WHAT’S THE MEANING OF THIS?
A sermon on Matthew 3:13-17
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 12, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Who are you? And where do you come from—really?
Back in my college days, like many students, money was especially tight. I found myself often strapped for cash. It was one of those times in my life when the term “disposable income” was a contradiction in terms. (Can anybody here relate to that?) One of the items that I scrimped on in those days was clothes. Whenever I needed some new clothes, I would often go down to the local Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift stores to scout out what they may have had. What I discovered is that you can find some great buys there. The thing is, you have to be in the right place at the right time in order to find what you want. And you have to be willing spend some time digging around through numerous clothing racks. But if you are patient, your perseverance will usually be rewarded with some great finds…
There was one particular item of clothing that I was always on the lookout for whenever I went shopping in thrift stores. That item was work shirts. I sought these shirts out for a number of reasons. Work shirts are very well made, and they are constructed out of sturdy, durable fabric. They were designed to endure years of rugged use. Many times, you could tell that work shirts in thrift stores had not been worn very much. Some of them looked almost brand new. And it was doubly great if the work shirt had someone’s name on it. And on top of all that, they only cost a buck or so. What a bargain…
As I looked through the clothing racks looking for shirts in my size, I would sometimes pause to wonder about that particular shirt’s story. I am sure that each shirt had its own special story attached to it. Sometimes I would think about the person who first wore the shirt. Questions such as “What were they like?”…or “Why did they choose to work this job?”…or “I wonder what they are doing now?”
My guess is that many of these shirts had a story that went something like this: The previous owner had gotten a job, decided that the job really did not suit them after a few weeks, and so they quit—or they got fired. Later on, when it was time for a closet cleaning, they figured that they no longer needed these shirts since they did not work there any longer. So the shirts got donated…
I acquired a dozen or so of these shirts while I was in college. Among my favorites was a green-and-gold vertical striped shirt from Pasquale’s, a local pizza joint. It used to belong to a guy named Dave. I purchased a light jacket that was worn by Aaron when he drove a delivery truck for Millbrook Bakery. And best of all, I had one of those iconic Orkin Pest Control shirts. Do you remember the TV commercials with the jingle about calling “Otto the Orkin Man?” You might recall their famous shirts—white, short-
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sleeved shirts with red trim and the company logo on the right chest. Sadly, “Otto” was not the name of the previous owner. “Chuck” was the name stitched over the left side pocket.
I used to love wearing those shirts. It could be great fun. Sometimes when I was wearing one of them, I could almost feel as if I could pretend to be someone else. Wearing a newly acquired shirt for the first time was good for a few laughs when hanging out with my friends. And when meeting new people, the shirts were occasionally good conversation starters. (For example, once while I was wearing the Pasquale’s shirt, a guy approached me and said, “I have a sister who worked for Pasquale’s a couple of years back. She said that it was the worst job she ever had.” I didn’t know how to respond…If I would have been thinking quickly enough, I might have said, “Yeah, I know what you mean. And the next time that you talk to your sister, tell her Dave says hello”…but I missed my chance…)
Under ordinary circumstances, wearing a company work shirt with a name on tells others something about the person wearing it. It identifies that person’s name. It also identifies who they work for. Sometimes it even identifies their job title on it. Today’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3. Of all the things that happen in this story, perhaps the most important part is that God used this experience to identify who Jesus really is…and to give us an indication of the mission that God had sent him to do. And he did this through the experience of baptism…
The first thing to notice about this passage is that this baptism of Jesus was no accident. Matthew writes in verse 13, “Jesus came up from Galiliee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” In the gospel of Mark, it is even more explicit. Mark notes that Jesus came from Nazareth, his hometown. It is a fair question to ask why this bit of information was important enough for these gospel writers to include…
Nazareth was a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. It was not close to any major city and was a couple of day’s journey away from the place where John was baptizing in the Jordan River. It was a place of no particular importance. In fact, it was a place so insignificant that it was never even mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. No one gave Nazareth much of a thought back on those days…
The point is that Jesus arrived at the Jordan River as a nobody. At this place in his life, Jesus was just a small town guy from a cultural backwater. No one knew who he was. No one expected any great thing out of him. People just assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of the family profession of being a carpenter. He had yet to do his first miracle. He had yet to do his first teaching. And when Jesus arrived, he seemed to be nothing more than just another face in the crowd who had come to hear John preach. Things would soon dramatically change…
