Jesus Baptism and Ours

Dennis Graham, the producer, director and post-production guru said that the worship video for this weekend is one of the best we have ever done.

We looked at the story of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, and also reflected on what it means to be beloved child of God.

Here is the link to the Youtube video:

Here is the text of the Learning Time:

Learning Time: “Jesus’ Baptism, and Ours”

Jesus joined a crowd of people who went to the bank of the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach his fiery sermons, and to be baptized. They were not baptized into the Christian church, because that did not yet exist. They were Jews called to a life of faithfulness, and offered a way to have a fresh start.

Jesus was about thirty at the time of his baptism. He had lived a lot of years since being a newborn in a manger, and from that time when he was twelve, and hung out in the Jerusalem temple, talking about God with the teachers of religion.

What did he do for those 18 years, from that time in the temple, to this moment in the Jordan River? There has been a lot of speculation about that over the centuries, and books written about the possibilities. John Prine wrote a song called “Jesus, the hidden years”, which is worth checking out on YouTube. It’s a lot of fun.

Is it possible that like the escaped convict in the little clip from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Jesus felt like he needed a fresh start? That would make him seem a lot more human than he is usually described. 

Where were you at age thirty? What were you doing? Were you ready for a washing clean, a fresh start? Did you have a clear sense of who you were, and what God wanted you to be? Do you have that now?

A few years ago I heard a story about a young man who had led a kind of wild life. He had a lot of money, and many grown up toys. He didn’t have to work, and had more free time than many people. He was also very lonely, and at times, drank too much.

He was also had a deep spiritual hunger and curiosity. His search for more in life, and led him to walk into a church one Sunday. It was a non-denominational congregation led by a husband and wife team of co-pastors.

This very small congregation, made up mostly of seniors, met in a building that used to be a United Church. When the co-pastors saw a man in his late twenties walk in, they were thrilled. One of them actually said out loud, “Thank God, someone to help.’

The young man stuck around. Before long he was teaching Bible study, and helping with the sound system at the church, and going to Haiti on mission trips. Something in him responded to being needed to help, and he blossomed. He found himself.

That is an important and powerful thing, to discover who you are meant to be, who you are in God’s eyes, and to find your purpose in life.

This congregation practiced baptism by full immersion, and the old church building they were renting did not have running water, never mind a baptismal tank. The young man invited the congregation to use the pool at his condo for a baptismal service.

Have you ever seen that kind of baptism? It’s like what we saw in the video clip. The person walks in, or is standing in water that may be above their waist. The candidate for baptism is literally dunked under. In some traditions they are pushed in backwards, and totally submerged in the water. They are not held down, but they go all the way in, so that they are completely under water.

As a person who does not even like to put my head in the water when I swim, I would find this terrifying. If you are able, and willing, try an experiment with me. I am going to use my watch to time us for 20 seconds as we hold our breath.

That’s not very long. But it is about long enough to remind us how it feels to not breathe. I prefer to breathe. My body resists holding my breath. It instinctively knows what it needs.

You would have to hold your breath if you were being baptized by John in the Jordan River. You might also close your eyes, in case the water wasn’t clean. A lot of other people may have been dipped in that part of the river.

The experience, and the symbolism would be powerful. A total rinsing off of the dust and dirt, and messiness of life up to that point, and a rising up out of the water, with a commitment to live a new kind of life. Terror, and then relief, and perhaps joy, as you rose up out of the water.

The story says that after Jesus was baptized, and rose up out of the water, the heavens opened, the dove of the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice said to him , “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

One of the ways the church has understood baptism is as a way to participate in the mysteries of Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection.  The person totally submerged for baptism is for a moment, cut off from life around them.  They are like an unborn child, in those few seconds, except without the umbilical cord to provide all they need for life.

There is at once a hint of death, or the risk of it, and the reminder of what it is like for each of us, before we leave the safety of the womb, and enter the world. The water is at the same time, a womb, and a reminder of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, after he was killed on the cross.

Then the person rises up out of the water breathless, and is able again to breathe, and it suggests coming back to life, or being born. There is a lot of powerful symbolism there, that we may only catch a glimpse of in the way we tend to do baptisms.

But back to the story of the young man in the pool at his condo. I heard about it from his father, who is not a regular church goer, but who came to the condo pool that day. When his son had been baptized, and was getting out of the pool, he slipped on the wet deck, and almost broke his leg.

The father said his son was sore for a few days, but not seriously hurt. It could have been a lot worse. That little story, of falling on the wet deck is a reminder that this business of baptism, of life, and death, and new life, is risky.  You never know what’s going to happen. Did Jesus know what would happen in his life, after he submitted to John’s baptism?

The father told me this story of his son’s baptism, 4 years ago, while we stood together at the reception after his son’s funeral.  There was a great deal of sadness over this young man’s death. But in the midst of this, I also heard that the happiest, most fulfilling part of his short life began when he joined that little church, was baptized, and grew into a new understanding of his purpose. He found his identity as a beloved child of God, when he began to live a life that was about serving God, by helping others. It is so good that he found that little church, and found out who he was meant to be.

In the 1700’s there was an Anglican minister named John Wesley, who found the church he grew up in, and in which he had been ordained, to be a fairly dry, lifeless, and ineffectual institution, that was failed to reach the people who most needed it. The industrial revolution in England had made some people very wealthy, but it had also displaced many people from traditional rural lives, and pushed them into the cities in search of factory work. The cities were filled with the casualties of poverty, and poor education, and alcoholism, and child labour. Some evangelical ministers had begun preaching on street corners and holding open-air meetings to try to reach people who had no connection to a church.

Wesley became one of those people who brought the church to people where they were. He organized people into small groups, or classes, of 12 or so people, who would meet regularly to learn and pray together, and hold each other accountable for how they were living. The members would minister to each other, in between the visits from travelling preachers who would each watch over a number of these local classes. This system came to be called Methodism, and the Methodist Church in Canada was one of the denominations that joined together as the United Church in 1925.

John Wesley believed it was helpful to offer people them the opportunity to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. He called them “Covenant Services”, and I have borrowed some parts of a service he wrote, for our service today. Near the end of his life, Wesley tended to have these services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to offer people a fresh start.

So at the end of this service we have the opportunity to renew our faith commitments.  You can dip your fingers in warm water, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

This is not a baptism- but a symbol of your faith in Jesus, or at the very least, your desire to believe. This is a chance to say to ourselves, and to God, that we are choosing to live as beloved children of God.  Amen

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