Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
January 13, 2019
Affirmed By Love Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
People are always giving me or telling me about things to read: books, magazine articles, newsletters, stories, blogs, what have you. Several years ago, Tim Furrow stopped by the office with a book to share. It’s called The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Their Favorite Bible Passages. Well, you never know about this sort of thing—maybe good, maybe not, maybe so-so.
In the early pages of an essay about John the Baptist, the author, Brooks Hansen, writes this: ..John is almost certainly the best drawn character in the gospels. We are told how he is dressed, groomed, what he liked to eat, the sorts of things he said, and the manner in which he said them. John is, moreover, the only character—other than Jesus—whose birth and infancy are presented in any detail.
The writer goes on to say that while we know about the deaths of other biblical figures, the death of John the Baptist is significant because it doesn’t have a direct impact on Jesus’ ministry. What is important about telling the whole story of John’s life and death is the fact that it reinforces “…the idea of his worthiness as Jesus’ first, most emphatic, and long foretold witness” (Brooks Hansen, “The Womb and the Cistern Cell: John the Baptist,” The Good Book, Ed. Andrew Blauner).
During Advent, I preached about the mother of John, Elizabeth. The Lection that day spoke of when she was pregnant with John and met her cousin, Mary, who was expecting Jesus. There is the famous line in Luke in which he tells us that: “…when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.”
That occasion, now called “the quickening,” reminds us that from the very start John recognizes the authority of Jesus. And that reality ushers in our lesson for the morning from Luke. The setting is the River Jordan. John the Baptist tells the people gathered there that he is unworthy to baptize Jesus, his cousin and the Messiah. He says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Despite his misgivings, john proceeds with the baptism, and then there is the revelation: the heavens open, a dove descends and the voice of God declares: “you are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
While john was very clear about the primacy of Jesus, his followers were not. What I didn’t remember—if I ever knew—is what Brooks Hansen says about the disciples of the two men: “…no one was more hostile to jesus than the followers of John.” Later at Aenon, up the river from John’s location, the Baptist’s disciples were upset that Jesus, the interloper, was not only stealing John’s people but also debasing the baptismal rite by letting his disciples perform it, which John did not do.
But John was not upset by this turn of events. As Hansen speaks of it, John the Baptist …takes the opportunity to express more clearly the subservience of his role. Jesus is the bridegroom, John is a mere guest at the wedding; Jesus is from heaven while John is from earth; Jesus must therefore “increase,” while he, John, must “decrease” (Hansen, “The Womb and the Cistern Cell”).
It wasn’t long after the incident at Aenon when John was arrested and held captive in a cell at the fortress of Machaereus on the eastern coast of the Dead Sea. And tragically, as we know, the vivid life and career of the man with the cloak of camel skins, the diet of locusts and honey, and the howling sermon diatribes, ended with his beheading. (Hansen). John was the first authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior, the first to believe, and the one who pointed the way to the baptismal rite that we know today.
In our faith tradition, we have just two sacraments: Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. We observe only these two because they were the sacraments Jesus gave us. Now 2,000 years later, communion and baptism are still at the very center of the Protestant tradition.
I have been to the River Jordan in Israel several times. I have seen pilgrims from all over the world, dressed in white, baptized there. I have filled bottles with water and brought them back to the states for use in baptisms. The baptism of Jesus by John continues to live on.
The rituals of many Protestant churches provide for three different methods for baptism. The first is immersion, sometimes called “water baptism.” People who are Baptists derive the name of their denomination, of course, from the practice of water baptism or immersion. People wanting to be immersed are lowered into a tank of water by their pastor. They figuratively die to sin and are raised to new life in the name of the Trinity.
I have performed three immersions during the course of my ministry. I have told you about Joaquin, the migrant worker in South Texas who said he couldn’t sleep at night until he had “water baptism.” I baptized him in the chilly November waters of Corpus Christi Bay. I also baptized a sixth grade confirmand in the same body of water on a summer morning, as well as another confirmand in the waters of Onion Creek just outside Austin, Texas.
