SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 43:1-7 and Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; and Luke 3:15-22
The great Disciples of Christ preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of an encounter while vacationing in the Smoky Mountains. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating, much as scripture bears being heard over and over again. Craddock and his wife had found a lovely restaurant at a place called the Black Bear Inn.
“We were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man, with shocking white hair, a Carl Sandburg-looking person came over and spoke to us. He said, ‘You’re on vacation?’
We said, ‘Yes’ and he just kept right on talking.
‘What business do you do?’ he asked. (‘Well, I was thinking,’ Craddock notes, ‘that it was none of his business, but I let out that I was a minister.’) Then he said, ‘Oh, a minister, well I’ve got a story for you.’ He pulled out a chair and sat down.
The old man said, ‘I was born back here in these mountains [80 years ago] and when I was growing up, I attended Laurel Springs Church. My mother was not married and, as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that–at school I would hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were very cruel. And when I went to town with my courageous mother, I would see the way people looked at me, trying to guess who my daddy was.
‘The preacher fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me. He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure liked to hear him preach. But I didn’t think I was welcome at church so I would just go for the sermon. And as soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, “What’s a boy like you doing here in church?’
‘One day, though,’ the old man continued, ‘I was trying to get out but some people had already got in the aisle so I had to remain. I was waiting, getting in a cold sweat when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the face of the preacher. And I was scared to death.
‘The preacher looked at me. He didn’t say a word, he just looked at me, and then he said, ‘Well boy, you’re the child of….’ and he paused, and I knew he was going to try to guess not who my mother was but who my father was.’
‘The preacher said, ‘’You’re the child of…um. Why, you’re a child of God! I see a striking resemblance boy!” He swatted me on the shoulder and said, “Go, claim your inheritance!”
And then the old man, whom Craddock later found out had been twice elected governor of Tennessee, said to Craddock: “I was born on that day!”
Baptism is the day in which we are born to a new life, to a new understanding of who and whose we are, and what we are called to do. It may happen only once, or it may happen numerous times in our lives. It may involve water, a church, or it may have happened in a dark night, or during a bright mid-day break from work; it may involve a community of people; or it may be something that happened to you when you were alone. Christ’s baptism, which we emulate, was when the world received his name, “Son”, and when he began his ministry.
For us, too, baptism may be the moment–when we hear our name spoken for the first time, as if we understand that we—our little selves—really matter. There are many baptism moments–when suddenly we come upon the Holy in our lives, or, more accurately, when it descends, so to speak, upon us and takes us by surprise. The experience of the great mystery of holiness, what Luke calls in Acts the gift of the Holy Spirit, always leaves us marked, and claimed for work to do.
Jesus was baptized. He inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with what Luke describes as “all the people.” In going for baptism, Jesus allied himself with all the faults and failures, pains and problems of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan river. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. So it wasn’t long into his public mission that the sanctimonious people derided him as a “friend of gluttons and sinners.”
I want you to notice something else about the baptism of Jesus. I want you to notice that Jesus didn’t ask anyone to get out of the water before he stepped in. All were acceptable; no questions asked. John says that he will come with a winnowing fork, but the fact is, he didn’t. Jesus never picks and chooses! People need to know that God has found them. They not only need to know God, but they need to know that God knows them, which Jesus seemed both to understand and to convey to others in every encounter.
Notice something else about this story: there are people, and powers, here who are “open”. Luke says the people were filled with expectation; that is—they were open to possibilities that previously had not seemed available. And there are people, and powers in this story, that want to shut up the voices that speak truth. John, for speaking the truth about Herod’s adultery with his brothers’ wife, was tossed in prison, and eventually beheaded. As Luke tells the story of the baptism of Jesus, it is not even clear if John was present, or if he had already been arrested.
Whatever else was going on in that baptism, it was an event that confirmed for Jesus that it was time he got busy with his mission. We too were baptized, are baptized…and we each must answer what we have done and will do with the claim that is made on our life.
Alan Paton in his lovely little book about South Africa, Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful, tells the story of a man who died and went to heaven. When he got there, St. Peter asked to see his hands. Puzzled, the man held them forth for the saint to examine. They were unmarked and perfect, and the man was quite proud of them. St. Peter looked up at him and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Was there nothing important enough to fight for?”
Our baptism is always calling us and asking us what we stand for; what we fight for. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. And that inward grace galvanizes us to be an outward sign to the world of love made manifest. Baptism is the whispering voice of God in our conscience: “You are mine. I have redeemed you. When (not if) you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” “I believe in you.” “You are precious in my sight.” Go on now. Get to work. You are baptized. Go out there, and give the world “heaven.” God knows we need all the heaven on earth we can create. Amen.