The gospel of John tells us that John the Baptist recognized who Jesus was immediately when he arrived. He pointed him out to the crowd, declaring “Look! Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” And if that was not enough, after he baptized Jesus, verse 16 of today’s text tells us that suddenly the heavens opened up. The Spirit of God descended on Jesus in the form of a dove while
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a voice declared from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If Jesus had arrived by the riverside unknown and unheralded to be baptized by John, that certainly was not the case by the time he left. For Jesus and John the Baptist, after the baptism of our Lord, there would be no turning back…for either one of them…
Baptism is one of the central components in the life of the church and the Christian believer. It is one of the core missions of what the church is to be about. You all recall Jesus words to his disciples at the end of the book of Matthew: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
The word “baptism” itself is derived from the Greek word baptizmo which carries the meaning to be immersed. What is interesting to note is how the importance and the meaning of baptism has changed throughout the history of the church. As Baptists, we have always maintained the belief that baptism was reserved for only those who have consciously made a profession of their faith in Christ and express their desire to follow him. And we have always insisted that the way of baptism always be that of immersion. Throughout history, Baptists have vigorously defended those beliefs. There is plenty of warrant in the New Testament for both such positions. But what is interesting to note is that such thoughts were already undergoing change even in the days of the 1st Century church…
The Didache (which means “teaching”) is an early church manual that did not make it into the New Testament canon. Scholars have dated the document’s origin as anywhere between 50 AD to 150 AD. That means that it actually could have been written even before some of the books that were included into the New Testament had been written. Concerning baptism, this early church manual says,
The procedure for baptizing is as follows. After repeating all that has been said, immerse in running water “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” If no running water is available, immerse in ordinary water. This should be cold if possible; otherwise warm. If neither is practicable, then pour water three times “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Both baptizer and baptized ought to fast before the baptism, as well as any others who can do so; but the candidate himself should be told to keep a fast for a day or two beforehand.1
What should be evident in that passage is that baptism was regarded as a big deal from the church’s earliest years. There are proscribed words to be said, a proscribed way that baptism was to be performed, and the inclusion of fasting as a requirement for the one being baptized, the one performing the baptism and others as well. In the life of the early church, after one had been baptized, there was no turning back…
By the time of the 4th Century, baptism had turned into a long process. It was not just an act performed occasionally, or tacked on to a regular worship service like it often is nowadays. It had
1 Maxwell Standiford, tr., Early Christian Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 194.
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become a process that took weeks of preparation. And baptism was only performed once a year—Easter Sunday morning. First, there was a set of meetings that each baptismal candidate was required to attend. In these meetings, they were taught and required to memorize a list of beliefs that constituted what was considered the core of Christian doctrine. Fasting again was required by all involved. When it was time for the baptism at daybreak on Easter morning, the candidates disrobed and went into the water naked to be baptized. (Now wouldn’t that add some interest to our worship services if we required that of people these days?!) After being baptized, then they were immediately dressed in a new white robe as soon as they came up out of the water. The symbolism is obvious, isn’t it? It signifies what the Apostle Paul wrote about baptism in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.” The new white robe symbolizes the newness of life in the Spirit. After the baptism, the person was anointed with oil, the congregation gathered around to lay hands and pray over them, and then they were led to join the rest of the congregation in the Easter celebration—complete with their first observance of communion. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that was designed to make a lasting impression on the individual and the community. Once a person had gone through all that was required and had been baptized, there was no turning back…
In Baptist life, we believe that baptism is a onetime event in the life of the believer. We believe that the scriptures teach that the experience of baptism is not one that should be repeated time and time again. As best as I can tell, most other Christian groups believe the same thing…But as I grew up in Baptist churches, I noticed a curious phenomenon. I do not know if other denominations have experienced this same thing or not. It is the practice of being baptized a second time—the phenomenon of “rebaptism.”
