Spiritual Cleansing and Baptismal Covenant Renewal

Spiritual Cleansing and Baptismal Covenant Renewal

Spiritual Cleansing: Baptism of the Lord Sunday  Mark 1:4-11

What’s your idea of clean?

Have you ever noticed that people have varying definitions of cleanliness, especially couples? What constitutes cleaning for one is just picking up around the house for the other. It’s rare to find couples with the same idea of how long dishes should remain in the sink. One partner might be able to leave dishes in the sink while the other waits as long as he or she can, waiting, praying they will take care of it themselves, before finally going over and angrily doing it themselves. For some, everything must be put in its proper place; for others, the goal is to rearrange piles of papers or other objects into appropriate categories. One person’s clutter is another’s ideal “organizational system.”

I think there is surface cleaning or tidying up, deep cleaning where you get after it, and then there is car detailing meticulousness.

My grandmother had it on her weekly list to dust out the inside of the indent in the doorframe where the door latches. This would have never occurred to me until she told me about it. Now, when I think of it, I do it too. It’s like cleaning lint out of your belly button. I like to think she might be smiling down on me from heaven.

She believed in the adage, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” I’ve heard of parents telling their children, “Cleanliness is next to godliness. If you don’t clean your room right now, you will get closer to God than you want.”

The crowd’s idea of baptism.

I think the people who ventured out to the wilderness for John’s baptism carried varying ideas of the significance of the ritual washing in the Jordan River.

Before John the Baptist and Jesus, baptismal rituals were rare but not unheard of. They were ceremonial—something you did before entering a sacred site or when you were being initiated into certain positions. It didn’t carry much inherent meaning—like when we see the asterisk in the bulletin that says it’s time to stand or sing the doxology. We don’t think of it as having a bearing on your soul.

When John started baptizing people, many left their comfortable homes, making the trek across dangerous territory to achieve ritual or ceremonial purity. They are trying to be good and right with God, and they go along to get along.  Go out and get cheap car wash cleaning.

John the Baptist’s idea of baptism.

Imagine the shock on their faces when they arrive at the banks of the Jordan to see John the Baptist, looking like he stepped out of a wilderness survival reality show, adorned in some wild camel skin outfit with a leather belt. Maybe they see him munching on his diet of locusts and wild honey.  He was living with a radical dependence on God, and he had radically different ideas about baptism than what they expected. He’s talking about baptism as a cleansing from sin and repentance. His concept of baptismal cleaning was more profound than a performative ritual—deep cleaning. For him, baptism was a sign of repentance, turning away from evil to embrace the good.

It was also a cleansing for the nation. Scholars tell us John likely ascribed to the beliefs of the Essene sect of Judaism that once enough Israelites got their lives straightened out, the Messiah would come and do a great cleanup, getting rid of evil people and raising the faithful.

Jesus’ idea of baptism.

One day, his cousin, Jesus, shows up, asking for baptism. But John is not keen on the idea. He perceives that Jesus is the Messiah and doesn’t need baptism; if he does, John isn’t qualified to do it. He had said, “I am not worthy to tie the thong of his sandal.” But Jesus prevails on him because he has a different idea of baptism.

He thinks that his baptism is to be in solidarity with the human condition, with those desiring to walk in the ways of God.

He’s also got a different idea about God’s clean-up program. It’s about changing hearts and connecting people, not by force and violence, but through the inner desire to be better and to be part of creating a better world by doing your part to be a better person.

He takes the plunge, and when he emerges, the spirit, as a dove, lands on him, and he hears the heavenly message that he is God’s beloved, in whom God delights. And ever since, Christians, despite varying beliefs and practices, have held that in baptism, the Spirit reminds us that we, too, are God’s beloved, in whom God delights.

The church emphasized baptism as a spiritual washing.

Over time, baptism was thought to be a spiritual washing—especially from original sin. But when that becomes the focus, it somehow reduces and distracts from its significance. It’s a deeper clean than that.

An early morning baptism.

My phone rang at 7 a.m. It was Sean, a young man who was getting married in a few months, and I was set to officiate the ceremony. He had gone through major life transitions and turned his life around from being a rough dude with a chip on his shoulder. Angry all the time. He had played the “bad boy” to the max. But he was getting his act together and had a lovely fiancé, ready for a new identity.

He asked me if I’d baptize him to help mark his transformation. “Of course!” I said. He wanted to be immersed in water because he liked the symbolism of dying to an old way of life, remerging in a new way, and being cleansed spiritually. Awesome. It was the dead of winter in Iowa, and I was afraid he wanted me to do some insane polar plunge in icy water with him.

No, no, no. We’ll find something better. I told him if he found a place, I’d be there. So he called me early in the morning. “Pastor Dave, I’m at the Countryside Hotel. They have a pool. Could you come over right now to do it?” I was barely awake. He explained that he got it approved by the hotel staff, and they’d even be there as witnesses.

In less than an hour, we were getting into the pool. It was not difficult for him to get witnesses because this guy was good-looking and ripped. I leaned him back and baptized him. Tears welled up in the eyes of the witnesses. We got breakfast, and he said, “For the first time in my life, I feel clean.”

We can get that clean feeling, too.

We can get that same feeling on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday by renewing our baptismal vows. Baptism has always been associated with a cleansing ritual. Cleansing from sin, but so much more.

It’s a chance to start the year with a fresh, clean slate. Being reminded that just as much as Jesus is claimed as God’s beloved, so are you.

Today is a day for cleaning even deeper than Grandma’s. It gets to the down and dirty of your soul.

  • Wash away the sin that clings so close. Wash away the shame and guilt that bind you.
  • Wash away the negativity that makes you live too cautiously and fearfully.
  • Wash away the doubts that keep you back.
  • Wash away the negativity that throws you off track.
  • Wash away the fears that keep you from boldly living a life that makes a difference.
  • It’s a chance to wash away—erase those old tapes in your head of people telling you you are not enough.
  • Wash away the lies that leave you lost and brokenhearted.
  • Wash away those self-doubts focus on what is wrong with you, and see yourself as the beloved of God in whom God delights.
  • Wash away everything that doesn’t edify you.
  • Wash away the need for retaliation, meanness, resentment, envy, and shying away from others.

This is a day where we can make a fresh start, feeling spiritual cleansing from the inside out. Amen.