Isa. 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Have any of you made New Year’s resolutions this year? What does it mean to you to do that? Many of us see the New Year as a good time to renew our commitments to those things we value. As a matter of fact, we can learn a great deal about what people value by looking at their new year’s resolutions. For many in the secular world new year’s resolutions tend to be based on self: self-care, self-satisfaction, looking better, feeling better, and sometimes being better - but often by making more money, becoming more famous, being more healthy, etc.. We know this. What are the most common new year’s resolutions? To lose weight and to exercise more. This matches with our culture which is very “me” focused. We want to look better so we commit to losing weight. We want to feel better, so we commit to exercising more. What are some other common new year’s resolutions?
Okay, now what is baptism? When you think about your baptism, what does it mean to you? Many of us were baptized as children and for us then it is a sign of God’s choosing us, of being adopted or claimed as members of God’s family and of the family of the church. We baptize our children as a recognition of the promise that God loves us and claims us even before we are capable of responding to that love with faith. But for people baptized as adults, their baptism is something different. For adults, and even older children, as well as for the parents of those babies who are baptized, baptism is a rebirth, a washing away of the old self, a commitment to acting as God’s children as much as we are capable with God’s help, a new beginning, a beginning again.
In some ways it has similarities then to the commitments we make at the new year. Baptism affords us an opportunity to look at our lives and make some changes or recommit to the values we hold dear. It is a time to recommit to acting as God’s children. It’s appropriate to begin the new year with a renewal of baptismal vows because it is a washing clean, a rebirth, a starting over. As Frederick Buechner says, “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.”
For Jesus, too, baptism was, in a sense, a rebirth. The beginning of his ministry, the marking of him as God’s son was done through his baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit claiming him as God’s own. As we are called to follow Christ, we too practice the act of baptism, of renouncing evil and of accepting the rebirth that comes through acknowledging and celebrating God’s love and grace.
In the Presbyterian Church, we believe that it is only necessary to be baptized once. Only once are we given the personal experience of rebirth through baptism. Yet every time a baptism takes place, it is an opportunity for us to recommit to our baptism vows as well.
In the book “The Good News from North Haven” (Pocket Books, New York, NY, 1991) Michael Lindvall tells the story of a Presbyterian Minister in the far reaches of small-town Minnesota. At one point the pastor was asked to baptize a baby whose mother had grown up in the church. The catch was that the mother herself was still a child, she was a teenager. In this small town the pregnancy of a single, young girl was punishable by extreme ostracism, especially in the church. Many in the congregation strongly disagreed with Tina’s decision to keep her baby. And some felt that baptizing the child was somehow sanctioning Tina’s elicit behavior as well as her decision to keep the child, rather than giving it up to “responsible” or rather, adult, parents to raise. But Tina was a member of the church and church rules dictated that her baby would be baptized within the church walls if she so desired. One of the practices of this particular congregation was that at the beginning of any baptism, the pastor asked “who stands with this child” and the extended family of the baby was expected to stand for the rest of the ceremony. But Tina and her baby had no family. The anticipated embarrassment of this particular event for Tina as well as for the congregation was painful to everyone in the church. But church tradition and church rules were not to be challenged and so the time came for the baptism to begin. The narrator of the story, the pastor continued, “Down the aisle Tina came, nervously, briskly, smiling at me only, shaking slightly with month-old Jimmy in her arms. The scene hurt, alright, every bit as much as we all knew it would. So young this mother was, and so alone. One could not help but remember another baby boy born long ago to a young and unwed mother in difficult circumstances. I read the opening part of the service...Then I asked, ‘Who stands with this child?’ I glanced at Tina for only a moment before my eyes went quickly back to my service book.
I was just about to ask Tina the parents’ questions of commitment when I became aware of movement in the pews. Angus MacDowell had stood up, Minnie, his wife, beside him. Then a couple of other elders stood up, then the sixth-grade Sunday school teacher stood up, then a new young couple in the church, and soon before my incredulous eyes, the whole church was standing up with little Jimmy.
Tina began to cry, holding on to the pew as though she was standing on the deck of a ship rolling in a great wind, which, in a way, she was. The unexpectedness of this departure from the routine at first disquieted but then quieted us all. Every eye was on the child, who was for a moment, everybody’s baby.”
For every member of that church that day, for every member who stood with that baby and made a commitment to God to raise this baby in the way of God, a baby they had initially wanted to reject, a mother they had initially chosen to ostracize, the baby’s baptism was a rebirth, their rebirth.
Today, on this baptism of the Lord Sunday, I invite you also to recommit to your baptism vows, to accept again the cleansing, renewing, re-birthing love of Christ, to promise again to be God’s people acting with love, compassion and justice in the world, to follow Jesus in the way of renewal and new life. Today we will do this through a renewal of our baptismal vows.