January 15, 2012
On the very first day in one of my seminary classes, our professor told us the secret to passing her exams. She said, “Eighty percent of the time, the correct answer to any question is baptism.” At first we laughed. But then, throughout that semester and for many years to follow, as I leaned into the Scriptures and into the Lutheran Confessions, into the writings of people who came from different times and settings, different cultural and religious backgrounds, as I experienced and reflected on my own encounters with God, I have learned that 80% of the time, the correct answer to any hard question really is baptism.
So I invite you to apply that rule of thumb as we consider today’s texts. And maybe you can test it out further in the days and weeks ahead. See if it works for you. But before we can give it as the answer (80% of the time), first we have to ask, “What is baptism, and what does it do?”
John the Baptist told his followers that he baptized with water, but one who was coming after him would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. And I think of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who decreed that anyone the military conquered had the choice of being baptized or being executed. That sounds a little like being scared straight to me. Is baptism merely an amulet of protection to ward off evil spirits, or a box to check off to keep us safe? Aren’t we as a society a little beyond that now?
This understanding of baptism reminds me of a woman (who grew up Lutheran, actually) who refused to have her children baptized. In her mind, baptism meant being washed clean, and to her that equated with acknowledging that her kids were somehow unclean, dirty, and needed to be washed pure. She refused to publicly portray her beloved children in such a negative light. Is baptism a ritual that is supposed to wash us clean from our sinfulness? If that’s the case, then why in the world would Jesus—whom we call sinless—need to be baptized?
Perhaps the need for baptism is not about individual sin or personal demons. Perhaps it is not about warding off threats. Perhaps it’s about a bigger issue.
I think we’d all agree that every child is born into a sinful world, despite the fact that there is great joy and beauty in it. Despite its being God’s imaginative creation, terrible things happen here on earth. The coffee we drink, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear sometimes come to us cheaply because other people have endured horrendous working conditions and slave wages to get them to us. These days, people whose skin is dark, or who speak or worship or dress differently from the Western norm tend to be viewed with suspicious eyes, spoken of as lesser beings. All we had to do this week was watch the news stories about a group of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Islamist fighters to see that. In a recent story about air travel safety, I heard a pundit suggest that any young man whose name was Muhammed or Achmed should be strip searched as a matter of course. You could share other stories, I’m sure, about how those who are perceived as dangerous or weak or different are fair game for mistreatment.
Around the world right now, women and children are being hurt and killed by men who claim to love them. Elders, prisoners, and the mentally ill are being neglected or abused by their caregivers. Refugees are being slaughtered in the camps that are supposed to keep them safe. The very earth and water that sustain us are being exploited for profit and poisoned with toxic chemicals and waste. Our repeated failure to speak out against this kind of violence and corruption is silent assent to it.
That’s not even counting the kinds of things we do and say to hurt people we encounter every day—our families, co-workers, and friends. That’s the worst part. Some of the terrible things that happen in our lives, in our world, are things we ourselves set in motion, deliberately or inadvertently. How many of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions? How many of us didn’t even pretend we were going to try to change a destructive habit or add a healthy one? Even when we don’t mean to, we find ourselves participating in sin, because sin is the tendency to curve inwards on ourselves while neglecting the needs and best interests of others. There is not one person in this room whose record is spotless. We are and will always be like Lady MacBeth, scrubbing and scrubbing at the blood on our hands, wishing it away, but finding the stain is still there. So what do we do?
What is the correct answer to any question, 80% of the time?
Yes, yes, yes. THIS is what baptism is for! It’s not a good luck charm. It’s not a golden ticket into heaven. It is a pathway to living in a messed up world. It is precisely because of our own inability to wash ourselves clean, to make ourselves good and pure, that God steps into our lives. And God doesn’t come with a scythe to cut us down. God comes with cleansing water and words of forgiveness and renewal. In our Lutheran tradition, unlike some other faith communities, we do not come to the font for baptism when we feel we are ready to do so. We do not seek baptism to show that we are repentant and need to be refreshed by God. No, it’s quite the opposite. In the Lutheran tradition there is one baptism, and in it we believe that it is not our intention, but God’s intention, that is at work. It is God’s action that takes place. We are not primary actors here, but recipients of grace.
Many of us were brought to the font or river or pool when we were too little to have any say in the matter. The reason for that is that our Lutheran understanding is that in baptism, we are the recipients of God’s abundant blessing that we don’t even know how to ask for. Parents and sponsors bring us to the font to remind themselves and the church at large that God is at work in us and for us, whether or not we have the where-with-all to know we need it.
Adults or older children who are considering baptism sometimes express concern that they may not be worthy to receive it. But that’s just the point. Baptism is God’s gift to the undeserving, God’s embrace extended to those who are still far off, welcoming them home. Because really, who would qualify for baptism if we needed to deserve it? It has been my experience—and maybe some of you can relate—that the times when I really need to know that God cares for me and that I am included in God’s family, I haven’t been in any kind of shape to ask for it.
I still don’t know why Jesus needed to be baptized. Maybe he just wanted to demonstrate that we all need blessings to come from sources outside of ourselves. For Jesus, baptism was not a sign of repentance, but more of a sign of his willingness to acknowledge that he, too, needed to be refreshed by God’s compassion and mercy. Maybe Jesus, like all of us, felt like a dimly burning wick or a bruised reed sometimes. Maybe he needed to hear God’s voice bellowing over the universe, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” so that later, when things got tough, he could hear the echoes—just the way we all need to do sometimes.
John the Baptist expected the Messiah to come with fire, and maybe Jesus did too. But instead, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Signifying what? Peace? Innocence? Gentleness? In any case, something non-threatening, something lovely. And in that moment, the Gospel writer says, the heavens were ripped opened, the division between the secular and the holy rent assunder. The good news for us is that they have never closed. That’s why, 80% of the time, the answer to our hard questions is _______.
Opened heavens, doves, and a king kneeling at the feet of his subjects—these are signs of God’s kingdom. The God whose Spirit hovered over the chaos of creation has come down inside of it. And the presence of God among us is not a threatening presence—though I hasten to point out it isn’t a flimsy, namby-pamby presence either. It is a quiet strength, the rock-solid promise of solidarity with those who need God most. God has come into our world on the wings of a dove, in the shape of a mortal, full of love, to stand next to those who feel loved the least.
And we are witnesses to what he said and did on this earth. We know that Jesus was indeed God’s beloved child. We know how the story turns out! And we trust that Jesus will return someday to wipe away all the tears that remain on this earth. To bring forth justice for the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to release the prisoners from their dungeons. This liberating force of Grace is the God we worship. This is the God who has named us and claimed us as God’s own. Our Savior will be gentle with the dimly burning wicks, because Jesus was one himself at times. It is this shared fragility that empowers us to respond to the call to follow Jesus, to act and to testify to what we have heard and experienced and believe.
Maybe some of you think that’s what you hire a pastor to do. But the truth is, when the waters of baptism were poured over your heads, you were commissioned to be a minister. What’s more—you received all the grace and empowerment you need to testify to the Light, just as John the Baptist did. That may scare you. You may feel inadequate and unprepared. That’s OK. You have all you need. Even at our most fragile, the waters of baptism bear us up. Even if we feel like we’re falling apart, we are God’s own beloved children, and we are not in this alone. So whenever you get discouraged or panicky about what you feel God is calling you to do, hear God call you by name. Feel the tender presence of a dove descending on you. Remember that 80% of the time the answer to your questions and your needs and your longings is _______.
And 100% of the time, that move happens at God’s initiative, not ours. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider