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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE DR. SANDRA L. RANDLEMAN MARCH 17, 2019 Baptism and the Trinity PSALM 27; MATTHEW 3:13-17 Baptisms are often filled with surprises. In the case of an infant baptism, there is always concern over how the infant will respond to being placed in the arms of an unfamiliar person in a black robe and sprinkled with water before a large crowd of onlookers. I remember a baptism here, years ago, when the pastor discovered upon lifting the lid of the baptismal font that there was no water. Water was quickly secured! The baptism of Jesus came as a surprise for John the Baptist. When read in the context of the life of Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus’ baptism may surprise us as well. But Jesus’ baptism teaches us not only who Jesus is, but who we, as Jesus’ followers, are as well. The ministry of John the Baptist sets the scene, serving as a bridge between the Old Testament law and the New Testament focus on the message of salvation by grace. John preaches a message of judgment and a call to repentance that is meant to awaken in the people a desire for the righteousness that Jesus will inspire. John the Baptist baptizes the people with the water of repentance, but he says that one is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Then Jesus arrives from Galilee at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This is our first glimpse of the adult Jesus and we may wonder why Jesus wants to be baptized and certainly why He needs to be baptized. John had preached that Jesus was coming to baptize others so John’s first response is to decline to baptize Jesus. But Jesus insists. He is coming to be baptized in the same way as any other person responding to John’s message of repentance. Jesus is identifying with His people by entering into the waters of baptism. It is a remarkable act of humility. It is only after Jesus’ baptism that His ministry to His people begins. Jesus came into John’s life, but not the way that John expected. Sometimes Jesus comes into our lives in ways that we never anticipated. In fact, sometimes Jesus’ presence is far more real to us when we are struggling with the diagnosis of an illness or the death of a loved one or a disappointment. It can be at such times that we most know that we need Jesus and we are looking, with all our hearts, for His comfort and His presence and His peace. But the events that follow Jesus’ baptism are also amazing. John lowers Jesus into the waters of baptism and as Jesus arises from the water, three events follow. The heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove and alights on Jesus and God the Father speaks saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all actively involved in the baptism of Jesus. For every person who is baptized, it is the same. During the season of Lent, our communities of belonging groups are studying Jesus’ baptism and the temptations of Jesus that follow. In our study guide, written by Dr. Craig Barnes, he notes that Jesus did not receive the designation of being the beloved son with whom God is so pleased until Jesus identified with humanity in His baptism. Dr. Barnes concludes that the identification of Jesus as God’s beloved Son was so total and inseparable that heaven’s declaration has to apply to humanity as well. In our baptism, God also declares us to be the beloved children of God with whom He is very pleased. In our everyday living and challenges of life, we may not feel that we are God’s beloved. In the movie, Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall plays a once-famous and successful country music singer and songwriter who is struggling with the loss of his career and battling his addiction to alcohol. He finds work as a farmhand on the farm of a young widow, Rosa Lee. Rosa Lee and her son, Sonny, befriend Mac and he begins to attend church with them. Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday and driving home in a pickup truck they begin to talk. Sonny said, “Well, we’ve done it, Mac. We’re baptized. Everybody said I was going to feel like a changed person. I guess I do feel a little different. But I don’t feel a whole lot different. Do you?” Mac replied, “Not yet.” Sonny looked at himself in the rearview mirror and then commented, “You don’t look any different. Do you think I look any different?” Mac replied, “Not yet.” If we are baptized and pray and try to live a good life, why don’t we feel holy or at least peaceful? Why do we struggle with decisions or find difficult situations arising in our lives again and again? Shouldn’t our baptism protect us from illness or hardships? There seems to be a gap between being told that we are God’s beloved and the reality of our lives. We don’t feel like God’s beloved with whom He is well pleased when life’s challenges deflate us or when we remember, with shame, our angry words or selfish actions and unloving thoughts. Martin Luther, the German Catholic priest, credited with sparking the Reformation, often struggled with a sense of his sinfulness and sought comfort in confessing his sins again and again to a priest. He finally found comfort in Paul’s words, “We are saved by grace through faith.” Luther concluded that we are not saved by our right living and our works, none of which are ever good enough. Luther knew in his mind that he was saved. Yet, Luther still found himself in hours of deep despair and discouragement, wondering if he were saved and if life had any meaning. He saw God as a stern judge, and Luther knew his efforts at confession and repenting of his sins were far from perfect. Luther wrestled with the gap between his head and his heart. The words that finally brought Luther comfort were these, “I have been baptized.” Luther was saved by God’s grace and the gift of his Christian faith. It was all gift, perfect undeserved gift from God to us through Jesus Christ. The early Christian reformers placed faith in their belief that Christ alone is the way of salvation. Yet, there is also confidence that in Christian baptism, even infant baptism, God grants the gift of the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist predicted, Jesus brings to us the gift of baptism with the Holy Spirit. It is a gift we may not be conscious of having received for we know that we can never live the perfect Christian life. So we may spend our lives longing for and seeking the gift we have already received. For over 2000 years, ever since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians have marked the beginning of their faith journey with the sacrament of baptism. Today, we baptize infants, children and adults, with water in the name of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. We believe God’s love is reaching out to embrace and receive even the youngest child before the child is even aware of God. Baptism is about God’s grace at work in our lives to bring us to faith. The Trinity is as present in our baptisms today as the Trinity was present at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus, the Son of God, who knew no sin, identified with us in our sinfulness and took on our sin. Through Jesus, we become the adopted children of God and we are adopted into Jesus’ relationship with God as God’s beloved children. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us, teaching us, guiding us and comforting us. Our baptism signifies the faithfulness of God, for God is always reaching out to us and loving us before we are even aware of Him. Perhaps more difficult to hear is that baptism also speaks of death for we are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ own baptism symbolized His death as He was lowered into the waters. So our baptism speaks of our death as well. But the symbolism applies to far more than our physical death. We also die to sin, to self-preoccupation, to self-interest and are freed from being the center of our world so that we can respond to God with lives yielded to Him. Baptism also speaks of the promise of new life and resurrection. As Jesus was raised from the waters of baptism so He was raised into new life. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Jesus took our sins and we receive His perfect righteousness as God’s adopted children. Jesus’ resurrection gives to us the promise of our resurrection and eternal life with Him. In life and in death, we belong to Jesus Christ our Lord, who conquered death. Through Jesus Christ, we are God’s own beloved children with whom God is well pleased. Baptism is not just the act of a local church community. We are baptized into the church universal, the body of Christ, which is the Christian church, where together we can grow as Christians and serve others with the gifts we are given. During the baptisms of our church, the congregation takes the important vow, on behalf of the church universal, to guide and give Christian nurture to the one being baptized, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him or her to know and follow Christ and be a faithful member of His church. We need each other. It is extremely difficult to be a Christian and grow as a Christian if we are not worshipping, learning and serving God together in our community. Faith requires a commitment to God. As our baptism symbolizes a death to self and self-interest, so it also symbolizes a rising to new life with God at the center. The Franks were an ancient pagan warrior tribe that was among the first of the Germans to be converted to Christianity. They were converted en masse and underwent baptism by wading into a river to be baptized, often thousands at a time. In some way they understood that they were becoming followers of Jesus, a new king, and they had heard that Jesus was the Prince of Peace. As these warriors came to be baptized in a river, they were careful to hold their swords above their heads out of the waters of baptism to keep them from Jesus. Our Christian faith requires a commitment. We can’t hold our vocation or our checkbook or our hobbies out of the water of baptism. Christian faith overlays how we spend our time and money, how we use our gifts and opportunities, and our relationships with others. In our yielding to God all aspects of our lives, we are set free to live fully and abundantly the lives we were created to live. We have a new purpose and new focus and an increased dependence on the wisdom of God and the peace of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. One of my nephews expresses his love to his grandmother, my mother, so beautifully. He doesn’t just say, “I love you.” My nephew says, “I love you, Grandmother, with all my heart.” We express our love and gratitude to God by living lives that show we love God and trust Him with all our hearts. Faith doesn’t mean believing that bad things won’t happen to us. Faith does mean believing that God will see us through whatever befalls. I recall hearing on the news of a house fire in our community. A father had returned to his home to find flames shooting from the roof of his home. He knew his daughter was probably in her upstairs bedroom, but he also knew that he could not safely rescue her by entering the burning home. When the father saw his daughter at her bedroom window, he called to her to jump and he would catch her. The daughter believed, with all her heart, that her father would catch her. So she jumped into her father’s waiting arms and he carried her to safety. Faith means trusting that God will bring us through the darkest night, even the valley of the shadow of death. We are never alone, for Jesus promised to be with us always. In His presence is our peace. Our baptism confirms that we are God’s beloved children. It is not easy to embrace and truly believe that we are God’s beloved children. Our world holds up unrealistic expectations and fills our minds with negative voices that convince us that we are unsuccessful, ugly, not smart enough, too young or too old, too fat or too thin. We seek to become worthy by achieving success or popularity or status or pursuing some elusive image of physical beauty or youth or worldly success. Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful little book entitled, Life of the Beloved. In his book, he affirms that we are indeed God’s beloved. Nouwen wrote, “We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives…. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved.’” God wants us to believe that on us His favor rests. He has called each of us by name, and molded and knitted us together in our mother’s wombs. He has counted every hair on our heads and engraved us in the palm of His hands. He calls us to abide in Him and to find peace as we rest in the shadow of His wings when we are weary and filled with fear. God loves us with a love even greater than the love of a mother or a father for her or his child. Who else do we have on earth or in heaven who loves us as God loves us? He has promised that nothing will ever separate any of us from His love. When you must travel through the valley of the shadow of death, God leads you as a gentle shepherd leads His sheep. When you come to the end of your life, God will meet you. You are God’s beloved. God wants us to live as His beloved and to respond with gratitude. God wants us to recognize that His love extends to all people and that your brothers and sisters are also God’s beloved. God wants us to love and forgive our brothers and sisters, and to affirm that they, too, are worthy of our respect because they are God’s beloved. How else can our lives have meaning? How else can our lives continue to give life to people even after the too few years we will live on this earth? Jesus lived as God’s beloved and as God’s beloved, He came to affirm God’s love and care for each one of us. After His baptism, Jesus chose disciples and invited them to “Follow me.” Our baptism includes the same invitation: to live as God’s beloved and with the help of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus as His disciples and to love God and others as Jesus did. This is the life of God’s beloved, bound by the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, into the Son’s beloved relationship with God. Hear, my friends, the still, small voice that whispers to you, “You are my beloved, with whom I am so well pleased.” Remember your baptism. You are God’s beloved.
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