Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to what we just read in Matthew, in chapter 3, the Baptism of Jesus.
I wanted to spend a little time, now that we’re out of Christmastide, just talking about where we’re going next, and lift the veil a bit to tell you about some of the planning we, your ministers, your servants, have done for this year.
I want you to think about Sunday morning like a table, set out in the church, and a standing invitation. Every Sunday, we’ve made a plan as a family, we’re going to get together and eat. And the unique part about this table, this family, is that everyone is invited, because at the table of Christ, cups overflow, and bread and fish multiply, and we have more than enough for our whole city, if only they will come. And Christ’s words to his people come, beautifully, through Christ to Peter: feed my sheep.
So each Sunday, the servants of God try to lay the table, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, with good things to nourish anyone who will come. In our sermons, in our songs and prayers, in the lessons and games to the children, in running slides, cleaning, and everything we do, we’re trying to invite you to come and be nourished by Christ, who is the bread and the wine. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.
This is the last week we’re planning to follow the lectionary readings for a while, until Easter. In between that time, I want to share with you some things Christ has been teaching me about what it means to be a Christian, starting today talking about baptism. Over the past three years I’ve been a pastor here, I was really hoping God would teach me how to be a better pastor, but instead, he’s taught me over and over again how to be merely Christian. Christianity is more than just belief, and following Christ is more than just learning about the Bible. I want to spend some time really digging into Christian disciplines, relationships, practices, and communities.
When I exegete our culture, meaning when I look at what’s going on around me, I think most of us who claim to follow Christ have spent more time defending our beliefs than we have developing our practices and communities. We talk a lot about orthodoxy, but we’ve forgotten our orthopraxy, and we need to recover it before we prove ourselves faithless, not by abandoning our core beliefs, but by neglecting what Jesus calls “the weightier matters of the law” in Matthew 23: “justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These [Jesus says] you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” Over the past three years, there has been a lot I’ve learned and a lot I’ve unlearned, so we’re going to go into it.
Related to that series, we’re also planning a series on biblical justice, because justice is one of the things which makes us Christian, which is meant to define Christian communities. I say biblical justice, because there is a kind of worldly justice being shouted from megaphones and microphones in our time, and we need to hear the still small voice of truth in the midst of the noise. Mostly this will be a series through the Old Testament laws, which I know can be difficult to study on your own, so I’m hoping looking at them together can lend some meaning to those passages. All summer last year, I was teaching a group of college students working with our church through a program called gen SEND, about biblical justice and it was an incredibly beneficial topic for them, so I’m hoping it will benefit you in the same way.
Three other topics are on the docket for this year and next year: We’re hoping to do a series on Job and one on Romans, but we probably can’t do both in one year, and since we’ve spent the past two years mostly in the Old Testament, we’re planning to start with Romans in the ordinary time after Easter. We may take the whole thirty three weeks, but we’ll see when we get there. I’m not going to take ten years like John Piper did. From there, probably starting in 2024, God willing, we’re planning a series on the major message of what are called the minor prophets, going into the too often neglected smaller books of prophecy, also called the book of the twelve, which close the Old Testament.
One of my goals for this year, as well, is to preach and teach less in order to focus on discipleship more. We have so many incredible servants of God in our church. I want to hear more from you and pour more of my cup into yours. I want to spend more time on our residency program, for example, and really pour into those who are here to learn and serve. Also, one of my goals for the year is to de-couple the small groups from the sermons and start pouring our small group time into prayer and going through specific books of the Bible together—and going deep, taking all the time we want, and really digging into what God is speaking to us in and through his word.
Is anyone else excited about what God is able to do in and through a called and sanctified community of people devoted to prayer, scripture, loving each other and God, and following Christ in his way? I am so grateful to be a part of this church and everything God is doing in and through it.
But, enough planning. Imagined futures are filled with the anxieties and plans of man, but the present and the past are filled with the unimaginable light of eternity. Let’s pause and sit at the feet of Christ this morning and hear the word of God spoken for us today. Read with me, his baptism in Matthew, chapter 3. [Matthew 3:13-17] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I’ll start with the meaning of baptism in general, and then move on to talking about the meaning of Jesus being baptized and how that changed and established the practice in his church forever after. The first thing you should know is that Baptism didn’t start with John, but as you might expect from a man who ate locusts, what John was doing was a little different.
Judaism at the time, as today, was filled with ritual washings. You might remember the foot washing at Passover or the Pharisees complaining to Jesus about how he and his disciples had skipped a few too many washings. But what set John’s baptism apart from these is that he was bringing people all the way out to the desert and dunking their whole body under calling it a baptism, a ritual washing, of repentance. And this washing was meant to last a person a lifetime. It’s a practice which the church has, since this moment, seen as central to the practice of Christianity. Even here in America among protestant denominations, ever the iconoclasts, this is a ritual we’ve kept and most of us have even defined ourselves by, calling ourselves Baptists.
Why? What does Baptism do, and what does it mean? I’ll start by admitting to you that my relationship to this particular Christian practice is a bit rocky. When I became a Christian as a young teenager, I didn’t get baptized right away. In fact, I waited about twelve years until I was already in seminary and pursuing ministry. At first when I realized I needed to repent of sin and be saved, I was embarrassed, because I had been baptized when I was a kid, and had been in church my whole life. This wasn’t infant baptism, this was a six-year-old who could answer every question correctly and who had an older brother he idolized who was getting baptized.
I didn’t do any of the things Christians in my town didn’t do. I was afraid to tell people that I, who looked so good on the outside, had actually been acting my faith the whole time—I was a hypocrite, none of it was real—it was self-righteousness and pride they had been seeing, not faith, and I rightly saw my self-righteousness as disgusting. I was embarrassed by my sin now that I could see it. I was able to admit it to Jesus in prayer, weeping, but not to my friends or family, and I didn’t pursue baptism.
Then, when I was older, I wasn’t worried so much about admitting I was one of the sinners, and not one of the pious, but I didn’t see the point of getting baptized. I had heard, all of my life, that Baptism is an outward expression of an inward change, and through high school and college, my faith was very real and a very big part of my life, and I figured, anyone who knew me at all knew I was a Christian. So why be baptized, what was the point?
Then, after I was already in seminary and working for a church, two things happened which caused me to start taking a very close look at baptism, what it means, and what it does. The first thing that happened, was the church I was working for found out I wasn’t baptized as a believer, and I think their intentions were good, but looking back on it now, I really have a lot of regret in this: they pressured me to get baptized, and before I had really thought it all the way through, I was baptized again as a believer.
And here is where my thoughts on baptism get really complicated, and where I’ll start asking the questions in my heart, to be as honest as I can be, instead of making statements. I do believe it’s biblical to be baptized by immersion as a penitent—I see that in John’s baptism. I just doubt the value of being exactly right. I’ve taken communion before with leavened bread, and the death of Christ was still proclaimed. Do things that aren’t quite right mean nothing? And isn’t rebaptism a rejection of the meaning of whatever came before, even if it wasn’t exactly right? I don’t know. We can talk about it in small group. Our church’s policy, if you’re wondering, is that church membership depends upon baptism, but merely a Christian baptism.
The second thing that happened was Annie and I applied to work as international missionaries, which had been a lifelong dream of mine, and we were rejected by the IMB because of her baptism. She was baptized as a believer in the Methodist church, so she was sprinkled. They told us we could move forward with the IMB if we simply had her baptized again in a Baptist church, but having recently gone through what in my heart was a similar experience, and really regretting my motivations in getting baptized as I did, I counseled her, and we agreed not to have her rebaptized. And in the aftermath of that decision, one of my professors told me if I weren’t willing to abide by the distinctives of the denomination, in his opinion I should pay all of my scholarship money back to the seminary and leave ministry altogether—which hurt. Those two things together made me feel unwanted and out of place.
Through those experiences I learned several things about what baptism means and what it does in our lives. One, I learned it’s more than an outward expression of faith. Hear me, baptism is an outward expression of faith, a gospel message enacted, but it’s more than that. I would argue, this is not merely an expression of our faith, it is also a practice of our faith. This is part of what makes us Christian. It’s like communion, but unlike communion, we are meant to practice baptism only once. Because baptism means we are adopted by God and will be raised again. It marks our entrance into his family, and as a foster parent, the most meaningful way I can say this is, our father does not send kids back, no matter how badly, in our pain and brokenness, we act out.
Again, if we look at our passage, the main thing that’s different about John’s baptism from the other ritual washings is that John’s baptism, the Christian Church’s baptism, is a baptism of repentance. That’s why John is dunking people completely underwater. It’s a symbol of death. He’s burying them, but not just death. Dying in the water like that, in that part of the world and at the time, was considered to be the ultimate curse—dying in the water or hung on a tree, if you died that way people considered you to be cursed by God and irredeemable. John’s baptism carried with it a cultural message that we are dying and unclean unless God cleanses us.
