Baptism of Our Lord B: Baptism & Blessing

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I want to start with a question: how often do you think about your baptism? Perhaps your family reminded you of its importance by celebrating the anniversary of your baptism each year and so baptism has always been important to you. Or maybe you learned to appreciate it later, at confirmation or sometime as an adult. Or maybe your appreciation of baptism was deepened during your study at seminary and now you think of it every time you wash. Or maybe you know the theological significance of baptism but, truth be told, don’t think of it all that often. (Don’t worry, I’m not judging, just asking.)

Now I want you to think about how often your people think about their baptisms and about the significance baptism might hold for their daily lives. If we’re going to be honest, it’s probably not that much. I know, I know, I shouldn’t presume. Perhaps to some it is quite meaningful. But most folks I know don’t think about baptism all that much. It was a ritual that was important to their parents. If they marry someone of a similar faith and have kids themselves, they might have their children baptized as well, if only to carry on the tradition. But day in and day out, I’m guessing very few of our folks give baptism all that much thought.

I’m asking you to think about all this, of course, because this Sunday, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, is the day on which we remember Jesus’ own baptism. And both the text from Mark and the day itself offer an opportunity to think more deeply, and claim more fully, the promises God made to us at our own baptism.

More importantly, however, I’m asking you to think about all this because I believe there is perhaps no more important event in our lives than our baptism. Let me explain.

One of things I’m struck by in today’s culture is the omnipresence of affirmation. Facebook gives us the chance to “like” movies or books or posts and to have things we write or post “liked” by our “friends” in return. Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram invite us to collect thousands of “followers,” “fans,” or “friends,” most of whom we’ve never met. Sports programs routinely reward kids just for showing up with medals “for participation.” Ads are increasingly personalized, targeting our particular tastes and creating the impression that we are the most important customer in the world. And so on.

One of the reasons I think digital platforms, and social media in particular, are powerful is precisely because they creatively offer affirmation in plentiful doses. Deep down, of course, we know that this kind of affirmation doesn’t mean all that much. Or at least shouldn’t. Many of the folks we encounter via the web, after all, don’t really know us and we don’t know them, so how can their “likes” or “hearts” create any enduring sense of value or worth? And yet it’s hard not to wonder what was wrong with the picture we posted to Instagram if only twenty people liked it when another picture garnered two hundred nods?

So while this affirmation may be somewhat superficial, it’s at least better than nothing. We crave that recognition and interaction because we are, at heart, inherently social people. Almost every element of our being reflects God’s observation in Genesis that is not good for us to be alone, and so the affirmation, relentless as it is ubiquitous, social media offers creates the perception that we are linked to so many others – indeed, that we are surrounded by a community of like-minded, and like-able, people that value us.

But is it a perception or illusion? Sherry Turkle – MIT professor, internet scholar, and author of Alone Together – has discovered that people today report feeling simultaneously more connected and lonelier than ever before.

Why? Because while we may crave affirmation, what we need is acceptance.

A word about acceptance before going further. Acceptance, I want to be clear, is not the same as “fitting in.” Indeed, it is its exact opposite. For while fitting in – the skill we learned most keenly in adolescence but keep sharp into adulthood – is all about changing yourself so as to be found acceptable to your peer group, acceptance is simply and crucially being accepted and valued just as you are. And there is nothing more important or necessary in leading a healthy, productive life than feeling accepted.

Which is where baptism comes in. Notice in Mark’s treatment of the story of Jesus’ baptism two things. First, notice God’s words to Jesus. They are personal, poignant, and powerful. “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” Wrapped in these words of acceptance are the blessings of identity, worth, and unwavering regard.

Second, notice that these words come just before Jesus’ temptation (which we won’t read about until the beginning of Lent) and the start of Jesus’ ministry (which we’ll return to in two weeks). This event – Jesus’ baptism – isn’t incidental to Mark’s story about Jesus, it’s foundational. Indeed, it comes immediately after the introductory verses and so stands as the very first episode of Jesus’ life Mark tells shares with us.

Similarly, Jesus’ baptism isn’t preamble to all that comes later in his life, it’s the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son. So also, at our low moments, we might remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism to never abandon us and to love and accept us always and still as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.

This is why I think baptism is so incredibly important, because it offers us the acceptance, not merely affirmation, of the Creator of the Cosmos and thereby empowers us to accept others in turn. Baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, yet God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us. And for a generation that has been sold cheap affirmation as a substitute for genuine acceptance, there is no more powerful word.

And so let’s celebrate this day, Dear Partner, not just as the “Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord,” but also as the “Sunday of Our Baptism and Blessing.” Not, I think, by offering a theology of baptism but instead by inviting folks to hear, see, and feel the promise and blessing of baptism once again.

There are lots of ways you could do this, of course. Perhaps you could pull out the Christmas Eve candles you recently put away and invite people into a remembrance of their baptism after the sermon. They could lift up their candles as you say again the promise of baptism that we are “marked by the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” Or maybe each person, upon sharing their light with another, might say to each other, “You are a beloved child of God.” Or, as people hold their lighted candle up you might all say together, “I am a beloved child of God, with me God is well pleased.” If you have time, you could ask people to bring their own candles from home (baptismal candles, if they have them, but any old candle will do) and to light them again each evening this week at home and remember that God loves them. Or – for those who don’t want to mess with candles 🙂 — perhaps people could turn to one another at the end of the service and say to each other, “In Baptism God has promised to love you forever,” or, “Baptism is the promise that God will never let you go.” Or perhaps the dismissal might include a blessing and benediction to send God’s beloved people out to love and care for God’s beloved world. Or maybe…

Well, you get the idea. The possibilities, I think, are nearly endless. You’ll know what will work in your context better than I. But I can almost guarantee you that if you can help people to feel the acceptance baptism conveys and to take with them the promise it offers, you won’t just make this a great day, you’ll start them off into a fresh new year of grace and blessing. Thank you – and even more thank God for you – for making this effort. For you, too, Dear Partner, are a beloved child of God with whom God is so very well pleased.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: Joachim Patinir, “The Baptism of Jesus,” (c.1515-1526).