January 10, 2016
The Sunday after Epiphany is typically the day we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and there is much we can learn from this occasion. Leading up to this momentous event, John the Baptist had been baptizing those who had heard him preach, and who wanted to repent of their sin, in the Jordan River. He was fulfilling what had been prophesied about him by Malachi (3:1) "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me", and Isaiah (40:3), "A voice of one calling: 'In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'" And if you recall, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah, her cousin Elizabeth was already 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). And yet, in our Gospel reading (John 1:29-34), John said of Jesus, "A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me", right after he declared that Jesus was indeed the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world - which is akin to declaring that Jesus did indeed exist BEFORE his incarnation in the flesh. In fact, the New Living Translation says it this way, "A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me." This statement that points to Jesus' deity, was confirmed both by the Holy Spirit descending upon Him as a dove, and the voice of God the Father declaring Jesus to be His beloved Son; with whom He is well pleased. (Mark 1:11)
So we have established that here we have Jesus, who is the eternal Son of God, coming to be baptized. Did he need to repent, as did the others who came to John? Of course not, for he had never sinned. If he had ever sinned, he would neither be divine, nor could he have redeemed us from our sin. But for everyone else that was baptized, repentance was to come first. So what is this telling us? Why was Jesus baptized? John the Baptist also wondered the same thing, for he asked Jesus, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" To which Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:14,15) To fulfill all righteousness... And what exactly does that mean? Righteousness means complete obedience and submission to the will of God. By submitting to baptism, Jesus was serving as an example of obedience. And John, who had hesitated at first to baptize Jesus, gladly did so also out of obedience, once he realized it was God's will.
So far we have established that the baptism of Jesus served as a formal announcement to the world of his divine nature, his existence before his birth in Bethlehem 30 years earlier, his destiny as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world - and that the sacrament of baptism is an act of obedience.
So here is the part where I tread lightly... Different denominations have different interpretations as to both the meaning of, and the means of, baptism. I was raised Lutheran, spent a few years as a Baptist, have been married to a few Catholics, and now am a Methodist pastor. So I have had exposure to varying views on baptism. One thing is certain. The Bible definitely indicates that Christians are to be baptized. The Great Commission which Jesus gave His disciples at the end of the Book of Matthew states, "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'" So Jesus Himself said we should baptize new disciples. So if a person claims to be a disciple of Jesus, but refuses baptism, they either are being very disobedient (in which case God will deal with them) or are not truly a disciple. It is an act of submission and obedience, as well as a proclamation to the faith community that one has given their heart to the Lord. That being said, the two most prevalent questions thereafter are in regards to both the age of the one being baptized, and the method of baptism.
Before I approach either issue, let me first clarify that baptism in and of itself does NOT guarantee entrance into heaven. Can someone who was baptized as an infant, and then dies as an adult without ever repenting of their sins and accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, without believing in Him alone for salvation through His atoning sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, stand before God Almighty and say, "But my parents had me baptized when I was 6 weeks old at such and such church, so doesn't that give me a free pass?" God will tell that person, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41) And any church that tries to tell their parishioners that all they need to get into heaven is a baptismal certificate, is feeding them lies and false hope. So is it wrong to baptize infants? No, I won't say that it is wrong. For one, it is a commendable act of dedication, and promise on the part of the parents "to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4) And according to the Methodist church, it is also an act of prevenient grace, which means it is divine grace that precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done, and is extended before actual salvation. Therefore, it brings God into the life of the child before the child himself can respond. And it confirms that God does indeed reach out to everyone, and makes His forgiveness and salvation available to all. Whether or not the child accepts that forgiveness and salvation when he or she is old enough to understand, is again up to that individual child, for otherwise free will would be of no effect, and all we would have to do is force the entire world to be baptized and everyone would go to heaven. There are churches that believe it is wrong to baptize young infants, and do not do so. Will these infants go to hell if they die, because they are not baptized? No. Again, baptism in and of itself is not a means of salvation. Infants that do not have the mental ability to reject Christ will not go to hell, baptized or not. For only by rejecting God's offer of salvation through Christ can one be eternally lost.
And what about the means of baptism? Some churches insist upon immersion. Others pour the water, or sprinkle it. Since to my knowledge the Bible does not give a specific directive, I believe the actual method is something I would put into the category of other practices highlighted in Romans 14. If you read that chapter, you will see that it does not mention baptism, but it does reference things that were quite the issue in the early New Testament days (e.g. foods eaten and holidays observed). To apply the guidelines given in this chapter to baptism, I would suggest (although let me clearly state that this is my personal interpretation) that if in your heart you believe you must be baptized by immersion, then that is what you need to do. If you do not feel the need to be immersed, but are convinced in your own heart that having the water of baptism poured on you is acceptable to God, then that is what you should do. It is not our place to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ over such matters, as verse 4 clearly states, "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand." Also, it states that if our freedom is damaging to the faith of another Christian, if it presents a stumbling block, then we should set our freedom aside for them. For instance, when I did attend a Baptist church for a few years, even though I had been baptized as a baby in a Lutheran church, I was baptized again, by immersion, in the Illinois River. If I had not done this, the Baptist church would have felt I was being disobedient to God's will (even if I actually was not). Do I think I needed to be re-baptized? No. But I was showing respect for my brothers and sisters at that church. For instance, there are churches that believe all women must wear only skirts, and rather long ones at that. Do I believe I have to wear a skirt at all times? Obviously not. But if I attended such a church, composed of Christian believers that as a denomination would be offended if I did not dress acceptably by their standards, I would indeed wear what to them is the proper attire.
One of the reasons I believe the Lord called me to serve in a Methodist church is because we have embraced our freedom in the Lord more than some other denominations. But that is not to say that we don't have our own little 'home' rules, like a 'do not sing list', eh Randy? One of my personal favorites happens to be on that list, but love "does not insist on its own way." (1 Corinthians 13:5)
So the main point I am trying to get across in today's message is that God calls us to obedience, both to His Word and to the leading of the Holy Spirit (which are never contradictory); and that obedience should always come from a heart that is filled with love - both for God, and for others.