In the movie “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”, three criminals breakaway from a chain gang and go in search of buried treasure. While on the run they approach a river where a church group is baptizing its new converts.
After hearing the pastor say that God is washing away sin and setting folks free, two of the criminals run into the river to be baptized. As they emerge from the river, they are very excited. They immediately think all of their past sins are gone and that they are innocent again, so the police cannot touch them.
Then the third convict, played by George Clooney, remarks, “The Lord may have forgiven you and washed your sin away, but the State of Mississippi isn’t so forgiving and you still have to pay your debt.”
That’s when a look of shock comes over their faces. Sure they got wet but they failed to understand a deeper truth. There was no real repentance or change of heart by them. And there was no connection to the community of believers or to God.
Baptism in Hebrew is referred to as MIKVEH meaning an immersion. Our word Baptism actually comes from the Greek word ‘baptismo’ again meaning to be immersed. Basically it is an immersion into another substance, for the purpose of being saturated by it.
Examples are; when you dye a garment, every fiber is penetrated or saturated by the dye. Or when you pickle, the cucumbers are immersed in the brine until they take on a new flavor or nature. In the instance of baptism, that substance is water but the idea is not meant to drown the person.
While water is the symbol of baptism, there is nothing magic or transformative about it. In other words, baptism does not save us. That is why the amount of water or type of baptism performed is not important. As United Methodists we sprinkle, pour or immerse. When we say, The Lord washes away sin; we believe there is a deeper spiritual process going on. There is also an issue of identity involved.
To the early believers, water represented chaos. The seas were unpredictable and menacing. The oceans held great creatures that could sink ships and take lives. It was part of the great unknown. But God could control and overcome the chaos in life. God separated the waters and made land appear in the book of Genesis. God divided the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites.
The Bible tells us that Jesus could calm the waters and even walk on water. Chaos can turn our lives upside down but ultimately God has final control. God brings order out of chaos.
When God saved Noah and his family through the flood, they released a dove to see if the water had receded. One evening, the dove returned with a fresh olive branch in its beak. The last time the dove was released, it did not return.
Some early believers thought that the dove that disappeared from Noah’s Ark was the same dove that appeared above the head of Jesus when he was baptized. The dove showed God’s Spirit of Power over the waters of chaos and they believed it was being passed onto Jesus.
In his book ‘Stories for the Soul’, Raymond McHenry shares this baptism story; When Texas Pastor Jim Denison was in college, he served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia. While there, he attended a small church. At one of the church’s worship services, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized.
During the service, Denison noticed some worn-out luggage leaning against the wall of the church building. He asked the pastor there about it. The pastor pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and told Denison, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage.”
Baptism incorporates and identifies us with a specific community of believers. In other words, it makes us part of the family of God. But it also signifies our willingness to be bound in Christ. Through baptism, we are forgiven, cleansed and joined with other believers.
It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that we are saved not by any acts of our own. It is a gift from God. In it, I believe, God offers us a special blessing.
I also believe, that baptism is, one step towards a greater spiritual transformation. Let me explain… At the time of Christ’s birth, baptism served 1 of 2 purposes; although John the Baptist added a third option.
1) There was the baptism of conversion.
2) There was the baptism that initiated ‘a call’ from God.
3) And Finally, John’s was a baptism of repentance.
First, People who wanted to convert to Judaism were required to be baptized into a new life and new community. Theirs was a baptism of conversion. They were called to die and be reborn as new people of the Jewish faith.
Gentiles who wanted to become Jews had to undergo a three step process: The first step was they had to offer a sacrifice. The next step, the men had to be circumcised. And the third step was, after the circumcision wound had healed, they went through the final step of baptism.
Jesus was already a Jew, so he had no reason to be converted.
Second, John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance. “Repent,” he said, “For the kingdom of heaven is near.” To repent is to turn away from your sin and go in the opposite direction. It means; to take an active role in living a God directed life.
John’s baptism was unique because it called all people, Jews and Gentiles, to confession and repentance. This is why they gave him the name ‘The Baptist’. Crowds came to him to confess their sins and be baptized so they could be ready when God’s Messiah came. That is why the Pharisees and the Sadducees came out to see what John was doing. They wanted to know if he was doing this ‘in the Spirit of Elijah’ in preparation for the coming king.
