Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Live your dot dot dot” Sermon, Year C, Epiphany, January 13, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 2

One question that has often nagged me, as so many questions around baptism nag me, is, If Jesus is God incarnate, then what’s the point of baptizing him? Why does he need to be baptized?

I ask this question a lot, and have spent a number of years asking that question trying to find a good answer for it. And I don’t have one. There is no good answer for this. In all the reading that I have done, what I’ve discovered is that no one really knows why Jesus needed to be baptized, and in a lot of places that question isn’t even asked, so it’s even harder to find people who are trying to answer this question. It doesn’t seem to be on the radar for a lot of people. No one really knows. And there is nothing in the creeds about why Jesus needed to be baptized. In the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, there isn’t even any mention made of Jesus’ baptism. A lot of those old creeds give us a line like ‘Jesus was born of the virgin Mary’ and then immediately a line ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’, leaving a 30 year gap in the creeds that don’t tell us anything about what Jesus did while he was here.

Even John the Baptist is curious when Jesus comes to him. John is like, “Well, I shouldn’t baptize you. You should be baptizing me!” But Jesus says, “Let it be so, for it is proper for us to fulfil righteousness in this way.” And so maybe that is the answer, right there, that Jesus gives. Jesus needed to be baptized, because Jesus said he needed to be baptized. And who is going to say no to Jesus? Jesus want to be baptized, Jesus gonna get baptized.

It’s one of those blessed mysteries that when we try to unravel it loses some of its effect as mystery. And so I will say, let us leave it as a mystery, and just as a question to ask and to explore because the point of faith is to ask the question and explore even though a lot of times we know we will not find the answer, maybe not even an answer, or any answer. And although I say let’s leave that as a mystery, I have to admit that it drives me crazy. This is one of those mysteries, this mystery of baptism, is one of the mysteries of the faith that I have difficulty just letting be a mystery. I don’t know why. I am so willing to let other things go with “its just a mystery, let it be what it is.” Baptism, though. There is a struggle there that I want to figure it out. But there is nothing there to figure out. I try to convince myself that it is more like a Zen Koan, or Jesus’ parables which are like koan’s. They are there for contemplation and meditation, not for solving. They’re not puzzles with a solution, they are more like a painting that you can look at and every time you come back to the painting you see something different because you are someone different each time you come to the painting. You come with different expectations, or different thoughts, or different experiences into that contemplation.

And then there is even the bigger question, perhaps. Not, Why was Jesus baptized? Or, What does baptism do? But to ask, Why were you baptized? Why was I baptized? Ask that question of yourself. Many of eyou, probably most of you, were baptized as infants or very young children who had no choice in the matter. It was something that your parents decided for you and maybe later on you had a chance in life through Confirmation or some other ritual to claim those baptism vows for your own. Vows that your parents made on your behalf. And so maybe you, especially if your parents aren’t around, you don’t have them around to ask, “Why did you have me baptized?”

But you can ask yourself, because we do reaffirm our baptism vows on Easter. And whenever we baptize anyone there is a short section in that liturgy of those who have been baptized to reaffirm our vows. You can ask yourself, Why do I join in? Why do you renew or reaffirm your baptism vows in those rituals and litanies?

And some of us were baptized later in life in our teen years or adult years. Some people grow up in churches that don’t do infant baptism but do what they call “believer baptisms”, that you need to be usually 12, 13, or 14 years old or older to be baptized. Why were you baptized if you chose to do that later in life?

What does your baptism mean to you? Whether it was done when you were an infant or when you were older. What does it mean to you? Especially in our tradition, and a good portion of the worldwide Church, baptism is not a requirement for salvation or to be part of God’s Kingdom. That is something we already have, and baptism is not essential for our salvation. So, why do it? What does it mean?

And I can’t tell you what it means to you. That is for you to decide, and you have your own experience with that. There is some tradition of what the church expects that it could mean, and that is part of the baptismal liturgy: to renounce evil, to seek what is good, to do justice, follow Jesus. But it may mean a lot more than that to some. And I don’t know what it should mean to you, but I can tell you at least some of what it means to me to be baptized.

I was not baptized until I was almost a teenager. I was not baptized as a child. My older sister was baptized as a baby, but, you know, she was first born and I was last born. And often last borns don’t get what the first borns got. And my baby pictures are still in a shoebox. Still in a shoebox. My sister’s are all in a beautiful album. But, that’s the way it goes and that’s alright. So I was baptized when I was twelve, sort of by my choice but also at the prodding of my mother. And I had spent much of my adult life with a memory of being baptized, and of talking to my mother about it beforehand, but I couldn’t remember when. I didn’t remember how old I was, or at what point in my life I had done it, except that I was somewhere around an early teenager. I remembered doing it as a teenager, being old enough to be up there, and kind of make that decision for myself.

But when I came here to Plymouth, when you called me here, and I went to transfer my membership from the Janesville church and go through the ordination process and had to show that I had been baptized – because it is important to be baptized before one is ordained – I had to call the church down in Janesville, and ask, “When was I baptized?” And I found out that it was when I was twelve, and just a couple months after I’d had a big accident. I was riding my bike and got hit by a semi and spent a month in the hospital, and had come close to death. Once the accident was over, I was never close to death, but was pretty close to death in the process of the accident. That was in July of 1978. I was baptized in September of ‘78. And I thought, and my parents were dead at this point when I had asked the church for the baptismal date so couldn’t ask them about it, but I think that my mom thought, “Hmm... he’s had this big accident, maybe we better get him done. Get him baptized.” And I wish, I really wish I had known this and I could have asked her while she was still alive, why it was so close to that accident. Since it was September, I still couldn’t walk and I have a vague memory of my dad carrying me up to the baptismal font to be baptized.

So I was a late baptizee. And I had been kind of active in the church at that point, but then my activity increased through the rest of high school and college. After college I had been really involved in the church doing mission trips, and bell choir, and serving committees, and doing a lot of activity in the church. Being a disciple of Christ was really starting to mean something to me. Jeanny House was our associate pastor at that point, and I remember asking her, I think we were on a mission trip, “I feel that I’m really ready now to be baptized.” And she said, “You’re already baptized.” And I asked her, “Well, can’t we do it again?” And she said, “No. once you’re baptized, you’re baptized. You don’t have to do it again, and to do it again is to sort of show insult to the first one.” She said that it doesn’t make any sense to be rebaptized because once you’re baptized, you’re baptized. And for most churches around the world we recognize each other’s baptisms. So even if you were baptized Catholic and come here, or are baptized here and decide later to go to a Catholic church or an Orthodox, most places will accept those baptisms as valid and as real.

But at that point I was in a spiritual place where I really felt that I wanted to be a disciple, and I felt that I had been denied something really special by having been baptized earlier. Really disappointed me.

And this is maybe one of the reasons why I struggle with this question of baptism so much.

I missed that I wasn’t able at that point to make this public declaration that, yes!, I want to follow Jesus. This is who I want to be, to accept the cost and joys of discipleship as our Statement of Faith says. But now that I am older I realize that at that time I was trying to turn a sacrament of God into something that was completely about me. All about MY needs, MY wants, MY special day, MY special declaration to want to be a follower. And that is not what it is. And believer’s baptism, those that only do believer baptisms, I think miss out on, at least partly, what baptism is. That it is not about us. It is about what God is doing. It is about God’s action in our lives. It’s about God’s claim on us as sons and daughters of God. It’s not necessarily us saying “yes” to anything, other than to say “yes” to what God has already claimed on us, it’s about Jesus and the Holy Spirit working in us and a marking of the “Yes!” that God has already said about us. Baptism is something that we live into, then. And so when we baptize a baby, the baby then lives into those baptismal vows. When we baptize a teen, to then live into it. When we baptize an adult, then lives into it. Baptism is not getting the child “done”, the way sometimes think of it as something that we just do, it is getting the life of a disciple started. Not something to be “done”, but the beginning of something that is starting. That journey that is starting. Baptism is not complete or done until death. We live our baptism our whole lives. It is complete at death. It is not a kind of magic to bring protection or salvation or entry into heaven. It is a sign of God’s grace. It is the sign that we belong to Christ. And we belong to Christ whether baptized or not. Baptism is the outer visible sign of an inner invisible grace. It is the sign of God’s grace that we belong to Christ who asks us to follow and to do what he did. Jesus Christ, who knows us and calls us by name and who knows us also by the name Beloved. Who calls us Beloved. Which is the only identity that we need to rely on. That is our greatest identity: our identity in God as beloved son or beloved daughter.

Baptism begins the journey, or for some of us baptized late in life, baptism punctuates a journey that we are already on, a journey to follow Jesus in mission to his people. Baptism and mission go together. They are joined in the source that is Jesus in whom God’s self-sharing love redeems us and the world.

And Epiphany, this time that we are in between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, during these weeks of Epiphany we read texts that tell us who Jesus is. Who Jesus is. Think of that in the coming weeks as we explore these texts. These are texts about who Jesus is: who is Jesus, and what did he do? And that story begins here, “Well, first, he was baptized...” [dot dot dot] And so how does your story unfold? “After he was baptized, then dot dot dot...” Or “After she was baptized and then dot dot dot...”

Maybe that dot dot dot, maybe that is the answer to the riddle of what baptism means. Baptism means however it is that you fill those dots. That however those dot dot dots get lived out. How they get lived out by we who have heard those words, “You are my beloved son” and “You are my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.”

That is the good news for today. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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