January 8, 2006
Baptism of the Lord
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
I just read about a certain preacher, a recent seminary graduate, who was appointed to his very first congregation. He and his wife went to visit his family one Saturday afternoon for lunch. This preacher's mother sensed that her daughter-in-law was all that happy, but not wanting to be one of those nosey, meddlesome mothers-in-law, she pretended not to notice. She figured it was just a lover's spat.
But as her son and daughter-in-law left, everything was cleared up because she overheard her daughter-in-law say, "All right, we can go by the church and you can practice baptizing me just one more time. But remember this, when you have your first funeral, you are not going to practice burying me!"
I personally don't think that practicing baptizing someone is all that necessary. What I do consider absolutely necessary is practicing our baptism. Or living our baptism so it makes a difference. Let's look at passage for today. Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
This morning is a special service. Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. In ancient times, the Christmas season wouldn't be over until after this Sunday. The reason being that everything in Jesus' life as a baby, a child and a young adult lead up to this point and beyond. Jesus' baptism was the mark of the beginning of His earthly ministry. Not His life but His ministry. And it was His ministry that was the most important part of His life.
His baptism is that dividing point between the old and the new. Just like it is for us.
Baptism is that dividing point for us as well. It's that starting over point. The point of our second chance. In the movie Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal is a young girl whose mother abandoned her and her preacher father when she was still very young. Opal and her father have moved to Naomi, Florida where he is the pastor of a store front church. After praying for friends, Opal begins to make friends with some odd people. Like Gloria Dump who the kids all think is a witch.
Opal is visiting with Gloria one day about Otis, the pet store owner, one of her other friends. Opal tells Gloria that Otis is a criminal, and she asks Gloria if she should be afraid of him. When Gloria asks why Opal should be afraid, Opal replies, "For doing bad things; for being in jail."
Gloria thinks for a second and then invites Opal to come to the back yard with her. They stop in front of a giant tree, and Gloria asks, "What do you think about this tree?"
From nearly every branch of the tree hangs empty bottles, suspended by cords. The sunlight dances through the many-colored bottles. It is quite a spectacle. Opal wants to know why there are so many bottles hanging from the tree?
Gloria says, "To keep the ghosts away."
Opal wants to know what she means, and so Gloria clarifies, "The ghosts of all the things I done wrong."
Opal's surprised. She cannot imagine that Gloria has done that many things wrong. But Gloria says that she has done even more wrong things than are represented by the bottles.
Opal complains, "But you're the nicest person I know!" But Gloria corrects her, "Don't mean I haven't done bad things." Gloria tells Opal that she used to drink too much. When Opal asks if the drinking made her do the bad things, Gloria confesses, "Some of them. Some of them I would have done anyway, with alcohol or without it." Gloria tells Opal to learn "the most important thing" so that she can avoid many of the same pitfalls. Gloria says that Opal will have to discover it on her own, but tells her that she can begin by not judging people for their past, but by what they are doing now. Especially her friend Otis, who had spent time in jail, but now makes beautiful music and is kind to the animals in his shop, "Cause that's all we know about him now, right?"
One of the things our baptism tells us and reminds us is to remember where we came from. Gloria remembers through her bottle tree. It reminds her she made mistakes, and encourages her not to make any more. While she doesn't tell Opal "the most important thing," we know that it is the forgiveness and mercy we receive from Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to live a more godly life.
One of the ancient practices of baptism was that people who were going to be baptized would come in old, worn out, work and world stained clothes. As they came to the water for baptism, they would begin to strip out of the old clothes until they stood naked in the water, shed of all the old ways. Then when they were baptized, they put on fresh clean white robes, symbolizing their new life, cleansed and made whole in Christ. Baptism is our starting over point.
A. Baptism also tells us how much God loves us and the extent of that love.
In the movie My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding Toula, a girl from a Greeek family, falls in love with a non-Greek man. Her father Gus, a staunch Greek, won't allow his daughter to marry the non-Greek Ian Miller. But Gus will allow Ian to marry Toula if he's baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Ian is baptized in the manner of the Greek Orthodox church, being immersed 3 times (once in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Spirit). Toula and her brother Nick are talking. Toula's brother Nick turns to her and says, "It's not so bad, huh?" Toula, who has had some self-esteem issues, replies in horror, "Are you kidding? Any minute now he's going to look at me and go, 'Yeah, right. You're so not worth this.'"
Nick says, "Yes you are."
DVD Chapter: 10 Start Time: 50:57 End Time: 51:58
And that's exactly what God says to us. Not only the day we are baptized, but every time we see and participate in a baptism. God looks at us and says: "You're so worth it."
B. A famous obstetrician is remembered not only for delivering babies with great professional skill but also for delivering them with a beautiful flourish all his own. This doctor talked to the newborn babies. From the moment he first touched them he would smile at them and soothe them with soft words of welcome. "Hello little one, now don't be frightened. This is a wonderful world, and you are so wanted. The loveliest things are prepared for you. Your folks love you already and have made great plans for you. So don't be afraid, child. We're all tremendously glad you're here ..." And the like.
And that's what God said, not only about Jesus, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased" but God says that about each of us.
And that makes all the difference between night and day.
A. Forty years ago a Philadelphia congregation watched as three 9-year-old boys were baptized and joined the church. Not long after, because they were unable to continue with its dwindling membership, the church sold the building and disbanded.
One of those boys was Tony Campolo, now author and Christian sociologist at Eastern College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Campolo remembers: "Years later when I was doing research in the archives of our denominations, I decided to look up the church report for the year of my baptism. There was my name, and Dick White's. He's now a missionary. Bert Newman, now a professor of theology at an African seminary, was also there. Then I read the church report for 'my' year: 'It has not been a good year for our church. We have lost 27 members. Three joined, and they were only children.'" (1)
B. Now, not everyone who is baptized grows up to be a Tony Campolo or a Seminary professor like Bert Newman. And while we might not go on the mission field like Dick White, we all become missionaries through the water of our baptism because, that water is the water of life.
It changes everything. It cleans us up and gives us a starting over point. And it reminds us just how much we are loved. And all we're asked to do is DRINK DEEP from the water of life.
There are a lot of things in the world for which we hunger and thirst. But we know, from Jesus' teachings that it's only the living water which He offers that can quench the thirst of the soul. The water which He Himself experienced at His own baptism. "If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink."
The invitation is simple, come and drink. Remember YOUR baptism. DRINK DEEP from the water of life.
1. Leadership, Summer 2001
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