A second baptismal option is that of “pouring.” I have only seen that method employed once–when a young confirmand in Southern Indiana elected to have the pastor pour a stream of water down the middle of her head.
The third method, sprinkling, is the one that we use at Hammond Street. Water is sprinkled over the head of the person being baptized.
Each infant whom I baptize in this church receives a baptismal letter from me. The instructions on the envelope say it is to be opened on his or her twelfth birthday or about the time that person is considering church membership. When people are baptized, they are then officially admitted to the family of God. When they join the church, we say that completes their baptism and seals the covenant between God and creation.
The words of Jesus, “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased,” are an echo of the Prophet Isaiah who said centuries before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (43:10, 4a).
Every baptism I have performed across 50 years of ministry has been a high and holy moment. I particularly cherish the memory of some of them through the years. I have told you about a few of them. I baptized my son and daughter and three of my four grandchildren. Naturally, those are precious memories.
Some of you will remember the late Ada Hutchings of our congregation. Ada began visiting Hammond Street when she was in her early 80’s. When I went to call on her, I asked about joining the church. Ada gave me a rather strange look and told me she had always had a problem about that. Well, it turned out the “problem” was that she had never been baptized. “And why was that?” I asked. Ada said that she was shy and felt awkward about going down in front of the congregation–especially at her age. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her that in special cases, like hers, I would be willing to have a private baptism. She was dumbfounded! She had no idea that could be possible. And so at the age of 82, I baptized this dear soul in her living room, and then a short time later Ada Hutchings took her place with the others who joined the church.
Another baptism I vividly remember was the infant son of two doctors in South Texas. Their little boy had been born very prematurely. While Sammy was receiving superb care, the medical team wasn’t sure he could be kept alive. The child’s parents were terrified that Sammy might die without receiving the sacrament of baptism. And so one night, when that tiny little baby was in grave condition, I went to the neonatal unit of the hospital. And there I joined the child’s family. A bowl of water was brought. I dipped my fingers in the water and extended my hand through the incubator to touch Sammy’s head. And then I offered a prayer and said, “Sammy, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Looking back on that night, I am not sure how I ever got through it. But fortunately, little Sammy did! He’s now a healthy young man in his twenties.
Another very unusual baptism happened right in this sanctuary. One Friday night some years ago, when Bangor still had a gay bar, I was there–as usual! I’m kidding. I didn’t go often, but I did occasionally. And there I would sit with my Diet Coke and visit with people from the community. One night, an acquaintance happened by. I will call him Tom. I didn’t know him well, but Tom did what people often do when they know I am a pastor: they want to talk about religion, about their experiences in the church–which have usually been bad. And so that was what Tom wanted to visit about that night. He really opened up to me. Tom had not been in a church in years, but he was obviously interested in spirituality and had a sincere heart. Tom finally said, “You know, Mark, what I would like more than anything else?” I didn’t have a clue. “To be baptized!” He never had received the sacrament, he said, and he had struggled with self-esteem issues all his life. Because he was gay, Tom felt unworthy of God’s love. And so he and I talked on and on into the night. And so finally I told Tom that I would be willing to baptize him. And so at midnight, Tom and I drove up to the church. I unlocked the building, turned on the lights and brought him into the Sanctuary. We sat down in the pew, opened hymnals, and I explained the significance of the sacrament. I asked Tom if he wanted to proceed and he said yes. Then I filled the bowl in the font with water and baptized him then and there, just the two of us in this very room. Tom’s smile that night was just like Ada’s–a mixture of joy and relief and healing.
At the end of the baptismal letter I give to the children, there appears this story: When Martin Luther found himself in the midst of gloom and despair, the only thing that kept him afloat, he said, was to touch his forehead and to repeat the words Baptismatus sum–“I am baptized.” In the dark night of his soul, this gesture brought comfort. Why? Because our God is a jealous God who does not easily part with that which God owns. For baptism, you see, is a reminder that God owns us and that we belong to God.
And so to each of you this morning, I would say that the Sacrament of Baptism is a reminder, as God told Jesus at his baptism, that you and I are beloved, precious and affirmed by love.
So remember your baptism and be thankful!
Copyright 2019 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty