By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL Reflection, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year B
January 7, 2024
Key verse: I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. ~ Mark 1:8
Dear fellow preachers. Wow how time flies! At least where the Lectionary is concerned. Just like that Jesus is now a grown-up. In December, we spent Advent preparing for Jesus’ birth and anticipating his second coming. Now, as we turn the page to January, Jesus begins his public ministry. The thing is … Jesus does not arrive on the scene by striding down a red carpet. The first thing he does is to be baptized by John. If you are like me, you might wonder why Jesus wants to be baptized. And, if you are approaching this text through your pastor’s lens, you might be asking what meaning and relevance Jesus’ baptism has for your congregants.
Honestly, when we take a look at how each of the four Gospels approaches Jesus’ baptism, we might realize they seem a bit uncomfortable discussing it. In Matthew 3:14, John is initially uncomfortable baptizing Jesus. In Luke 3:21-22, the emphasis is not on the actual baptism, but rather its aftermath. The Gospel of John does not depict Jesus’ own baptism at all. So then, how do we, as preachers, relate Jesus’ baptism to our own baptisms?
Encouraging our congregants to wade deeper into the waters of baptism, here are some paths your sermon might follow:
-Explore the possibility that Jesus’ baptism, while not necessarily for his own purification or salvation, might be an act of humility that draws him into greater solidarity with each of us. How does his baptism draw him into deeper relationship with us?
-Mark 1:4 suggests that the meaning of baptism for John hinged on repentance and forgiveness. How is this meaning similar to the meaning Christian baptism holds in your particular tradition? How is it different? Invite congregants to examine what baptism means to them.
-Jesus is baptized in part so he can go forth to fulfill his mission. When we are baptized, we too are set out on a mission to live into our baptism and to make the most of it. Sometimes, when officiating funerals, we might say that the deceased’s baptism is complete in his or her death. How does baptism impact our lives, both day-to-day and in a more holistic sense?
My fellow preachers, whatever direction our sermons take, emphasize the major impact baptism can and should have on our living. John is very clear that, while he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). So often, we approach baptism as a mere ritual that does not really accomplish anything. But, when we truly invite the Spirit into our lives when we baptize, something truly radical is happening. Challenge your congregants to be faithful stewards of their baptisms, in how they live and in how they embrace the Spirit who lives within them.
Mark 1:10 tells us that, in the moments following Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice (presumably God’s own) speaks from the heavens. Our sermons on Baptism of the Lord Sunday can reflect this drama, as we look to heavens that open, the Spirit who descends, and God’s own voice, speaking into each of our individual lives and our communal life together.
Invite your congregants to reminisce about their own baptisms. When were they baptized? Do they remember it? What difference has it made in their lives? Could recalling their baptisms have a more profound impact on their living than it has up to this point? Encourage congregants to consider that baptism is much more than a hollow ritual, and to embrace the Holy Spirit who is at work in each our lives and in our churches.
Talk with youth about what it means to make a promise. When have they made promises and what did those promises involve? When have others made promises to them? Have they, or someone close them, ever broken a promise? Talk with youth about the meaning of baptism, and suggest that baptism is, in part, about promises God makes to us and promises that we in turn, make to God. Baptism is a visible sign of the invisible grace with which God embraces us. Tell youth that baptism can remind them that God loves them unconditionally, just as it can remind them that God has called them to live in a way that’s faithful and filled with integrity.
One of my favorite things to do as a pastor is to involve children in baptisms we perform during worship. Children should have front-row seats to baptisms, so they can fully observe what is happening. Before you share this sacrament, talk with children about what baptism means. Then, invite the children to pour the water into the font with you. Once the baptism has been performed, invite the children to join you in a parade of sorts around the sanctuary to celebrate this special moment in the life of the congregation.