13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Every year, near the beginning of January, we celebrate in worship the baptism of Jesus. And not only Jesus’ baptism, but our own as well. Before worship, you were invited to take a baptism stone from the font. Which meant you had to get your fingers wet as you reached into the water. In order to get into the sanctuary, you walked through the blue and white streamers, simulating walking through water. And then, with the help of our children, we sprinkled you with water.
In case you haven’t gotten the point, today is all about water and baptism.
A little over two years ago, for the sermon during worship, I had an “Ask the Pastor” sermon. The week prior and during the worship service, I invited many of you to send in and write down the questions that you have about faith and life, religion, Christianity….anything. It was an open invitation to ask any question that you have been living with and wondering about.
What was remarkable to me was the number of questions that centered around unbaptized babies. What happens if an unbaptized child dies? Is a child that isn’t baptized going to hell? It was the same question over and over again, just with different words.
Which tells me that we have questions about baptism. And perhaps many of us have known of unbaptized children that have died. And we worry about what that means for them….in the afterlife. Many of you, I know, grew up with the tradition that a newborn baby is not taken out of the home until it has been baptized, because the tradition said that you can only get to heaven if you have been baptized. That you only become a child of God by being baptized. Notice, however, that few people ever ask about unbaptized adults. We seem to think that they should have known better and had ample opportunity to get baptized, but babies. Babies are hard because they are so young and innocent and so we wonder…would God really punish a child for not being baptized?
Well, my answer to that question back then and today are the same. What I said was I quoted from Psalm 139. “For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I quoted this Psalm because this Psalms tells us that God has been part of a child’s life long before we are. That God has knit this little one in its mother’s womb is to say that God has always been involved in this child’s life. It is to say that this child already is a child of God even before its birth. And certainly before it’s baptism. And so then, like a loving parent, wouldn’t God care for this child in death as it already has in life? And so I said that I trust that the living loved ones of an unbaptized child, who has died, have nothing to fear. That God welcomes them into God’s good care with love and open arms.
Therefore, to be clear, I reject the idea that we become children of God in baptism. I just can’t believe that a child only becomes a child of God when they are baptized. I just can’t. Elliot wasn’t baptized until he was 7 months old. Does that mean that he wasn’t a child of God for those first 7 months? No! I just don’t buy it.
Now, I don’t claimed to have all the answers. I don’t claim to know with any certainty. And there are plenty of people, including other Lutheran pastors who will disagree with me. And that is okay. And maybe some of you disagree with me. And that is okay. And there are certainly scripture verses that disagree with me. And that is okay. But there are also scripture verses like Psalm 139 that agree with me and I can only tell you what I believe in my heart and what I believe to be revealed about the character of God in Jesus Christ.
So what is baptism? How does it work? How do we understand it? What’s going on there?
Baptism is one of our two sacraments. The other being Holy Communion. And a sacrament always has two parts to it. A promise and a thing – something that you can touch. First the promise…in baptism the promise is that God has already chosen you as God’s beloved child. We see this in our text when after Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom am well pleased.” So baptism is not about you choosing God. It’s not about your parents or your family members choosing God for you. Baptism is about hearing the promise that you have already been chosen by God. That God does the choosing. It is God who says you are my beloved child.
It is about the relationship that God has already established with you. It is about the promise of God’s unconditional love for you that is forever.
Now, to tell someone that you love them can be a sacred and vulnerable and nerve-wracking moment in a relationship. But here is the thing, when I first told Lauren that I loved her, it is not that I started loving her the moment the words left my mouth. I loved her before that, but I finally worked up the courage to tell her.
It is the same with baptism. It is not like God starts loving the child the moment the water strikes their forehead. No. God loved them long before that. Long before. God knit the child together it it’s mother womb! And in baptism, we get to hear for the first time that God’s promise is, and has been, and will be for this child. It gets announced. To the child. To the parents. And to the community. It is like a birth announcement. When parents send out a birth announcement about their newborn, it’s not like the child doesn’t exist until the birth announcement is in the mail. The birth announcement tells the community what has already happened. Now everyone knows it. The world knows it. It gets spoken. That’s how it is with baptism. It tells of a promise that has already been given. But now the promise gets spoken to the whole community. And to speak a promise like that is so very important. It was true before. But it needs to be said over and over and over again.
Imagine someone you love – a child, a partner, a family member. You don’t have to tell them that you love them to make the love real, but if you don’t tell them…if they never hear it from you, then how will they know? God loves us. Unconditionally. But we need to keep hearing that promise to trust that it’s true.
But we need more than just the words spoken. More than just a promise. Which brings up part number two of a sacrament. You need a thing. Something physical. Something tangible. In baptism, the thing, the tangible part is, of course, water.
One of my professor’s tells a story about his time as a young pastor in Africa. He was the pastor of the local church, but in this community, the tribal traditions were extremely important along with the church traditions. So when it came time for a young couple in the church to get married, the pastor was invited to take part in some of the tribal traditions. As the tradition goes, on the day of the wedding, the bride and her family travel all the way to the grooms tribe, singing and dancing and celebrating the whole way there. When the bride arrives, everyone gathers in a circle around her. Her grandfather steps forward and speaks in the tribal language. The pastor couldn’t understand, but it sounded like words of blessing and love. And then, when the grandfather was finished speaking, he took this big mug of beer, he took a sip….and he spit it in the brides face. Then the grandmother steps forward and she offers her words of blessing. Then, she takes a sip of beer and spits it on the brides belly. Likely something symbolizing her fertility. And then…they hand the mug of beer to the pastor. He doesn’t have a clue what to do. So….he said a prayer of blessing over the bride, took a sip of beer, and spit it in her face.
Now, this pastor felt awful about what he had done because he had no idea what he had done. About two years later, he ran into the bride at the market. He immediately said to her, “I’m so sorry for doing that to you that day. But I didn’t understand. What was that all about?” The bride told him, “In our culture, blessings and promises don’t mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them.” And that’s what the spitting of the beer was. It was a physical form of the spoken words of promise. Promises mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them.
And here is the thing, we already know this to be true. We know that a promise has to come with something physical in order to make it true. If Lauren tells me every day that she loves me and will always love me, but she never hugs me or never kisses me, then somehow that promise seems less and less true. If a dad keeps promising to play catch with his child when he gets home after work, but he never does…the promise is useless.
This is why we had you dip your fingers in and sprinkled you with water earlier. It is one thing to remember the promises in baptism in your brain or to hear them in your ears. It is an entirely different thing to feel them rolling down your face. Or leaving spots on your glasses or your bulletin. Words and promises mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them. And so we use water to baptize and to remember the promises of baptism. So we can trust that promises really is true.
Friends, baptism is not an insurance policy for the afterlife. It is not about getting your golden ticket into heaven. And I don’t believe God punishes people who aren’t baptized. Baptism, rather, is about hearing who you are. Or who this child is. It is about the spoken, watery promise that God choose this child, this person, you, to be God’s own long ago.
So, are we any different after a baptism? Of course. Just in the same way that I am different every time after Lauren tells me she loves and gives me a kiss to go with it. I am different and I live differently every time I feel that promise of love.
So if baptism is about hearing who you are, then let me tell you who you are. You are a beautiful, beloved child of God. You were yesterday, you are today, and you will be tomorrow. Baptized or not, that’s who you are. And when you leave here today, you get one more physical sign. As you leave, you will get a watery cross marked on your forehead, as the physical reminder of who you are. May you never forget that. And may you remind others that the same is true for them as well. May we have the courage to proclaim that. Because when we do, our world turns out to be an entirely different place. May it be so. Amen.