Two Baptisms – Sermon at Scipioville January 10, 2016


My wife, Katie, keeps wonderful family records - old and new photographs of family events and people - all digitized now and in the cloud. But she keeps one family treasure that's not virtual. The christening dress. This white, linen, ruffled dress, three times the length of a baby, is 115 years old. Five generations ago, in 1900 Katie's grandmother had Katie's mother baptized wearing this dress. Katie and her brother wore it, Katie’s niece and nephew wore it, and recently Katie's niece, Laura just had her baby girl, Rowan, baptized wearing this same dress. It's a family tradition, a ritual. This ritual is important. It's a connection ritual that ties together the generations from the immigrants who left starving Ireland for the promise of America to today.  A christening dress.  But baptism is more than a ritual and a family treasure.

Today we celebrate The Baptism of The Lord. Yes, Jesus was baptized, too. The Baptism of Jesus is just right for the beginning of  a new year. Baptism signifies a new life. Scripture reminds us that baptism also symbolizes a death. This morning, let's look at what dies and what is born at baptism.

Jesus was not baptized as an infant. Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the Temple in a traditional ritual Jews still celebrate today. Jesus grew up as a Jewish child and teenager. Luke tells us Jesus was baptized around 30 years of age. At that time, Jesus' cousin John, whom we call John the Baptist, was baptizing repentant Israelites in the river Jordan. Jews traditionally used water to ceremonially clean the body from the impurity of sin. John was baptizing ordinary Jews who wanted to change the direction of their lives, sick of their sinfulness. They wanted to be washed clean of their sins.

Jesus came to John and asked to be baptized. Matthew's gospel tells us John refuses, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”  After all, baptism is a sign of repentance and an act of forgiveness from sin. Jesus was without sin, no? But, Jesus tells John, Let it be done, it is right to fulfill all righteousness. So they do it. Jesus goes down into the river and John baptizes him. Jesus comes up out of the water and prays. The heavens open and the Spirit of God comes like a dove and lights on Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, "You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."  Not an ordinary event.

What is this baptism anyway. Does it really do anything?  Like the early Jews, we Christians believe that Baptism washes away sin.  We also believe that baptism signifies a death. In the Letter to Romans, Paul speaks to us: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life... We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The death of our old self. We humans are odd creatures. Homo Sapiens, humans, are the only creatures who are both animal and divine. What we call "human nature" is the animal part of being human. The "old self" that Paul describes as dying in the waters of baptism, the old self is our human, animal nature.

Other animals generally handle their animal natures better than do humans. We probably say, "good dog" to our pet more often than we say, "good human" to our friends or children. In the wild, animals know how to behave. They don't eat more than they need. They don't kill for sport. They mark their territory and generally respect each others borders. Their occasional Alpha leadership elections can be a little more aggressive than our own, but our Alpha Presidential candidates can get a little wild, too. Animals have instincts, as do we. Both we and the other animals respond to our biochemical drives and act out the story imprinted in our genes and DNA map. But there is a major difference between humans and other species.

In addition to our animal instincts, humans have imagination and self-consciousness. The root of imagination is image. We picture things that are not visible. We also have self-consciousness, an ability to look at ourselves and think about what we are thinking about. Imagination and self-consciousness are wonderful abilities which let us communicate, write poetry and song, engineer life-saving medicines and reflect on the nature of things. Our imagination lets us picture the idea of tomorrow, next week and next millennium. Even the idea of eternity. It spurs us to contemplate the divine and conceive of life beyond this life. But, imagination and self-consciousness, if driven by our animal natures, can lead to terrible actions, to sin of all types.

Our human nature, fueled by our imagination, encourages us to imagine possessing things owned by others, we crave more than we need, we are irrationally worried about the survival of our bodies, getting enough to eat, wearing the right clothes, having better hair, better looks, being taller. You know, all the things Jesus tells us to stop worrying about in the Sermon on the Mount. Psychologists describe these cravings as excessive concerns for physical safety, excessive craving to be loved, to belong, to experience pleasure, and excessive desire for freedom from control of others – or the excessive desire to control others. Safety, pleasure and control. Pretty primal and pretty human.

Immediately after Jesus' baptism, his human nature was tempted in the desert by the devil three ways. Pleasure - You're hungry? Turn these stones into bread. Safety, physical security? - Throw yourself off this high parapet and the angels will catch you. Power and control - behold all these kingdoms of the world? I will give them to you. Just serve me, the Devil, and all these things will be yours. Temptation to sin? There is nothing new under the sun.

