Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

January 10, 2016


Before performing a baptism, the minister approached the young father and said solemnly, “Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?”

“I think so,” the man replied. “My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.”

“I don’t mean that,” the minister responded. “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?”

“Oh, sure,” came the reply. “I’ve got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.”

This is not exactly what the minister had in mind. Was this man ready for baptism? I don’t think so. Let me give you an example of someone who was prepared.

In one of the countries on the continent of Africa a young man of a certain village announced that he would be buried in the yard at the back of his house at 3:00 P.M. that very afternoon.

The man appeared to be strong and healthy, but as the curious villagers gathered around his house early that afternoon, they found the young man digging a large hole in the backyard. Some of his friends had brought shovels and were helping him.

After they finished the hole, the man and his friends began carrying pails of water to fill it. At 3:00 PM the pastor came and buried the young man in the waters of baptism.

My guess is that young man was ready. There are many forms of baptism in the Christian community, but we all agree on one thing: Baptism is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

In the Gospel of Luke we read these words, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

This is how Jesus began his public ministry. He was baptized at the hand of John the Baptist. And this is how we began our public life as one of his disciples–with baptism. Our baptism is signed and sealed that we belong to Christ.

Each year, on the First Sunday after Epiphany, we affirm the meaning of our baptism and acknowledge its centrality in our lives.

Part of the meaning of baptism is the washing away of sin. The Scriptures teach, and personal experience affirms, that each of us is a sinner. It is sin that separates us from God. Baptism doesn’t mean that we become perfect, but it does mean that sin is no longer a barrier to our relationship with God.

Some of you may have seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. This is a whimsical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in 1930s Mississippi. Three hapless escaped convicts– Everett, Pete and Delmar–are hiding out in the woods, running from the law. There they encounter a procession of white-robed people going down to the lake to be baptized. As they move toward the water they sing, “Let’s go down to the river and pray.” As the baptism ceremony begins, Delmar is overwhelmed by the beauty and the mystery of this rite. He runs into the water and is baptized by the minister. As he returns to his companions, he declares that he is now saved and “neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.” He explains that the minister has told him that all his sins have been washed away. Even, he says, when he stole the pig for which he’d been convicted. “But you said you were innocent of that,” one of his fellow convicts exclaims.

“I lied,” he says, “and that’s been washed away too!”

Later the three convicts steal a hot pie from a windowsill. The one who felt that his sins had been washed away returns and places a dollar bill on the windowsill.

Delmar wasn’t made perfect by his baptism any more than any of the rest of us are made perfect by our baptism. But he was conscious that it was time for him to make a new beginning. That is why in understanding baptism we began with the washing away of our sins.

Even more importantly, baptism means our identification with Christ. A voice comes from heaven at Jesus’s baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I Am Well Pleased.” In our baptism we affirm that Jesus is God’s son, and when we are joined with him, we become children of God as well.

Jim Standiford, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in San Diego, tells of baptizing a certain five-year-old little boy. He prefaces his story by saying, “There is danger lurking here,” and he’s right. Anyone who’s had any experience at all with four and five-year-olds will tell you that.

Jim met with the parents and their son during the week prior to the baptism. They went over the service, step-by-step, so that they all understood what baptism was all about, what they were promising, and how the service would proceed in the context of the worship service.

So, Sunday morning came, and they all were there. They came to the place in the worship where Pastor Jim invited the family to come forward for the baptism. They all gathered there in the chancel around the baptismal font: mother, father, the five-year-old, and two godparents. Everything proceeded smoothly through the liturgy of the baptismal covenant, until Jim Standiford asked the question, “What name is given to this child?” The mother and father and the two godparents looked at each other, but no one spoke.

Now, Jim was pretty certain that they all knew the name of their child. After all, he was five years old. So it was obvious that they hadn’t talked about who was going to say his name publicly. The question caught them quite by surprise, and so there was an awkward silence.

Just then, though, there was a little tug on Jim Standiford’s robe. A little five-year-old voice spoke up and said, “Pastor Jim, you know who I am. I’m Michael!”

“Thank God Michael knew who he was,” Pastor Jim says. “Otherwise, we might still be standing there.”

We know who we are. We are God’s child. Baptism is not only a washing away of sin, it signifies our identification with Christ. We do not know who we are until we find ourselves in him.