The story often went something like this. The church would hold a series of revival meetings usually in the spring or fall. The meetings would often go on for at least a week—often even two weeks. (Anybody else remember two week revivals?) There would be an evangelist preaching each night who would emphasize the need for everyone to be saved. As the revival wore on, the evangelist’s insistence for everyone to be saved would often create doubt in the hearts of some good folks as to whether they had been really converted…or not. So during the altar call at the end of the services, there would almost always be someone would come down front asking to be “rebaptized.”
When asked why they wanted to make this decision, the answer was often, “I came forward to accept Christ and be baptized when I was much younger. Back in those days, I really did not understand. I did not know what I was doing. So now that I am older, I do understand and I really want to receive believer’s baptism.” Naturally the congregation would rejoice with that person. It would affirm the decision and the person would soon be baptized for a second time.
Let me say right here that I am not being critical of anyone who has ever made that kind of decision. Perhaps you have made that decision before or perhaps you know of someone else who has. And that’s okay. If that is the decision that the Spirit was leading you to make, then BY ALL MEANS that is the decision that you needed to make. I am not being critical of that in any way. I know lots of people
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who have made the decision to be rebaptized—including one of my own siblings. Anyone who wants to reaffirm and deepen their relationship to Christ will not catch any criticism from me.
However, with the passing of time, the irony of that statement has become increasingly clear to me. “When I got baptized, I didn’t know what I was doing.” The truth of the matter is—who really does? Does anyone know what this baptism will mean in their lives—what it truly signifies—where following Jesus through baptism will lead them in their lives? Following Jesus and conscientiously living in the Spirit is not an easy matter. Does anyone understand the troubles that they will encounter—the doubts that may creep in—the crises of faith that they may experience in the years ahead?
I know that I didn’t understand that when I was baptized. When I was baptized, I was a few months shy of my tenth birthday. Though I had been going to church for as long as I could remember, I realize now that I knew so little about life and so little of what it means to follow Jesus. All that my little nine year old heart understood was that Jesus loved me. God loved me with a love as big as all outdoors and I wanted to respond to that love. So I walked down the aisle, shook the preacher’s hand, professed my faith in Christ and was baptized two weeks later. At the time, I had no idea of how unpredictable the journey can sometimes be when following Jesus. I had no idea of the sacrifices that would be needed….of the twists and turns—the incredible highs and lows—that my life would make as a result of following Jesus…of the troubles that I would have to endure…of the heartbreaks that I would embrace. Upon further reflection, maybe it was better that I didn’t know all that when I was baptized…But now that I am 63 years old, I can say with confidence that I have no regrets about that decision that I made so many years ago…After being baptized in the West Rome Baptist Church back in 1966, for me, there was no turning back…
There is a cliché about baptism that has been prevalent in Baptist life for a long time. It was probably created in order to counter the notion that there is anything magical about the waters of baptism—that there is any saving ability in the waters themselves. We have tended to define baptism as “an outward sign of an inward change.” (Has anybody here ever heard that phrase before?) Now that is true—as far as it goes. The decision to be baptized should be of one’s own volition—not forced or coerced by anything other than the gentle promptings of God’s Holy Spirit. There’s nothing especially magical about the waters of baptism. It is a sign—a symbol—a testimony to others—of our decision to follow Christ in our lives.
But while that definition of baptism is true, I think that there is more to it than that. Baptism is not just a sign of what WE have decided to do. It is also a sign of what GOD is dong in us. It is a sign that we now belong to God and that God’s Holy Spirit is actively working in us and through us to accomplish his purposes for us in our lives. That is what the Apostle Paul was describing in Romans 12:1-2. In those verses, he wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, which are holy and acceptable to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to tell and approve what God’s will is—his good, and pleasing, and perfect will.” Baptism is an outward sign
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of the Spirit working within us, as God seeks to create in us the abundant life that he has called us to live. For all of those who are baptized and are seeking to follow Jesus, there is no turning back…
For Jesus, what began in the waters of the Jordan River continued on until the Friday of Calvary and the Sunday in the Garden. There can be no turning back. And the story of Jesus becomes our story also: for we too are called by God, though too often others claim not to notice the sign. We must also connect with spiritual high spots that too soon leave us to the struggles of living the faith. We must also live the choosing so that our personal faith has consequences for the wider community. Like the Savior, once we are touched by the hand of God at our baptism, there is no turning back.2
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
WHAT’S THE MEANING OF THIS?