The ABCs of Baptism for Baptism of the Lord Sunday 2023
What took place at Jesus’ baptism
We celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday on the second Sunday of the year. We move from Jesus as an infant at Christmas to seeing him as an adult debuting on the public stage for baptism. There is only one story about him growing up, in which he wanders off from his parents and impresses the Temple’s teachers.
The first thing we learn about the adult Jesus is that he travels into the wilderness to be baptized by his slightly older cousin, John the Baptist. John had built a considerable following and immersed people in the Jordan river as a sign of repentance. When Jesus comes to John for baptism, John initially refuses, saying, “You should be baptizing me.”
But Jesus apparently desired a total identification with people giving themselves to God. So, John baptizes him, and the heavens crack open and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on him, and he hears God’s affirmation. “This is my beloved son, in whom I delight.” This affirmation at his baptism is part of what we remember in our baptisms—that we are also beloved and connected to God, and our commitment delights God.
Wide variety of practices and interpretations of baptism
Strangely, Jesus never baptizes anyone, nor does he mention it until the very end of the gospel when he tells the disciples to go out to the world’s farthest reaches and baptize people in his name.
Because of that instruction, baptism became one of the distinctive hallmarks of Christianity. It was a sign of becoming a Christian and one’s willingness to embrace the teaching of Christ for their own life fully. One of the few things Christians today agree on is that baptism is supposed to be foundational. Over time, variations of how to do baptism and interpret its meaning have blossomed. Every tradition has its spin on what it’s all about and how to practice it.
Some traditions practice infant baptism and others have people wait until they can decide for themselves. Some sprinkle, some pour water, some make the sign of the cross, and some get fully immersed. To me, it isn’t the delivery system that is important, but the spiritual component makes it significant. Sprinkle, dip, dunk. I’ve done them all. I’ll even dry-clean someone who wants to follow Jesus.
Baptism as a continuing event not a past event
But I suspect baptism isn’t that big of a deal for many of us. It’s a past tense event. Maybe we were baptized as infants but don’t remember it and had our kids baptized with some vague notion of making promises to God. “The family was there. I think we had ham afterwards. We have pictures and if pressed I could find the certificate.” And that’s about the extent of its impact on our lives.
But it’s so much more than that, with so many layers of meaning that can stimulate our spirituality. We celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday to help baptism be more than a baby ritual, we can reaffirm the promises of baptism in our own lives today and make it a continuous act instead of something that happened long ago and doesn’t mean anything to us now.
ABCs of Baptism
I thought it might be fun to do something a little different today, the ABCs of baptism.
Affirmation: One of the most beautiful affirmations in all scripture is uttered by God when Jesus is baptized, “You are my son, my beloved, with you, I am well pleased.” We experience this same affirmation when as the baptized. No matter what happens in this world, you are the beloved of God.
Babies: From young to old, we baptize people of all ages. When we baptize a child, it is a sign of God’s saying yes to the child, even before they are aware of God. When we baptize people a bit older, they say “yes” to God.
Cross: Our practice is to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person getting baptized, symbolizing the union we have in Spirit with Jesus.
Dying: When adult believers are baptized, baptism represents dying to the old self and rising to the new self and life in Christ. Some traditions that immerse people in water talk about it as a virtual drowning to the old ways and rising fresh to the new ways as they come out of the water.
Easter: The physical act of baptism is symbolic of death and resurrection. You die to your old self and values and rise into new life.
Forgiveness: We are not defined by sin, and God continually welcomes us back. A friend once told me that when he graduated, his mother said, “You always have a home to come home to.” That is how I understand forgiveness.
Gospel: Gospel means “good news.” At our baptism, we commit to proclaim and live the gospel. Our lives can be a testimony that Jesus brings good news of great joy to all people.
Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he was baptized. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can accomplish what God calls us to do.
• Spirit will keep your hope alive when you are tempted to despair.
• Spirit will convince you no matter what the world says, Love is greater than Hate.
• In every circumstance
• Spirit will tell you to live toward peace when everyone else is rattling the sword.
Immersion: This is a deeply meaningful expression of baptism. A little over a year ago, Cooper Dixon, a teenager from our church, started taking his faith seriously and asked if I’d baptize him in the water at Mother’s beach. His sisters wanted in, too. It was a beautiful day of young people taking their faith so seriously that they let me dunk them in cold water in October. Maybe “I” should be inspirational.
Jordan: The river in Israel where John baptized Jesus. Christians continue to make pilgrimages there for baptism. At Bay Shore, when we baptize, we use water from the Jordan river.
Kingdom/Kin-dom: Baptism reminds us of our belonging to a spiritual realm, and kin-dom reminds us that we belong to one another as we are all the beloved of God.
Love: If you forget everything else Jesus taught, remember the two greatest commands:
Love God – love your neighbor. Oh, and everyone is your neighbor.
Mission: When we are baptized, we are given a mission and a purpose for our lives. Our mission is to bring healing to this broken world and healing to broken people, which is Jesus’ mission.
No: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, baptism, and all that it means, they are available to you. Don’t be shy. If you want to get baptized, I’ll invite you to come forward in a few minutes. There’s no entrance exam, and all you need is a heart that wants to follow the ways of Jesus.
Ordination: Baptism is ordination to ministry – that means we are all ministers. Ministry means servant, and we are all servants of Christ. You are called to live out your faith in daily life as much as me. Use your gifts and abilities to make a difference in your influence.
Public: Baptism is a public declaration of our loyalty, and we are baptized into a community of believers upon whom we rely on doing God’s work.
Questions: Never stop asking questions. Questions are how we grow in faith, and questioning is how we hold each other accountable. Never think you have all the answers, and don’t listen to anyone who says they do.
Repentance: John’s baptism was for the repentance of sin. Repentance means simply “turning around.” God allows U-turns. R is also for renunciation. We turn away from what is harmful to ourselves and others and promise to oppose evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Surrender: A baptism is an act of surrender. An old song says, “I go where you want me to go, dear Lord.” Saying that means surrender is also how I ended up in California.
Trinity: In baptism we use the trinitarian formula: Father, Son, Holy Spirit or Creator,
Redeemer, and Sanctifier. We are embraced into the fulness of God’s expression and modalities every moment of our lives.
United: Baptism unites us with people around the globe who share this mission; one faith, one baptism, one Spirit. Your baptism makes this unity no need to get re-baptized. Once done for life, we can reaffirm our baptismal commitments and absorb their meanings more profoundly.
Vow: Baptism is a commitment as serious as marriage. That makes me think I should ask people: “Do you choose to follow Jesus with all that you are, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and be faithful as long as you live?” Vows need some intentionality, or else they become meaningless words. Maybe when we talk about baptism, you think of The Godfather, when Michael Corleone makes baptismal vows at his nephew’s baptism, and during the vows, the camera cuts to people he is having assonated. Our intentionality with the vows is necessary lest they become empty words.
Washed: Baptism traditionally represents a symbolic washing away of our sins, like Oxy Clean and bleach for the soul.
Xylophone: because X is always Xylophone. A baptism causes us to ring the bells and celebrate God’s enduring love and activity in our lives.
You: Baptism personalizes a general notion that God loves everybody. In your baptism, you can remember God loves you. In you, God delights. God trusts you to make a positive impact and elevate those around you.
Zeal: The Holy Spirit is about energy and passion, which are the ingredients of zeal.
You can’t summarize baptism in a few words. Its meaning to us is ever unfolding. Today we celebrate the baptism. And renew our baptismal vows to incorporate its many dimensions into our spiritual journeys. Amen.