''By Water and the Spirit"
The first year I arrived at seminary, the theme for the opening colloquium was “Remember Your Baptism.” I have to admit that about the only thing I remember about the colloquium was getting water flung at us from palm branches and thinking, “Glad I didn’t wear my glasses today,” after watching several annoyed folks wipe the water spots off of their eyewear. But the heart of the matter was to remind us that we had been washed clean of our sins and God’s Holy Spirit had been poured out upon us. It’s a good thing to remember as often as possible. That is one reason why we keep the font up front in a place of prominence in the sanctuary, so that it can be seen and serve as a visible reminder of the sacrament that sets us apart as beloved and chosen by God.
As Reformed Protestants, we have only two sacraments, communion and baptism. That ought to clue you in to how important the church views these acts. Both involve a union with Christ through the Holy Spirit—One through sharing his body and blood, and one through sharing the waters of renewal. At a baptism, God’s Holy Spirit comes to be with the person who promises to live a life according to the will of God by following the example of Christ Jesus. And the first example we follow is that of his baptism itself.
When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming to him for baptism, John is rather shocked. “What are you doing here? I can’t baptize you! You’re the one who should be baptizing me!” But Jesus calms him, saying, “Let it be so now.” In other words, don’t make a fuss. This is what needs to be done to fulfill all righteousness. 'Fulfilling righteousness' in this context means doing the work that God has given one to do. John's work is to announce the presence of the Messiah and the coming reign of God. By baptizing Jesus, John's mission is fulfilled. And it was at this point that the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove and the voice of God is heard proclaiming, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
We hear very similar words spoken about the one known only as ‘the Servant’ in the Isaiah text. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” God sends the Spirit to empower the Servant to be able to do God’s work in the world. Once the Servant has received the Spirit, he is able to go about bringing justice to the nations, says Isaiah. And he will not grow faint or be crushed until this goal is brought about, says the Lord. Through the Holy Spirit, the Servant has the strength and power to serve God’s purpose, which, in this case, is justice.
Of course, we Christians can easily place Jesus in the role of this Servant. Especially when we hear Matthew’s words right next to Isaiah’s. I imagine it is to no one’s surprise to find Matthew drawing on words from Isaiah again here. But another parallel we certainly can draw is the initiation of the Servant, whoever it might be, into the work of God upon receiving the power of the Spirit. And since I am sure you are expecting me to say it, and since I wouldn’t dare disappoint you, I will tell you that we, too, can find ourselves in the role of servant, receiving the Spirit to initiate us into the ministry God has planned for us. We can always be sure that God has a purpose, a holy purpose, for us to fulfill. We, too, can bring about justice in the world. It is what the servant has been set aside to do. My own research leads me to believe that in Isaiah’s words, the Servant is a metaphor for the whole nation of
God wants to work with his chosen people to bring about change in our broken world. But rather than leave us to it on our own, God equips us with the Holy Spirit, in order to do what the world regards as impossible. God brings about change through his chosen Servant who is empowered by the Spirit to work for God’s change. The impossible things suddenly become within reach and the order God intends for the world is attainable. God sends the Spirit as a gift, as an intimate connection with God, that we might better know and fulfill God’s will.
In the gospels, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. He receives the empowering Holy Spirit, that intimate connection, and we hear God proclaim Jesus as his beloved Son. Jesus receives the Spirit to be able to do the impossible, to thwart the powers of death and destruction by rising from the grave and taking upon himself the sins of the world. The Servant, in any guise, by any name, is the instrument for God’s Spirit to work in the world to bring about newness. It is change that can only be wrought with the power of God’s Spirit behind it.
Just as Jesus’ baptism was his inauguration into ministry, so it is ours. That is why the questions asked at baptism are similar to the ones asked at ordinations. They are both commissions into a life of service with and for Christ. When we are baptized, it is into the body of Christ, and as such we are commissioned to be obedient, faithful servants and to follow the path blazed by the unique Son of God. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that baptism is simply for your personal salvation! Oh no! It is also an initiation into the
At Jesus’ own baptism, God is publically claiming Jesus as his beloved. It is exactly the same at our own baptisms. God is publicly claiming us as God’s own beloved children. We use water to symbolize not only the washing away of sins, but the pouring out of God’s love and Holy Spirit upon us. God sends the Spirit down upon Jesus, showing the world that God is promising to be with him throughout his life and ministry, just as God promises us at our baptisms to be with us throughout our own lives and ministries, no matter what form they may take. God, in full view of the world, shows his favor and shows Jesus’ chosen and holy status as Son of God. We are chosen by God to join the faithful followers of Christ. Baptism is God’s love and promise in full view of the world. The water is a visible reminder of the invisible Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Augustine called the sacraments, including baptism, “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Let us not forget, the water also reminds us of our cleansing from sin. As we are washed clean by the water, all our sins are forgiven and we become free from the power and corruption of sin by the baptism of the Holy Spirit into our lives. Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sin, but he washed in the water that would cleanse the same sinners he came to save, to be in solidarity with the very people he loved enough to give his life for. He did it “to fulfill all righteousness” says Matthew. In his full divinity, he did not need baptism; in his full humanity, he became one with those he came to save. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are united with Christ, united with each other in him, and to his life, his death, his resurrection, and yes, his baptism. And that is power, power greater than all the mighty waters of this earth, power enough to bring about justice and change to God’s creation. And we have this power, given to us at our baptism. Given to us in the intimate gift of God’s Holy Spirit so that we might be instruments of God’s love in the world and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. In the words of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument…” And so we pray, Come, Spirit, Come! Amen.