Animals don't worry about those things. Nor do they struggle after them. They are generally content with what they have. Yes, there are predators and there is prey. The food chain is a reality, but animals don't kill more than they need to eat, and a natural eco-balance is in place unless some catastrophic event changes the order of things. We humans worry and crave, and this leads to bad thoughts and actions, to sin. In water baptism we join Jesus in a commitment to  the death of our animal, earthly natures. We teach that water baptism is the death of the self, our ego, the part of us that is driven by our animal nature. We take the conscious decision to drown this sinful human nature in the water of baptism.

Our human nature doesn’t actually drown at baptism of course. But our struggle to kill, or at least subdue our animal instincts begins. We seriously begin the struggle to overcome the source of our sins, our excessive cravings for safety, power and pleasure. We turn our face in another direction. We repent.

Did Jesus need to be baptized? I think Jesus asked John to baptize him as a model for us. Jesus first submitted himself to the Jewish Law and was obedient to his parents. Then, as he started his ministry, he submitted his body and his animal, human nature to baptism as an example of what must be done in all righteousness.

But water baptism is not the end of our story There are two baptisms. One by water. The other with power, with fire, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is a death. The second baptism is life. John the Baptist described the two baptisms "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." 

Scripture shows us both baptisms. Sometimes baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire happens before water baptism, as in Acts, when Peter visited the household of Cornelius the Centurion. As Peter preached, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone. Sometimes afterward, as the believers at Corinth who had only heard of John's baptism, and again in Acts when Peter and John laid hands on the believers in Samaria and asked them to pray to receive the Holy Spirit. And, as with the Lord's Baptism, the two baptisms can happen at the same moment. The Spirit blows where it will.

The Spirit wakes us up to a new life, a life of the spirit. We still walk around driving this broken-down chariot of our physical bodies. But, this chuck-wagon of flesh is no longer self-driving - it is being driven by our new spiritual self. We wake up and realize our body with its needs is just a vehicle. It is no longer us. Google may build safe self-driving cars, but as you all know, a world full of self-driving bodies makes for a world of continuous catastrophic car wrecks.

Maybe we're like Nicodemus, a great teacher of Israel. He was confused by this idea of his old self dying and being reborn by the water and the spirit. Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night looking for answers. Jesus tells him, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. This is the light of the world. He tells Nicodemus that people who do wrong hate this light and avoid it out of fear that their misdeeds will be exposed. In a nutshell, that is the problem with sin. Sin is a blinder that keeps us focused on what we've done wrong and prevents us from realizing that despite our shame and shortcomings, we are already saved. Jesus has already done it for us. All of us. But we have to take it, seize it.

As children, even with our animal natures, we are born with enough divine spark to see the magic and wonder all around us. We believe in the great mysteries of life and see the reality of things often invisible to adults. Growing up, we are trained to let those things go. To live in, "the real world." Nicodemus was living in "the real world." That's why he couldn't understand Jesus' teaching.

The true real world, the Kingdom of Heaven, is all around us, but the pressures and needs of our animal self keep us from seeing it. This is the decision we take at baptism. We need this vehicle to get around in. We repent. Instead of allowing ourselves to be impelled, pushed by our animal urges, we face in another direction - upward. We decide to act contrary to our instincts. The gifts and power of the Holy Spirit make it possible.

God sent his servants, his angels, prophets, ministers, his Sunday School teachers out into Scipioville to invite us. We're a Presbyterian Church, so we won't do an altar call this morning. You don't have to answer an altar call to receive the Spirit. Just pray for the Spirit to come; ask the Father for it. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come and transform and guide us. This rebirth, this baptism of the spirit can happen any time. God is not limited by rules.

As Paul says, pray whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Here, or on the way, or at home. Some receive the Holy Spirit in the quiet of contemplative prayer, sort of a meditation without words. Others ask for the laying on of hands. For many, reading a passage of scripture slowly and thoughtfully will stir the Spirit. However you ask, God will finish what God has begun.

Remember what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete;
"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

Every Christian denomination follows the example of Jesus and baptizes the new Christian. The procedures may vary, but the essence is the same. At baptism, every major branch of the Christian Tree; Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, asks some form of these two questions:

The first; "Do you renounce Satan, and all his angels, and all his works, and all his services, and all his pride?" The second question;  "Do you unite yourself to Christ!" We or our Godparents answer for us. And then our Christian Life begins.

We don't travel the Christian road alone. Like each infant baptized in that 115-year old Christening dress, we have the support of family, the Sacraments of the Church, the prayers of believing people and above all, the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is the beginning of the Christian journey. We also ask for the Holy Spirit to enter us and stay with us as we progress through the ups, downs, curves, rocky bumps and occasional smooth straightaways of life. We ask the Spirit for help with this crazy, self-driven vehicle as we make our way on the journey.

A suggestion: Ask The Spirit to take the wheel. If you do, it will be an exciting and wonderful journey - and one that never ends.

May God add his blessing to these words