Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, Year B
“Why, exactly, was Jesus baptized?” is a fair question. Especially since the popular Christian usually puts “forgiveness of sins” as the chief benefit of holy baptism. “If Jesus was sinless,” the reasoning goes, “then why did he have to be baptized?” Again, fair question.
The Church does itself a disservice every time it reduces the sacramental life - baptism, Eucharist, anointing, marriage, ordination, confession, and so on - to simply causing the forgiveness of sins, especially when forgiveness of sins is only one dimension of the sacramental life.
There is so much more to being baptized than eternal fire insurance. We aren’t submerged in water or have water poured over us just to avoid hell when we die. There is something richer, deeper, broader that happens when we are baptized or receive any sacrament of the Church and Jesus’ baptism is an example of that.
From one angle, baptism is the immersion in the Christ-story, the gospel. It is the calling forth of one of Scripture’s most common motifs: water. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Water is symbolic of chaos, of formlessness, of the womb, of things churning in motion toward God’s decisive, loving, and groundbreaking creativity. In the Genesis narrative, it is the staging ground - the canvas - of a God ready to birth something new and beautiful. In the Exodus narrative, it is the very real barrier between enslavement and liberation, the metaphoric wall standing between imperial brutality and the Promised Land. Again, it acts as a staging ground for a God preparing to act decisively in favor of liberation.
And Jesus seems to be working out of these assumptions, that his trek to the Judean wilderness to be baptized by his eccentric, camel hair-laden cousin John will assist him in reliving these powerful stories alive in the annals of his people. That in a sense, he is entering the chaos of the creation narratives and the liberation of the Exodus narrative, that he is in some way participating in God’s long, winding drama of setting people free in order to bless the whole world. “Sacraments do not make true, sacraments make real,” says Bishop Jeff Lee of Chicago. “We do not baptize little babies (or anyone else for that matter) so that God will love them. God already loves them. We wash them to bring them into a community that begins to make God’s infinite love real in their lives—touchable, tastable, experienceable. God’s incomprehensible love and acceptance of us in Christ. The Divine Hospitality.”
This is what we hear at Jesus’ baptism from the Divine Voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God does not love Jesus because he is baptized; Jesus is baptized because God loves him. In the same way we don’t receive the Eucharist in order to make God love us, but receive it because God loves us and wants us to touch, taste, and experience the Divine Life opened to us in Jesus. Sacraments do not make true, sacraments make real.
We saw that firsthand this morning as we baptized six babies into God’s household. According to one theologian, baptism creates level ground for adults and children alike, seeing as babies are called by what will be their adult names and adults are bathed just like a baby. The dignity, the grace, the attention afforded to one in the waters of baptism are afforded to all.
And here we are, on this feast of Jesus’ baptism, ready remember ours, preparing to renew the vows either we made or were made on our behalf, aware that nothing we do today can make God loves us any more or less, acknowledging that the love that gushes from God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism is ours as well.