I have said this before and I will say it again — preaching on the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday can quickly and despairingly devolve into bland, benign, boring, and banal descriptions of baptism, why it’s important, and why we should do it. Please don’t preach this kind of sermon.
This is the proverbial danger of festival Sundays. You have heard me and my Sermon Brainwave colleagues, Matt Skinner and Rolf Jacobson, articulate time and time again — preach the text, not the festival. This is ever so important when it comes to baptism. Why? Because people actually care about baptism. More so than Trinity Sunday, that’s for sure. They make plans to get their kids baptized. They go to classes. They invite family. And preachers, you know the times you have been called to perform, or have heard of, emergency baptisms. Baptism matters. For all sorts of reasons.
At the same time, baptism elicits all kinds of so-called theological issues for those who don’t seem to have anything better to do than make up ecclesiological rules.
And so, baptism has also been a cause for exclusion. As an ordained clergyperson in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there are evidently certain practices to which I am supposed to abide. It seems that over the course of my ministry I have been less than compliant.
- I have baptized outside of the assembly, outside of a church service.
- I support any baptism done by any person with the confidence and trust in the efficacy of God’s word and the truth of God’s abundant grace.
- I welcome anyone to the Lord’s Table because, well, last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. Are we going to require Baptismal ID Cards to be presented so as to share in communion? Are we going to say to those not baptized or not sure they are baptized, “Say, you. You in that pew wondering if you have been baptized or not. You just sit in that pew while everyone else comes up to share in the bread and wine. Why? Better to hedge your bets on the side of human reason than God’s grace. Better to think you are not worthy. Better to assume that you do not have the seal of approval. Why, you ask? Because Galatianism is alive and operating well in our so-called contemporary churches and you are our justification for the maintenance of boundaries accorded to the body of Christ.”
Perhaps this is all a part of being in a denomination. Yet, I think these kinds of Sundays offer opportunities to reflect on what it is we truly resonate with, about what we have questions, and to consider where we might still be committed to being a reforming church.
I worry when we take a ritual executed in the wilderness, with God’s ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s son, to get to God’s people God loves, and create every possible restriction. As soon as we make baptism legalistic we have domesticated Mark 1:1-11.
A few years ago my husband and I repeated a dialogue sermon in our new church in Minneapolis that I had written for our congregation in Georgia. Originally, the sermon was, in part, meant to communicate the essential tenets of baptism according to Lutheran theology because the church in Georgia had few “lifelong” Lutherans as members. I essentially rewrote Luther’s Small Catechism, emphasizing that baptism is God’s doing, not ours.
The Sunday we redid the sermon in Minneapolis one of the members approached me after worship. She was 90 at the time. I will call her Hazel. “Karoline,” she said, “is that really true?” “What?” I answered. Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.” “Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?” Hazel then told me about her sister who was born several years before she was. Her sister was born very ill, in the home, and never left the house because she was so sick. We are talking at least 95 years ago. The family knew she would not live long, she lived about two months as it turned out, and was baptized by her grandmother somewhere in that two month period. When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of the Lutheran church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.
Hazel then said to me, “Does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?” “Yes,” I said. “Your sister is OK.”
These are the pastoral results of practices for the sake of practices alone. Here was Hazel in front of me, 90 years old, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace. This is what happens when we tame God. Like translations do of Mark 1:9. The heavens are not “opened.” There is a perfectly good Greek word for “open” and it’s not there. The heavens are “torn apart,” a passive verb, because God cannot stand the separation any longer. Yet, look at what we do. Create systems and structures that mediate God’s presence. Insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace. Control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order, but for the sake of our own power.
Baptism of our Lord Sunday according to Mark? Well, get ready and hold on. There is nothing tame or complacent or orderly about baptism at all. There are no rules, no ecclesial documents, no constitutions or bylaws. Rather, we are plopped in the middle of the wilderness with Elijah and the heavens ripping apart before our very eyes. I wonder what a baptism service would look like if we actually had Mark in mind. I have a feeling it would be less comfortable, less controlled, and by that I don’t just mean a crying baby in response to some cold water on the forehead.
I realize that all of you preachers out there reading this are committed and beholden to certain baptismal practices, either established by your denomination, your particular church, even your own beliefs. This is not a plea to eschew structures for the sake of some sort of shock value.
My invitation to you this week is to let Mark spark your baptismal imagination. Is there one thing, one aspect, one particularity according to Mark that might change, albeit even momentarily, how you or your congregation have always imagined baptism to be? Because then you will give witness to God’s determination to deter all of our attempts at God’s domestication. For Mark, God’s entry into our humanity started at Jesus’ baptism and was then confirmed at Jesus’ crucifixion.
When baptism is a wilderness experience, an unexpected entrance of God, and a little terrifying, well then, we will know the meaning of baptism according to Mark.