When I was a kid I remember summers as those special times when we journeyed from my house in Glastonbury to my grandparents’ cottage along the shore in Old Saybrook. It wasn’t really as far as I thought it was but then, I was young and sitting any length of time in our car to head most anywhere seemed like a long, long journey going from our familiar home to something fondly remembered and anticipated. We would go to the cottage a week at a time and this was expected. My grandparents insisted on it though they needn’t have worried too much about our desire to be there. We loved it.
My grandfather was a builder; actually, a carpenter and he had bought an old cottage and renovated it so it would accommodate his children and their children. Each bedroom was assigned to each of my grandparents’ four sons and two daughters. The rooms weren’t large but they were adequate to sleep two parents and 1 or more children. There was a small bathroom on the second floor of the house…very simple…just a sink and a toilet. We all used the same bathroom taking turns washing up and brushing our teeth. Taking a shower was an outside affair. This was just a metal stall attached to the back wall of the house behind the small kitchen on the main floor. It worked and anyway, we didn’t know anything else so nobody complained, least of all us kids. For us, outside showering was an adventure.
That cottage was everything to us. We looked forward to our summer knowing we would be eating very well and swimming every day. We’d be with our cousins and we could probably get away with a bit more than usual since our mothers were busy talking and cooking and doing whatever our grandmother…everyone called her “Mama” …told them to do.
My grandparents’ cottage was about 1/4 of a mile from the saltwater. We thought it was the ocean and only age and knowledge taught us we were really swimming in the Long Island Sound just off the coast of Connecticut. Some days, when the air was very clear we could see along the horizon the New York mainland. To get to the water, we had to walk carrying all of what we might need for a day at the beach: towels, pails, shovels, blankets, chairs, umbrellas and of course, food for the day. The first dive of the season into the water felt like a baptism…a true cleansing away of the grime of school and city life. We felt renewed and though we didn’t have a word for it then, I would think we felt blessed too.
Reading the scripture that describes Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, I couldn’t help but wonder what he and the many that came to John for baptism might have felt as the waters of the Jordan closed in around them. I wondered if it felt at all like I felt as a child at the beach when I plunged head-first into the saltwater and was totally immersed. Most United Methodists don’t experience baptism in the same way Jesus experienced it. For most of us, our baptisms were rituals that symbolically suggested the total immersion experienced by those that were led to the river Jordan and baptized by John. A gentle sprinkling of water from the baptismal font is our method of baptism but it is enough to remind us of God’s grace, a grace poured down upon us which seals our lives and our destinies as God own children.
Though we are not completely submerged in the cleansing waters of baptism, our baptisms are no less grace-filled than the one Jesus submitted to at the hands of John the Baptist. With our baptisms, we are cleansed and redeemed; we are named and marked forever as God’s own. We are freed to be fully all that God intends us to be. Of course, there is that question, which keeps popping up when we read this scripture. “Why?” Why did Jesus need to travel to the waters of the Jordan to receive baptism from John? It couldn’t have been a matter of redemption, salvation, forgiveness or healing. Jesus didn’t need any of those acts; his life, his ministry, his death on a cross and his resurrection would ultimately all be means for you and I to know the fullness of God’s forgiving love. Jesus was the one who would bring redemption to others. He didn’t need it for himself.
But what did happen on that historic day was important. In that moment, John and those at the water’s edge, even Jesus himself, all received God’s word of hope and certainty. As the Spirit of the divine rested on Jesus and a voice from above spoke his name and his destiny, there could be no doubt, at least in that moment, of God’s grace and love. God had a plan and both John and Jesus were a part of its success.
Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry and mission, a ministry and mission that God had called him to and for which he would eventually die. I think it’s interesting that John the Baptist was engaged in the redemptive work of God in the wilderness. Mark’s gospel tells us that people went to John the Baptist who was preaching in the wilderness in order to receive John’s baptism of redemption. Now, for some of us, being in the “wilderness” is a descriptive way to explain a time of confusion, or fear, or doubt in our lives or in our faith. And yet, the biblical writers seem to put the people of faith about whom they write in the wilderness. Here is where God tests his disciples. Here is where the plan of life is set in place. Here is where a new beginning can be initiated. In the wilderness apart from the hectic-ness of life is a means to make it easier to understand better what God’s hope for life might be.
I believe that God seeks to strengthen us for our tasks, whatever they may be and though we might not fully understand the future and its implications for our lives, we can understand how carefully the path ahead is laid for us to walk. Baptism is a beginning and it marked the beginning of Jesus’ formal ministry. There would be a time for contemplation and reflection and yes, testing, in the wilderness but on the other side of all this preparation, the plan is in place. We spend our lives, like Jesus spent his, seeking out a fuller understanding of our purpose on earth. All this, so that we might more faithfully and energetically live out God’s plan and purpose in us and in our personal lives as well as our corporate lives as Christ’s church.
What lies ahead in this year is uncertain as the beginning of every New Year. But we have the assurance that we do not walk into our future alone. God is with us. We know the task that was ahead for Christ. We can appreciate the burden and blessing he bore as one of us. With the descending dove of the Spirit of God, with the words, “This is my beloved Son,” Christ was confirmed in his life task and affirmed as God’s redeeming action to those who witnessed his baptism. And also to us, who now many years later read these wonderful words of affirmation. This is my Beloved Son of whom I am well pleased.” The same Spirit that touched Christ that day touches us at the time of our baptisms giving us the power to assume the tasks God has for each of us. With our baptisms, we are recognized as God’s children. We are affirmed as God’s beloved sons and daughters. With our baptisms, the Spirit of God moves over our lives and prepares us, as it prepared Christ, for the ministry and mission we have been called to as Christ’s followers. There is for us, as there was for Jesus, work that we are being called to and prepared for. God’s Spirit anointing us leaves no room for fear, discouragement, uncertainty or doubt. We are God’s own. God names us and claims us, even as Christ was named and claimed. Listen! God says to us in the deepest places of our hearts … take courage. “You are my children, my beloved; with you all I am well pleased.” Let us remember our baptisms and be grateful for the Spirit of God is with us. Amen.