Jesus didn’t need to repent because he had not sinned. That is why John initially refused to baptize Jesus and said, “I need to be baptized by you.” So to be baptized like this for Jesus, again, made no real sense.
Finally, the Jewish tradition dictated that those who were called to be priests need to be washed, cleansed and anointed first. This was a baptism of presentation for the call. There were Temple pools set aside just for that purpose. All priests were consecrated when they reached the age of 30.
Leviticus 8:6 reads, “Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them in water.” Then he dressed them in the proper clothing and anointed or consecrated them with oil to take their places as the Temple priests. This act initiated Aaron’s ministry as ‘The High Priest’.
Similarly, the baptism of Jesus also initiated and consecrated Jesus for his call to step up as Teacher and Savior. This was literally his inauguration into public ministry.
While Jesus had no need to repent, he still aligned himself with us and our sin. He had no reason to convert, yet he recognized how it felt to be an outcast and chose to sympathize with us. He also did it, because God demanded it and he was always faithful.
So, he chose to focus on God and take his place in obedience, humility and accept his call from God to save us. You see, pleasing God has more to do with our attitude and actions than our going through the motions.
After Jesus was baptized, something remarkable happened. Matthew says, “Heaven was opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting him.” Mark records, “Jesus saw heaven being ‘torn open’ and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.” One pastor wrote, “All heaven broke loose”.
Luke states that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the shape of a dove. And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Matt. 5:17) Finally, John writes, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”
Just a note, the Spirit is not a dove but descended like a dove. In other words, the spirit hovered over Jesus and delicately came to rest upon him. But the image of a dove is also important because a dove was an offering made by the poorest in their society. This symbolized that Jesus came for all people; rich and poor; Jews and gentiles alike.
Depending on which Gospel were reading, we may not capture the full experience. In John’s gospel, the voice of God ‘spoke to him in the past’. But in the other 3 Gospels, we see the full power of how God manifests himself, – present at the same time. In this dramatic scene we already grasp the identity and function of the Trinity (a word that means tri-3 and Unity).
We hear the Father, the One who sends the Son to redeem the human race, the Son as the obedient servant who accomplishes the will of the Father, and the Holy Spirit as the sanctifier who empowers the mission of redemption. It is the most complete picture we have of the work of God in three persons.
Here is what I believe happened; when Jesus emerged from the water, I think heaven burst open just like it did for the shepherds in the fields. I think there were flashes of lightening and the boom of God’s voice was like thunder.
I don’t imagine he spoke in a soft whisper. If you are proud of your child, how many of us would remain silent or soft spoken? Psalm 18:13 says the voice of the Lord thunders from heaven.
The words recorded in Matthew about Jesus, closely align with the prophecy in Isaiah 42:1, listen, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I put my Spirit in him and he will bring justice to the nations.
When Jesus chose to accept his calling from God, God was delighted and I think the same is true for each of us. When we repent, get baptized and align ourselves with God, I think the heavens rejoice.
Luke 15:10 says, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Early on, I said that I believe Baptism is one step towards a greater spiritual transformation. After we accept Jesus as Lord and savior, baptism is the next step. Then, we become members. Unfortunately that is where many folks stop – but that is not what is meant.
Our Baptism is really an awakening not something to check off a list. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe we are to repent, and turn our lives around. While Baptism only takes a few minutes, it will take us the rest of our lives to become like Jesus.
Through baptism, we are converted as lost children and adopted into God’s family. Fully loved and fully meant to live and act like his family members.
And finally, I believe we are all being called by God to serve in some way, in his kingdom. Baptism is a pledge to follow Christ, wherever he leads us. It is our purpose and our mission. It is the time when real discipleship and commitment start. It is the time we grow closer to Jesus and listen for His call upon our lives.
We are all called for different purposes; Paul explains it well in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The body of Christ needs every one of us to take our place in serving the Kingdom. He gave us each gifts to use, don’t waste Them!
The Christian walk is not over when we come to faith, the adventure and journey is just beginning. Ours is a path of becoming all that God intends for us to be.
It takes prayer, study, solid relationships, and discernment. It is not magic it is intentional hard work. But here is the thing; heaven rejoices everytime we move in the right direction.
Let’s celebrate our baptism. It is our call to action.
Remember your baptism, be thankful and be blessed.