The Pharisees are washing themselves to show how righteous they are. John was baptizing people in order to admit they were sinners in need of grace. John’s baptism was reconciling people back to communion with God and marking their entrance into true community. As Bonhoeffer points out in life together, every one of us makes a choice between loneliness and confession. We either confess that we, too, are sinners in need of forgiveness, or we sit alone in our sin, because we are all sinful and broken in reality. Confession is the only path into communion with God and community within the church.
So I was right about baptism in high school. You see, I wanted to be religious, and look good, and gain the respect of my peers, and I was right that getting baptized would have ruined all of that. Christian baptism is a baptism of repentance. It’s you admitting you’re sinful, and all of your “good deeds” aren’t helping your situation. Paraphrasing Lewis, if you make a sinner into a pharisee, you haven’t helped them. You need Christ to purge you and make you clean.
I was right in high school that baptism would have been a confession of my sinfulness and pride, but I was wrong in college when I thought it wouldn’t matter, because everyone already knew I was a Christian. Because, again, baptism isn’t just a confession of sin and a proclamation that you’ve been saved, it is also a proclamation of the gospel and a means of grace in your life and in the life of the community.
Ironically, one of the best things I’ve ever read on baptism was a fiery and very rude treatise against many things I actually believe. Martin Luther, the reformer, in a work entitled Against the Anabaptists, talks beautifully about using his baptism. He told a story about what he calls a dark night of his soul—I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, where you realize you’ve made a mistake that has really hurt you or hurt someone you love, and you just can’t get past it. Can’t get over it, it’s looping in your head. You’re imagining the next conversation over and over again, thinking about anything that might make the situation better.
On those nights, he said, he would call his baptism to mind and remember that God had forgiven his sins. God, himself, had taken the curse, symbolized in baptism, and lifted us up to live in grace. He said he would use his baptism as a means of not falling into despair, a means of remembering that he is God’s son, and that God will not leave him alone in his sin and suffering.
I want you to notice, Jesus Christ is the only person who didn’t belong in the Jordan river that day. John knows it, v.14 says John tried to prevent Jesus from getting in the water. Jesus had no sin, and this was a baptism of repentance, plunging fully underwater to acknowledge the curse common to humanity, to admit you are one of the damaged people, vulnerable, in need. So why does Jesus get baptized? He says, “to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean?
You’re right if you think that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized like this. He didn’t need to confess anything, and he didn’t need to be forgiven. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, but we need him to be baptized. In this moment he’s doing the same thing we’ve been celebrating all through Christmastide, it’s a further incarnation, he’s intentionally entering into the curse of humanity in order to redeem it. Jesus’ baptism gives meaning to our own.
Jesus doesn’t need to enter into Baptism just like he didn’t need to enter into humanity, just like he doesn’t need his people to enter into the pain of the world, and he doesn’t need his church to care for the vulnerable. He’s not doing this because he has to, he’s doing this because he loves us, and if he doesn’t enter into our curse, the curse would cover us and we would drown in the overwhelm of our own sins and sorrows.
In Jesus’ baptism he enters into the story of God’s people as they pass through the waters of the Red Sea and wander in the desert, the same desert in which Jesus wanders and is tempted after this passage. In his baptism, he enters into their story, and he enters into ours, in order to redeem it. Because Christ entered into the curse of our sin, God speaks over us the same words he speaks over Christ: this is my son, my daughter, in whom I am well pleased.
So if you, like me, struggle with the shame of admitting your sinfulness, I’m inviting you to enter the waters. The choice is this: you can admit you’re a sinner in need of grace and enter into communion with God and true community in the church, or you can live alone in your sin. Put your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name.
Or maybe you need to begin trusting the word spoken over you at your baptism, and know, even in the dark nights of your soul, that in Christ you are a child of a king, and he is well-pleased with you. You have not gone so far that he will not come to you. He entered into all of the hurt of this world so you could breath again above the water of everything that threatens to overwhelm us. In him, you are forgiven, you are welcomed, you are loved.
This morning, I would invite you into the waters. This is part of what it means to be Christian, recognizing both that you are broken and that you are loved. Both at the same time. Both to a degree that you could never really comprehend. Pray with me.