Finally, baptism is our initiation into the church of Jesus Christ. This is so important. Baptism signifies our entrance into a family, the family of Christ.

Dr. Fred Craddock tells of serving as a pastor in a little community in Southwest Oklahoma named Custer City. Fred ministered there for about three years. The population was around 450. There were four churches of about the same size: a Methodist Church, a Baptist Church, a Nazarene Church, and a Christian Church. The attendance in each of these small churches rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest the wheat.

But the most consistent attendance in town was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked, and all the men were inside discussing the weather, and the cattle, and other farm-related concerns–not bad men, but good men, family men, hard-working men. The churches had good attendance and poor attendance, but the café had consistently good attendance.

The patron saint of the group that met at the café was named Frank. Frank was 77 when Fred first met him. He was a good, strong man; a pioneer, a rancher and farmer, and a prospering cattleman, too. All the men there at the café considered him their Patron saint. “Ha!” They said, “Ol’ Frank will never go to church.”

Fred met Frank on the street one time. He says, “Frank knew I was a preacher, but it has never been my custom to accost people in the name of Jesus, so I just was shaking hands and visiting with him, but he took the offensive. He was not offensive, but he took the offensive. He said, ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business. Far as I’m concerned, everything else is fluff.’”

Fred took from that conversation with Frank that Frank was telling him, “Leave me alone, I’m not a prospect.” So I didn’t bother Frank.

“That’s why I, the entire church, and the whole town were surprised, and the men at the café church were absolutely befuzzled, when old Frank, 77 years old, presented himself before me one Sunday morning for baptism. I baptized Frank. Some of the talk in the community was, ‘Frank must be sick. Guess he’s scared to meet his maker. They say he’s got heart trouble. Going up there and being baptized, well, I never thought old Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared …’ All kinds of stories.”

But this is the way that Frank explained it to his pastor. They were talking the next day after his baptism, and Fred said, “Uh, Frank, you remember that little saying you used to give me so much: ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business?’”

Frank said, “Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot.”

Fred asked, “You still say that?”

Frank said, “Yeah.”

Fred asked, “Then what’s the difference?”

Frank responded, “I didn’t know then what my business was.”

And so Fred baptized Frank. He raised his hand and said, “In the presence of those who gather, upon your confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

What had changed? Frank now knew what his primary business was. Frank’s business was to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Frank’s business was to be part of the worshiping community of those who serve Christ in their daily lives.

And that’s our business, friends, to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

This is all summed up in a story William Bosch tells about George Washington Carver. It is 1921 and Carver has been summoned to Washington DC to appear before the House Ways and Means Committee to explain his work on the peanut … on its medicinal as well as its commercial potential. Carver has waited all day for his turn. As the only African-American in the room he is the last of a long list of speakers. All day he has felt the hostility of others toward him. He has felt, in turn, uneasy and terrified.

At last his turn comes and he is called forward. He rises and begins the long walk toward the front of the hall. As he walks down the aisle he is met with derisive and bigoted comments. One of the committee members yells out a crude and cutting remark. It hurts, but Carver ignores the remark and continues down the aisle. Another committee member leans back in his chair, places his feet up on the table and puts his hat over his face as if to go to sleep. When the chairman of the Ways and Means committee instructs the member to take off his hat, he responds with a loud, ugly racial slur.

At this point, Carver is ready to turn around and go home. He is afraid of the powerful men in the room–of their hostility and hate–and he wants to flee to safety. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reminds himself of his baptism and of who he is. “Whatever they say of me, I know who I am: I am a child of God.” By his baptism, he knows who he is, to whom he belongs and what he is about. It is an identity to give one courage.

Carver finally reaches the podium and is told that he has 20 minutes to speak. He opens his display case and starts to talk. So engaging is his presentation that those 20 minutes fly by. The chairman rises and asks for an extension of time and no one opposes the request.

Carver is granted four additional extensions of time and, in the end, speaks for several hours to a rapt audience. At the conclusion of his presentation, the members of the House Ways and Means Committee stand and, to a man, they give George Washington Carver–scientist and former slave–a long round of applause.

What gave George Washington Carver courage that day long ago? The knowledge that he had been baptized.

By our baptism we know who we are and to whom we belong. Baptism is so much more than a cleansing from sin. Baptism represents our identification with Christ. Baptism is our initiation into the body of Christ. Go forth with the knowledge that you have been baptized. You are not your own. You belong to God.