A Gift of New Life … for Life

Jan 14, 2024

Baptism of Our Lord
Text: Mark 4:4-11
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Often when Christians are making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which, of course, is not happening much these days given the war that is decimating that significant place for three faiths, they want to see the Jordan River. Many not only want to see it but wish to be baptized (or affirm their baptisms) in it, just as was the case for Jesus.
     Just why that’s the case, I do not understand. When I saw the Jordan River in 2009, it looked like a muddy stream. One commentator writes that the Jordan is a “shallow, silt-filled river that carries agricultural runoff, sewage and political unrest downstream. It’s too shallow to boat on and too polluted to swim in. The river marks a demilitarized zone between Israel and Jordan, its shores are studded with armed snipers.” (1)
     Yet, a pastor from Aman, Jordan told that commentator how, on more than one occasion, as he and his congregation stood in the river baptizing, random tourists shouted at them from the shore: “Baptize me! Baptize me!” She concludes, “On a whim, these thrill seekers beg to be dunked in the river. But only after they’ve got cameras at the ready. My colleague is regarded as a magician, pulling a rabbit out of the river.” (2)
     That certainly is not what baptism is, in the Jordan River or anywhere else. It’s not a magic act that prevents eternal damnation (fire insurance) and somehow brings a lifetime of goodness and light. In fact, what occurred immediately after Jesus’ baptism should illustrate that truth.
     We did not read verses 12-13, here's what it says, “And the Spirit immediately drove him (Jesus) into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
     So, no sooner had the Holy Spirit arrived and Jesus had been affirmed as God’s beloved child, then that same Spirit forced Jesus to face Satan and be stalked by wild beasts in the wilderness. That does not seem quite right, does it? Why would he be compelled to face such trauma so soon after the affirming experience of baptism?
     The answer is simple, but not easy to accomplish. It’s because Jesus had come to reconcile the world to God, so his number one task was to engage the evil that held the world captive. The promises of sonship, love and the Holy Spirit in his baptism made that possible.
     The Spirit was with Jesus on earth as he was tempted to doubt when he encountered the world’s suffering, as he endured abuse and as he struggled to accept God’s will. As he began his public ministry, Jesus was bolstered by the promise that he was the one in whom God is well pleased.
     In some versions of the Bible, the translation is that Jesus is the one in whom God “takes great delight”, and commentator Chelsey Harmon writes that that’s the wording she likes best “because it helps us keep the meaning separated from works righteousness. The Father is not pleased with the Son because the Son has earned it, it’s purely out of love and because he looks upon Jesus as someone worthy of his love. The Father delights in loving him. This is God’s basic posture toward us; God’s delight and rejoicing over us is a message proclaimed all over the scripture.” (3)
     You may not have noticed, but in this passage three examples of baptism are given. The Baptism into John (the Baptist) is one. John’s baptism was of repentance; it was a sign that people had turned away from sin and toward God; they were cleansed and ready to greet the coming Messiah.
     Then there is Jesus’ own baptism, which was not about repentance, but was an inauguration of his earthly ministry. He was identified as God’s Son and was endowed with the Spirit to carry out his work on earth.
     Finally, there is the baptism of Jesus, which is particularly defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of Jesus, John said, “…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” So it is that to be baptized into Jesus is to receive the gift of the Spirit, just as Jesus did. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith, empowers us to live out our faith, enables us to grasp the power of forgiveness and, when we get off track in our faith journey, reorients us. We are, as is proclaimed at each baptism, “Sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
     In our baptism we become part of God’s family, where our faith is nurtured and grows. We are among the those in whom God takes great delight, both now and in eternity.
     There is so much more to it than those tourists at the Jordan I mentioned probably earlier ever imagined. It’s not about the place, the water or how the baptism is done.  In fact, the commentator I mentioned earlier, Pastor Joann Post, makes fun of herself as she tells how she was determined to get “the real thing” rather than purchasing bottled Jordan River water from a vendor. So, she crept carefully down the bank and filled a small bottle with water at the river’s edge.
     She imagined mingling it with the tap water in the baptismal font of her congregation and how moving it would be for those doused with the same water in which Jesus was plunged. Once home, she stored the water in a place of honor in her office, eager to use it for the next baptism. Several months passed. By the time she went to mingle the local water with the water of the Jordan, her vial of holy water had turned to a vial of vile – murky, smelly. The bottom of the jar was coated in sediment and the top in slime. She tossed it, jar and all. (4)
     As I said, there’s nothing magical about the place, the water, or the process. But the promises of God’s word and the commitments made by God’s people cause baptism to be spirit-filled – a gift of new life, for us, for life. AMEN
  1. “In the Lectionary” by Joann A. Post, The Christian Century, January 2024, pg. 24
  2. Same as #1
  3. “Mark 1:4-11 Commentary” by Chelsey Harmon, January 7, 2024, www.cepreaching.org
  4. Same as #1