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Improving Our Baptism

January 10, 2011

“‘Improving Our Baptism’” Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17 © 1/9/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today is the festival of the baptism of our Lord, when we hear again about that momentous event in the life of Jesus and reflect on what it may have meant for him. But it’s also a day for renewing our own baptism.

What does that mean? Has our baptism run out, like a lapsed subscription? Is our eternal security in jeopardy like the safety of our computers may be if we don’t re-up with McAfee, Avast or Symantec to protect us while we’re online? Is there something wrong with us, have we failed somehow in our loyalty, that we need to reaffirm vows? Is this day something like a revival, only much shorter and not as loud?

Well, maybe a little bit. But there’s nothing particularly wrong with you or me that we’re trying to fix today. Renewal of baptism is simply a recommitment of ourselves to Jesus in a new year, hearing once again the call to mission. It’s a fresh turning to him in repentance and faith, as we realize that for all our efforts, for all the good that’s inside us and among us in this congregation, we’re never quite the faithful disciples he wants and that we want to be. We need our Lord’s help, maybe even his healing touch. So we go back to our baptism and speak again the vows that we made or that were made for us. We do that because the moment of our baptism is more than any other the time when the grace and power of God are bestowed on us. We’re named as God’s own children, given his Spirit, called to ministry. No matter how old or young we were when the waters washed us, the meaning is the same.

Another way to talk about what we’re doing today is to use the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism. The writers spoke about “improving” our baptism. Is there something wrong with the way we do it, so we need to make it better, the way we improve our golf swing or our video game score with practice? Maybe we should use more water or a longer prayer, get a fancier font?

Fortunately, the Westminster divines, as they’re called, meant nothing of the sort. They were using “improve” in the now archaic sense of “profit from, increase the value of,” the way renovations add value to your home. In Q. 167, they complained that though such action was “needful” it was a “much neglected duty.” Such improvement, they said, was a lifelong task, never quite completed.

I’m glad our theological forebears didn’t just complain, but offered solutions as well. In that same question, they offered several suggestions as to how we might fulfill our spiritual obligations. We do it, especially when we are tempted or when others are baptized, “by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of Baptism and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ, and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”

It took the Presbyterian Church literally centuries to get around to taking seriously in public worship the recommendations of those seventeenth century theologians. Not until the publication of the precursors to the Book of Common Worship in late 1980s did we have our own liturgical materials for the renewal of baptism. That’s because up until then, we really didn’t pay much attention to baptism. It was mostly something done to babies, so with the birth rate falling in the church and very few adult conversions, there were Presbyterians who rarely saw or participated in baptismal rites. At least in my experience, we didn’t think about the meaning of baptism for ordination or for daily living. Indeed, the sacraments in general were not emphasized, with the Eucharist, typically called “the Lord’s Supper” observed only once a quarter. I even heard of one church that lost its baptismal font.

I’m glad that day is gone in most places, and we celebrate and remember our baptism on a number of occasions, with the font in a prominent place on the chancel. Today I suspect a majority of Presbyterians are doing exactly what we are: making anew the promises that mark us as children of God, committing to improve our baptism.

This festival does what any good festival should: lift our spirits. It does that first of all by reminding us that we are loved. “Here is my servant,… my chosen, in whom I delight,” said Yahweh. The voice from heaven testified: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” That same assurance of God’s affection and steadfast care is ours as well. It’s a privilege and benefit of baptism, as Westminster would say.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River,” a boy named Bevel is the child of alcoholic and abusive parents. He’s taken by his sister to be baptized. Afterwards, Bevel is told by the preacher: “You count now. You didn’t even count before.”

That’s also the word of affirmation and assurance spoken to each and all of us in baptism by none other than God himself, the one who created the heavens and stretched them out. You and I are loved and delighted in by none other than the Sovereign of all, the Source of our very breath. When we believe we don’t count, when we’re bruised reeds on the point of being broken, dim wicks about to flicker out, candles burning at both ends, we can remember such love. We can look back with Martin Luther and say: “I am baptized,” and find new strength and courage.

But if we are loved, we are also empowered. “I will put my spirit on him” said Yahweh of the servant. For Jesus, the Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove. The same Spirit comes to us, lives in us, empowering us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. The same Spirit raises us to new life out of the tomb of our sin. The same Spirit ordains us all and grants us authority to proclaim God’s Word to all who will hear.

To claim the Spirit of God as the Source of our power is to reject the viewpoints of all those who tell us power comes from somewhere or someone else. You know the litany. Humankind has been told and demonstrated and believed for ages that power comes from money, position, gender, race, status, armaments, fear, and terror. And there’s no denying the very real effects, sometimes for good, many times for ill, that the wielding of such power has on human life. But at the same time, we affirm that God’s Truth is greater still. Prayer can lift us up from despair. What Walter Brueggemann has called “the poetic imagination” can create a new world to rival what everyone considers the givens of our existence, a world where justice prevails, the blind see, the lame walk, the prisoners of darkness are free.

Finally, not only are we loved and empowered, we are invited to a different way of living. The events at our Lord’s baptism link him with the servant of Second Isaiah. As someone has written, here is one who “makes no display, is gentle and patient, not coercive, not disdainful of weak faith in others, willing to identify with them in their weakness, concerned for justice , persistent, doing good and battling oppression” (Albert Winn).

I must admit that in contrast I often walk contrary to the grace of my baptism and the example of Christ. I am and have been from time to time showy, pushy, impatient, domineering, and arrogant. I am tempted to do what is easy rather than do what is right. And I’ve lost count of how often I have given up, gotten burned out and felt utterly crushed when things didn’t go my way or a project failed or life got too hard. Maybe you are convicted by the servant’s and our Lord’s example, too.

But what if we lived as our Lord did? Suppose we were patient with the faults of others, gentle and understanding in our approach to daily concerns and societal problems, interested above all in fairness and equity for everyone? Does not the world hunger for that kind of behavior in a day when everybody from the least to the greatest is out to get what’s coming to them, promote their own agendas, and make a name for themselves?

So it turns out that if we improve our baptism by remembering its benefits and committing ourselves to its call, we actually end up improving the world, transforming it by our presence. We show a way of living that can only be given by God, a depth of care that can only be known by those touched by the Spirit, and a power for good that can only issue from the finger of the Creator of all. We become a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, the declarers of God’s new things.


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