The Light of Our Baptisms
Luke 3: 7-17, 21-22
January 13, 2019 – First Congregational Church, Meredith
Today is the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. Our scripture passage ends with just two verses in which Luke describes the baptism:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Whenever I picture this scene, I am struck by the image of the heavens opening up. All the famous paintings of Jesus’ baptism convey this opening up with a bright shaft of light. The light of heaven shining down on the beloved of God.
Were you here a couple of weeks ago when we baptized 5-month-old Alexander Bennett Conners? I loved that day. It was a beautiful service. The large, loving, extended family came from near and far. All of our children gathered round to watch. And in the middle of this gathering was this perfect, beautiful baby boy, so calm, so peaceful as I poured water on his head to welcome him into the family of God. I am sure the light of heaven shown on Alexander, too, because he is also God’s beloved child.
My own baptism could not have been more different from his. When I was little, I went with my grandmother at her tiny Southern Baptist church. It was lively and interesting, full of Bible stories and emotional sermons and wonderful old hymns. From as early as I can remember, I knew I was part of that church family.
Now, Baptists believe in the “age of accountability,” that is, no one is baptized as an infant. Only those old enough to profess their faith for themselves are saved and baptized. They believe that children are not held accountable by God for their sins until they reach a certain age, and if a child dies before reaching the age of accountability, that child will, by the grace and mercy of God, be granted entrance into heaven. I hope you recognize that the theology of the United Church of Christ is very different from this.
In my grandmother’s church, the age of accountability was deemed to be six years old. Up until then I got a free pass from God. After that, I had a choice to make.
So, one wintery day when I was seven years old, I responded to the altar call at the end of the service. The congregation sang “Just as I Am, Without One Plea,” and with a few other folks in need of forgiveness, I walked to the front of the church and whispered to the preacher that I wanted to be saved, and I asked to be baptized. I was nervous about the baptism itself, since it would be by immersion and I couldn’t swim; but I was even more afraid not to be baptized, since I was an earnest child, and I had passed the age of accountability more than a year before. I knew I was living on borrowed time.
When the day for my baptism came, I wore a red plaid dress with a little white collar and little puffed sleeves. It had little white buttons down the back, so I had to have help getting into it. I wore ruffly white socks and black patent leather shoes with buckles, and my mother put red ribbons in my hair.
Unfortunately, I had a really bad sore throat, and it was cold outside. Even in Texas, February is a cold month. My mother worried that getting my hair wet in the baptism and then walking outside to the car in the February chill would make me really sick. So, she gave me cotton to stuff in my ears and a white rubber swimming cap to put on my head during the baptism. It had little sayings written all over it, and it was just plain silly looking. It pretty much ruined the whole outfit. But she said I had to wear it, so off to church I went with my grandparents with my swimming cap in my hand.
At the point in the service when I was to be baptized, my grandmother took me through a little door that led behind the pulpit and the choir. I took off my shoes and socks and put the cotton in my ears. Then I stuffed all my hair up into the swimming cap and climbed the steps to the baptistry.
The preacher was there, already in the water. He looked surprised when he saw my swimming cap, so I nervously explained about my sore throat, and then I climbed down the steps into the water with him. He pulled open the curtain so the congregation could see me. I couldn’t hear what the preacher said very well, because of the cotton in my ears. Suddenly, he put his hand over my nose and mouth and leaned me backwards all the way into the water … and to my great relief he brought me up again.
Now, I need a split screen image here. Imagine beautiful, angelic 5-month-old Alexander in one half of your mind, and in the other half, picture earnest, little me at 7 years old, nervous and getting sick, and wearing this silly white swimming cap.
I wish I had had a lovely, picture-album type of baptism to describe for you. But I had the baptism I had, and the light of heaven shown on me as well, because it turns out that, even in my nervousness, even looking unbelievably silly, I was also God’s beloved child.
Before I return to today’s scripture passage, I want to say just word here to any of you who have not been baptized. I think sometimes adults are nervous about asking for baptism, as I was nervous about my own baptism. In a faith community that baptizes infants, it can seem a little too late to be baptized as an adult, like something you should have taken care of long ago. Ah, but it is not too late. It is just the right time, and I would love to do that for you. You don’t have to wear a swimming cap, I promise. So, come see me and we’ll talk. Because you are also a beloved child of God.
Baptism isn’t an end in itself. It is a beginning. In baptism we claim God’s promises for our children, or for ourselves. Then God – and the church – help us to grow in faith for the rest of our lives.
Now, the Gospel of Luke says something particular about how we are supposed to grow in faith, and this message is consistent with this gospel’s emphasis on the poor. When the crowds come to John to be baptized, he says, “Bear fruits worthy of your repentance. This isn’t a faith you can inherit.” The people say, “What should we do?”
John responds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
To our twenty-first century ears, a couple of these instructions sound a little odd. We can understand the general injunction to share our food and our clothes with those who have less. But the instructions to the tax collectors and the soldiers require a little explanation. Today, people who work for the IRS are paid a regular salary, except, I guess, this week. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors took whatever they could from the people and gave to Rome only what they had to, and the tax collectors lived on the difference. It was a corrupt way to become very wealthy. Similarly, soldiers amplified their wages by force or extortion, because they could.
You can imagine that neither tax collectors nor soldiers were held in high regard by the people, yet they came to John to be baptized, too. And John said to them, stop using your power for your own benefit at the expense of others. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. And he said to everyone else, whatever you have, share it with someone who has less.
You see, for Luke, how you handle money and possessions is a hallmark of your faith. The whole purpose of wealth is for ministry, according to him. True believers give it away, and Luke means that literally.
That is a challenging message for most of us. Certainly, it is challenging for me. It is easy for us to compare ourselves only to those who have more than we do. That is easy because we live in a state with one of the highest average incomes in the US. Did you know that? So, when we think of wealth, we may think of fabulous waterfront mansions or private jets. But if you come with me to Belize one day, you will see that by the standards of the world, we are all wealthy beyond measure. We, who have enough to eat and warm homes to shelter us from the New Hampshire winter, we are wealthy. And Luke is straightforward about this. The mark of salvation, he says, is to live simply, and to share what we have. Anything else falls short of God’s call.
The light of heaven that we receive at our baptisms stays with us all our lives, and it grows as we grow in faith. The light grows whenever we share what we have with others. So, let your little light shine, let it shine, let it shine.