You may not know this, but I teach Character Ed to sixth graders at Bridgeport Middle School. Every month,
I talk to them about honesty, goal-setting, persistence, respect, and other values. If we have a day left after getting through all the material, I put on my French Teacher hat and give them a quick introduction to the language.
One activity I used to do was try to find French equivalents for each student’s name. That was easy when kids were named David – “dah-VEED” or Mary – “mah-REE.” Of course, the boys named Michael hated that their French name was “mee-SHELL.” Most of the names now don’t have equivalents – at least not ones that I know.
Several years ago, we had a girl named Brandy in the class. I could tell that she had trouble with self-esteem, so I was trying hard to find a good equivalent for her. Obviously, I could not call her “Cognac.” And since Presbyterians know nothing about alcohol, I need to tell you that Cognac is just one of many types of brandy.
But I had to find a name for her. Then it hit me – Cognac gets its amber color and complex flavors from the oak barrels it is aged in. But when it comes out of the still – which is what we would call it around here, but which they call an “alambic” – it is clear as water. And the French call it, “Eau-de-Vie” or “Water of Life.” When I told this girl that her name in French was Eau-de-Vie or Water of Life, her face lit up. She felt as though she mattered.
That is the power of water. Not only does it give life in the sense that it maintains our metabolic processes, but it also makes us feel more alive. Who doesn’t love to watch the ocean, hear a brook, experience the thunder of a waterfall, or splash in a pool?
The waters of baptism don’t give us new life per se, but they are a sign and seal of the life that Jesus Christ has given us.
Many Christians believe that it washes away our sin – while others believe it only symbolizes that cleansing.
A variation is that it dilutes the effects of Original Sin, so that we are able to believe. Still others insist that it is a sign of our personal faith in Jesus Christ. Presbyterians and their Reformed cousins say it is a sign of God’s covenant with us.
So what is going on when we baptize someone? Let’s look carefully at what happened at the baptism of Jesus.
As we read this morning in the Gospel According to Mark, John the Baptist had been calling people to repent, and then baptizing them as a sign of that repentance. But Jesus had nothing to repent of. He had never sinned. So why did He get baptized? Hear again what Mark recorded:
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
First, we need to know that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, but only Mark writes that heaven was torn open. The word used by Mark is the same used to tell of the tearing of the curtain of the temple from top to bottom at the death of Jesus. Both demonstrate Jesus’ role in shredding the barrier between us here in the earthly realm from God in the eternal realm. We experience the same in Communion.
Second, God was validating His relationship with His Son in baptism. The Son had always been with the Father – and the Spirit, for that matter – but now that the Son had taken on a human body, the Father was validating the relationship that had always been. Baptism for Jesus and for us was a sign and seal of that eternal relationship among the persons of the Trinity. The Father wanted to declare for all present to hear that Jesus is His Son, that He loves Jesus, and that He is pleased with Jesus.
And that happens in our baptism, too. And it’s especially noticeable when we baptize babies. They have nothing to repent of. They have no consciousness of sin, at least for the first few months. So their baptism is God’s validation of His relationship with them.
We are, after all, Presbyterians – who profess to believe what Paul wrote in Ephesians 1: God the Father chose us in Jesus Christ before the universe was created to be holy and blameless in His sight. We are God’s children by God’s choice. So Baptism is a sign and seal – like the signature and the foil seal on a legal document – of a relationship that pre-dated our existence.
Our reading from Isaiah 43 reinforces that message. The God who created Jacob and formed Israel claims His people as His own. “You are mine,” God says.
Finally, there is the dove. You can see that in your mind’s eye, can’t you? The Spirit fluttering down as dove to land on Jesus, and to empower Him for the ministry He is about to begin. For Jesus – baptism signified the end of His life as the incognito Messiah, working in His stepfather Joseph’s construction business – and the beginning of His new and very public life in the business of building His Father’s kingdom. He would do it in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The parallel with adults who are baptized is easy to see. Baptism signifies the end of living their lives for themselves, and the beginning of a new life of working for God’s kingdom, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But it can be seen clearly in the lives of children who are baptized – especially ones who are toddlers or older.
One of the most memorable baptisms for me came early in my pastorate at Kirkwood. A whole family – father, mother, daughter, and son – were to be baptized. As I was reading Scripture and praying prayers, the boy – who was about five at the time – started splashing away in the baptismal font. Water was flying everywhere, and the good Presbyterians were aghast.
But what a picture of the life that God gives us in the waters of baptism! He declares us to be His children and He empowers us with His Holy Spirit to live the Christian life. Not the dull and dreary existence that we usually think of as being the Christian life, but one of joy and freedom and excitement. Of splashing and giggling. Of singing and dancing.
So the baptism of Jesus took a sign and seal of our repentance – something we do – and turned it into a sign and seal of what God does for us. This truth is reflected so well in the Book of Common Order from the Church of Scotland – the mother church of Presbyterians. The pastor at Follansbee Presbyterian Church – Frank Haas – went through the Lay Pastor class with me years ago, and he recently introduced me to this:
The pastor addresses the child by name and says,
For you Jesus Christ came into the world: for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished’; for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life; for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand. All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet. And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God loved us first.”
In baptism, God the Father declares that we belong to Him, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to begin new lives of working for God’s Kingdom.
[Fling drops of water onto everyone in the congregation]
So splash, laugh, sing, dance, live in the joyful new life that you have in Jesus Christ – signed and sealed in your baptism. Amen.