns to: build new buildings; renovate and repair existing structures; and pay down debt.  They get harder as you go down that list …

So we did a hard thing!  About 5 years ago, when we started paying down the debt in earnest, we still had about $600K left on our mortgage.  But lots of folks at Prince of Peace made an effort to contribute and kept up the commitment.  And now, our situation really is different, and in a good way!

The thing is, you can’t see that difference by looking around.  Other than the “Running to the Feast” little man who’s now crossed the finish line, there’s no visible difference.  You can’t feel the difference, except perhaps for a sense of relief that will probably fade in a few months.  And nothing we do here will change because we’ve paid off the mortgage, unless we’re willing to re-direct the money, time and effort we’ve been giving towards debt reduction to do some new things…

And often, the differences God makes in our lives can be like that.  Nobody sees anything different in us.  Nobody feels anything different in us.  And unless we’re willing to live in a new way because of what’s just happened, nobody will find out about the change.

Jesus’ baptism is an interesting example.  At least as Matthew relates this story, Jesus’ baptism may have seemed like a non-event for most of the people around Jesus.  After all, just like many other people, Jesus trekked out into the wilderness of the Jordan River valley to be baptized by John. 

And the first thing that happens is that Jesus has this short, side conversation with John about whether it should be John getting baptized by Jesus.  But that’s a private conversation between Jesus and John.  And unlike in other Gospels, John makes no announcement to stir up the crowd and get them excited about this event.

Then, as Jesus is baptized, Matthew says that the heavens were opened to Jesus, and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove on him, and he heard a voice that proclaimed him God’s Son.  But it’s possible, maybe even probable, at least as Matthew tells the story, that only Jesus saw the dove and heard the voice.  Unlike some other accounts, Matthew doesn’t say that anybody followed Jesus as a result of what they heard or saw at Jesus’ baptism.

So what made Jesus’ baptism so important?  And why is it the lead-off story of Jesus’ ministry in all 4 Gospels?

Perhaps, in retrospect, Jesus’ followers came to realize that in his baptism, Jesus saw the sign of God’s calling and presence in his life, even if nobody else did.  Jesus, in his baptism, was moved and motivated by God’s claim on his life as Son of God, even if nobody else heard it or was excited by it.  And Jesus saw his baptism as the beginning of new chapter in his life – a chapter of living his call as Son of God in a new and powerful way in the life of the world.

Jesus didn’t sit back and think, “yeah, I’m God’s Son.  This is pretty cool.  Now I can just sit back and bask in the warmth of God’s love.”  Instead, Jesus lived in a new way.  And people came to realize that in his baptism, God really had made a change in Jesus’ life.  And they experienced that change by the way Jesus lived, and died, and rose from the dead.

And being baptized is also supposed to change us.  Sometimes, I don’t think we really appreciate that.  Perhaps that’s because I’ve never seen a dove descend on anybody at a baptism.  The only voice I’ve heard is the voice of my fellow human beings.  And after we’re all dried off, it doesn’t look as though anything is different.

But things have changed.  And things should change for us, both personally and also in the ways that we live together as a community of Jesus.

Our baptisms – and the daily remembrance of our baptisms – should empower us to:

  • See the signs of God’s presence in our lives – even if it’s just a bowl full of water (after all, the sign in Jesus’ baptism was a just a bird overhead!)  But the perspective that baptism gave Jesus, and which baptism should give us, is a way of looking at the world and seeing the signs of God’s love, presence and calling even in the ordinary things, events and people whom we encounter in our daily lives …
  • Be inspired by the daily promise that we, also, are God’s children, and that God’s love is promised to us no matter what; after all, God was well pleased with Jesus even before he performed miracle one or preached to a single person; like Jesus, we’re called to see God’s love as the thing that empowers us to do good things in the world, instead of seeing God’s love as the reward for doing good things…
  • Live differently – Jesus saw the sign and heard the voice, and it proved to be  a pivotal moment in his life; we also, when we see the signs of God’s presence and feel the warmth of God’s love are also called to live in a new way and make the invisible difference a visible and tangible reality in the life of the world around us … (whether that’s what we do in our daily lives, or how we live as a congregation with the new opportunity of being mortgage free)…

Because of our baptisms, things really have changed for us.  Our lives really are different.  And whether it’s how we live with the people in our daily lives, or communally as a congregation, God calls us also to watch for the signs of his presence in our lives.  God calls us also to listen for his voice, even if it comes through the voices of our friends and neighbors. And most of all, God calls us to live in new ways as his children in the world, so that the difference God makes in our lives can be seen and heard and experienced.