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Just the Beginning

Thomas J Parlette

“Just the Beginning”

Matthew 3: 13-17

1/8/17

 

Presbyterian pastor Rodger Nishioka tells an all to common story about a young man named Kyle. Kyle and his family had been coming to church for about 3 years – sporadically at best. So when Kyle was confirmation age, Nishioka was surprised that he signed up to participate in the confirmation class. Kyle had never been baptized so the plan was for Kyle to baptized at the same time he was confirmed. Kyle and his parents attended the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor and attend weekly classes for study and faith formation.

Kyle was very faithful in attending the class, he did all the work and participated in all the discussions. He even made some wonderful friendships with the other students, who hadn’t known him at all before the class. Confirmation Sunday rolled around – Kyle was baptized and the whole class was confirmed. It was a marvelous celebration for the kids, their families and their mentors.

But then Kyle and his family pretty much disappeared. They didn’t come to church anymore. Kyle’s new friends started to ask about him, and so did his mentor. What happened?

Pastor Nishioka stopped by to check on them one day and said: “I distinctly remember Kyle’s mother saying, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t that it? Isn’t he done?”(1)

And that’s a problem – an all too common problem. Many people think that. Once we’re baptized, and once we’ve confirmed our baptismal vows, which is what we do at Confirmation, then we’re done – we’ve graduated – we know everything we need to know about this thing called faith.

But, of course, that’s not true at all. In fact, we probably shouldn’t call it Confirmation at all, we should probably call it Commissioning. Because as we see in this story about Jesus’ baptism, this is just the beginning. Jesus’ life of faith, his ministry is not complete, it is just starting. At his baptism, he is commissioned to serve. This is just the beginning.

A forest ranger in Wales was once asked what was the most common question that visitors to his park asked. Many people would come from all over Wales to hike on the beautiful trails that wander through the forest, trails designed to display the magnificent trees and plants, and let visitors enjoy the gorgeous views and abundant wildlife.

The park ranger said the most common question was not “Where does this trail go”, or “How long does it take” or “Will I need heavy-duty bug spray”, but rather “Where does the trail start?” Where does it begin.(2)

Makes sense. No matter how beautiful a trail is, if you don’t know where to begin, you can’t hike it.

Baptism is the beginning of our trail. Baptism is the start of Jesus’ public ministry, and baptism marks the beginning of our own journey of discipleship. On this journey, we learn what it means to live like Jesus, to be Christ-like.

There was once a young lady named Stephanie who had never been baptized, but her family attended church regularly. Her parents had always thought that she should decide when it was time for her to be baptized – if she wanted to do it. When she was 16, she decided it was time. She went to see her pastor. To her surprise, the pastor didn’t talk to her about what she had to know to baptized. Rather, she talked to her about what she wished to be. “If you receive baptism, Stephanie, you are saying that you want to be follower of Jesus. Is that what you want to be?” Stephanie said “Yes” – and she was baptized that Sunday.(3) It’s not about what you know, but what you want to be. In our tradition, we almost always baptize our children when they are babies. The parents pledge to raise their child in a Christ-like way. In confirmation, the young person makes a choice to say “I want to continue to live this way. I want to be a follower of Christ.” It’s not about demonstrating what you know by reciting a creed or rattling off the 10 commandments – baptism is about what you want to be, the trail you want to follow. And it begins with baptism.

The question is often asked of this text, “Why does Jesus get baptized at all.” If baptism is the symbolic act of repenting of sin and washing away sins residue, why does Jesus get baptized – he is without sin isn’t he? John certainly is hesitant when his cousin shows up at the river Jordan. At first, John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus, he’s not sure he’s fit to baptize the Christ. But Jesus says, “No, I must be baptized by you – let it be so.” Why is that?

By entering the chilly waters of the Jordan, Jesus did not seek his own repentance, because of course he was without sin. Instead, Jesus offered himself as the answer to John’s call for all people to repent.

By participating in baptism, Jesus showed where the trail of discipleship starts – it begins with repentance, acknowledging the reality of sin and our need for forgiveness and grace. Without a consciousness of our sin, there is no consciousness of our need for salvation.(4) We don’t always like to look at our sin, but it’s there, no matter how cleverly we talk our way around it.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper in 2015 just prior to a private meeting with the Pope, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he did not regret any decisions he had made in his life…

“I will be quite frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind,” he said when asked if he had any regrets. “By the grace of God, I have nothing to regret in my life.”

Putin said God had “clearly” built his life “in a way that I won’t have anything to regret.”(5)

A very clever way to talk yourself around the idea of sin. And yet, in his baptism, Jesus teaches just the opposite. We must acknowledge our sin and seek repentance. Without a consciousness of our sin, there is no consciousness of our need for salvation.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Speaking of Sin” names one whole chapter “Sin is our only hope.” Simply put, she argues that the key to experiencing salvation is to first of be aware that we need saving. That means we must recognize our sin. When we recognize our sin, the doors open up for God’s grace to flood into our lives.(6)

That is why Jesus comes to be baptized. Not because he needed to – but to show us that we need to. The road to salvation begins in the waters of baptism. To be baptized is not just a ceremony, but a rebirth into a new way of life – a rebirth into God’s own life – a rebirth into a journey that calls us to live like Jesus.

Reverend John Buchanan recently retired after 48 years as a Presbyterian pastor. In an article in The Christian Century, he looked back over his half century of ministry and he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a 2 year old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, Buchanan put his hand on the little boy’s head and said, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” And then quite unexpectedly, the little guy looked up and said, “Uh-Oh.”(7)

Well, it was an amusing moment, the whole congregation had a good chuckle, of course, but Buchanan reflected on that moment saying, “it was actually quite an appropriate response… a stunning theological affirmation from the mouth of this child.” And indeed it was. That “Uh-Oh” was a recognition that everything had changed, that this boy would never be the same, this meant something. At some level, with the water dripping down his nose and that big hand resting on top of his head, this young man felt it. He did not belong any more just to his biological family; he had now been born all over again, this time into God’s family. Now he would be called to live out in the world the kind of love and self-giving that goes on among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He was being called in his baptism to live a different way in the world, God’s way, a way that is sometimes met with rejection and scorn.

No wonder he said “Uh-Oh.” Life would never be the same. Everything will be different now.

This is just the beginning of a journey that will change our lives forever. A journey that heads through times of change, times of growth, times of challenge, times of sorrow, times of joy, and times of healing. A journey that leads to a cross on a lonely hill and ultimately, to resurrection, and empty tomb and eternal life.

This is just the beginning.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Rodger Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.236, 238.

2.    Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, “The Start of the Trail” Day1.org, retrieved 12/22/16.

3.    Rev. Dr. Bill Leonard, “The River”, Day1.org, retrieved 12/22/16.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, p.15.

5.    Homiletics, Vol 28, No. 6, p. 16.

6.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, p.15.

7.    Ibid…p.13.