Baptism: Not About Water
January 10, 2021*
by Pastor John Partridge
Genesis 1:1-5 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11
If you have watched any of the Snickers candy bar commercials for the last few years, you almost certainly remember some of the dramatic transformations that people make when they are “hangry” and then, get better after eating a Snickers. The way in which the advertisers portray this human metamorphosis is intended to be funny, and it often is. But it’s funny because many of us already have experience with family, friends, or ourselves, being a little (or more than a little) cranky, or “hangry” when we haven’t had anything to eat. I remember a number of times when, as loving as we knew him to be, my mother would send me to my room and caution me not to bother my father until after he had eaten dinner. Our children can testify that similar things have happened in our household as well. In all these cases, we recognize that our irritability, crankiness, or “hanger” really doesn’t have anything to do with noisy children, or anything else. The real cause is simply that we are hungry. Likewise, I watched a television show yesterday as on of the main characters argued with his mother about doing a mother-son dance at his wedding. Many excuses were thrown out including the choice of music, and her inability to dance, but in the end, all her excuses weren’t about any of those things, but were entirely based upon her fear of looking foolish and being mocked by her new in-laws. Often, the thing on the surface that everyone is talking about, isn’t really the root of what’s important.
And that’s exactly what’s going on today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus, and the subsequent tradition, and sacramental theology, as well as our many interpretations and denominational differences that revolve around the act of baptism, despite often disagreeing about how the water is to be applied, are all, in the end, not about water. To explain what I mean, let me begin in the beginning. The very beginning, at the time of creation, where we read this description in Genesis 1:1-5:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
In the beginning… God. Right up front, that’s the important bit. The earth was formless and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. You will notice that water is a part of the story. And water may even be an important part of the story. But water is not what the story is about. The story is about the Spirit of God, the miraculous work of God, and the transformation of darkness into light. And the light, we are told… was good.
And if we keep that example in mind as we read the story of Jesus baptism, we will see more clearly, that it is a story about something much more important than the immersion in, or the pouring of, water. The story in the gospel of Mark 1:4-11, says this:
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
As we did in the Genesis creation story, we must watch for who is doing the action. It may remind us of English class where we were asked to identify the nouns and the verbs, but it is important that we separate the players and actors from one another in the story. We must ask ourselves, what is the story about, and who is doing the most important action? And, in this case, it is God, once again, who is the one that we must watch. In this case, although they are all important to the story, John the Baptist, the Jordan River, and even the entire Judean countryside and the all the people of Jerusalem, are only set dressing for the important action. Jesus comes to the river, is baptized by John, and God shows up. As Jesus was coming out of the water, heaven itself is torn open, and the Spirit of God descends upon him and God the Father speaks from his throne in heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Yes, Jesus was baptized, with water, by John, but that is not the important part of the story. The important part that is central to understanding the story, is that the Spirit of God is the principal participant who is doing the important action of the story. This is a story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it is only after this anointing, or baptism, of the Spirit that Jesus performs miracles and does all the other things that we read about in the gospel stories. And so, we see that while baptism is vitally important to the story, it is the baptism of the Spirit that is central to the story, and not the immersion, or the pouring, of water.
But, if you want to double check and make sure that description is correct, look at Luke’s story about baptism in Acts 19:1-7 where he says:
19:1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
The men that Paul met in Ephesus knew about John the Baptist, and had been baptized with water, but Paul says that, as important as water baptism was, it was not the most important part. The most important part wasn’t to be baptized with water but to be baptized with the Spirit of God. And then, without using water, Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they received abilities that they had never had before, and this was illustrated for us when they spoke in foreign languages and prophesied about the future.
Paul’s explanation is that our being baptized with water is a two part action, our part is to repent of our sins and be baptized with water as an outward symbol of our repentance, but God’s part is to enter into us, at the time of baptism, in an act of transformation and empowerment, so that we are spiritually changed from the inside out and given the ability to do things through God’s strength, and through God’s Spirit, that now lives within us, that we could never do alone.
So, you see, the reason that we return to the story of Jesus’ baptism every year, isn’t just that water baptism is important, or that it is one of our few sacraments, means of grace, or moments when we can personally encounter the living God, although all those things are important. The most important reason that we return to this story every year, is that it reminds us of the work that God began at creation, the work of transforming darkness into light. The story of Jesus baptism reminds us that this was the moment of God’s empowerment of Jesus, as Jesus received the anointing of God’s Spirit and it reminds us that our baptism represents something far greater than our repentance and our interaction, by immersion, pouring, sprinkling, or otherwise, with water. The story of Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are the actors and the players in God’s work, that because of our baptism, we are baptized, anointed, and filled with, and completely transformed by, God’s Spirit who has taken up residence within us. And, not only because of our actions in consenting to, and being baptized, but most importantly because of God’s actions at the time of our baptism, we are now equipped to do whatever amazing, and even miraculous thing that God calls us to do, through the power of the Spirit that lives within us.
As much as our denominations might argue about it, baptism was never about water.
Baptism has always been about transforming darkness into light, transforming evil into good, healing the broken, sharing the Good News of God’s rescue, and doing the work of God in the world.
Baptism was never about water.
It has always been about God transforming and equipping us to do his miraculous work in the world.
Let us remember our baptism…
…and get to work.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/_kNHAqSfq90
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.