Baptismal Problems and Promises

Baby Efe Baptism(Creative Commons image by Willem Heerbaart on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

Apparently, baptism was always a problem.

The first time it was a problem was when Jesus came to be baptized by John. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, why in the world would he need to be baptized by John? While you can sense that each evangelist struggled with this question, Matthew’s discomfort is perhaps most palpable. He solves his dilemma by two deft additions to the tradition he inherits from Mark:

  1. John protests: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” In his incredulity you sense Matthew’s.
  2. Jesus grants the awkwardness of the situation and gives both of them an out by saying a) that this is a temporary condition (“let it be so for now”) and b) that in this way they “fulfill all righteousness.”

But while Matthew and his colleagues solve this initial problem of Jesus being baptized by John, Christians ever since have struggled with a second question: Why is Jesus baptized at all? Given that we typically connect baptism to forgiveness of sin, if Jesus is the sinless Son of God, in what way does he need baptism? Or, more broadly, how does baptism benefit him at all?

On this point, all the evangelists agree: Baptism is not a simply a mechanism for forgiveness but rather announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity. For example, in Matthew’s account the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is God’s Son, the One with whom God is well pleased. Baptism, for Jesus, was less about forgiveness than it was about commissioning, the inauguration of his mission and ministry and assurance of God’s presence.

Yet even after these two problems are addressed, a third remains: what does Baptism mean to us? Or, put more pointedly, why does Baptism mean so little to us?

That might seem a bit harsh, as most of our families still make something of a big deal of their child’s baptism. But while the day itself may be a big deal for some, our emphasis on baptism seems to end there. Few parents I know remind their children of their baptism (or remember their own, for that matter) or celebrate the anniversary of their baptism with anything similar to the attention we lavish on birthdays. Further, my experience is that folks outside of deeply religious families have next to no sense of what baptism means or why it matters. If you’ve baptized the child of a couple who has at least one parent who doesn’t know the tradition well, you may very well have gotten the sense that while they are going along with a quaint tradition (for the sake of a spouse, parent, or grandparent), they have little appreciation of what is going on.

For this reason, I believe we need make teaching the significance of baptism a priority. This shouldn’t occur only in the sermon, of course. Confession of sin is a time to remember baptism. Communion is an extension of the baptismal promise. The dismissal is the time to send us forth to live out our baptism in our various roles and vocations in the world. And during hospital and home visits there are manifold opportunities to remind our people of God’s promises to us in Baptism.

But in addition to all these possibilities, I think we also need to preach on baptism more frequently. And while a couple of my colleagues on our Sermon Brainwave podcast regularly argue against using this story as an occasion to do that, I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t want a doctrinal sermon, however; instead, I want us to focus on the details of Jesus’ baptism with an interest in how it might help us understand our own.

In fact, I think we would benefit tremendously from having our identity established in God’s good and gracious acceptance and affirmation of us that comes from Baptism. Sometimes I wonder if amid all of our customary focus on baptism as washing away sin, we have missed the profound words of empowering grace that are spoken here to Jesus and also to us. For we, too, are God’s beloved children, those with whom God is well pleased.

This message, I believe, has never been more timely. For we live in a culture that promises acceptance only if we are — and here you must fill in the blank, for the messages of our commercial culture are as manifold as they are insidious — skinny enough, strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, young enough, and so on. Which means that the message of baptism — that God has declared that we are enough, that God accepts us just as we are, and that God desires to do wonderful things for and through us — may be just what our people desperately need to hear.

Toward that end, two suggestions:

  1. If you had folks speak words of affirmation last week — “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.” — this would a good time to practice that again, perhaps with the preacher first saying these words in the second person (“You are God’s child, deserving…”) and then having the congregation repeat and practice the line in the first person. (And if you didn’t do it last week, you can certainly start now!)
  2. Instead (or in addition), you could have a remembrance of Baptism immediately after the sermon or just before the dismissal. Certainly that can be as simple or complex as you desire. Here’s one idea that might be both enjoyable and meaningful at this time of year. Many congregations give the godparents, sponsors, or parents of the baptized child a candle that is lit near the conclusion of the baptismal service. It’s meant to be lighted again each year on the anniversary of baptism, but truth be told most families put it away as a keepsake or lose it all together. So why not give out another candle this morning. Granting that you may not want to go to the expense of buying all new baptismal candles, you could instead break out the Christmas Eve candles of a few weeks ago and use them. (If it’s time to get some new Christmas Eve candles, send them home with folks and invite them to continue this practice at home; if you need those candles for next December, then simply use them for this service and collect them again as we do on Christmas Eve.) 

Once everyone has lighted a candle, offer an affirmation of Baptism that focuses on God’s promise of acceptance and affirmation (or perhaps repeats the affirmation often used at Baptism: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” [Matthew 5:16]). And then, if you choose, you could also sing a hymn while the candles are lighted. A hymn like “O Love How Broad, How Deep, How High,” [Evangelical Lutheran Worship 322] with it’s refrain of “for us” would strongly connect Jesus’ baptism and ministry to our lives. Or singing the familiar “Just as I Am” [Evangelical Lutheran Worship 592] would reinforce God’s gracious acceptance. 

No matter how you decide to announce and enact this promise, Working Preacher, know how meaningful, indeed how crucial, it is. Never before have so many been willing to offer our people an identity, most often linked to a product being sold. And whether you are young or old, rich or poor, steeped in the faith or relatively new, we all crave a sense of identity and so are all too susceptible to such false promises. For this reason, there is no better time than the present to hear the word and promise that Jesus was born, ministered, lived, died, and was raised again to demonstrate in word and deed just how much God loves and accepts us.

Thank you for your part in sharing this life-transforming message.

Yours in Christ,