Baptism Threshold

Sunday, January 9, 2022
Pastor Deb Kielsmeier

Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

Today is the Sunday that the church celebrates the Baptism of our Lord, Jesus. But, honestly? it always feels a bit like whiplash to me. We waited and waited and waited for Jesus to be born… and now in the blink of an eye he is 30 years old, stepping into the Jordan River to begin his public ministry.

It is not the birth of Jesus, but the start of his public ministry. Another kind of beginning that is fitting for a brand-new year.

John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. And the people came. Crowds of them, a line stretching from Jerusalem to the Jordan, eager to wash away their sin and drink in God’s forgiveness.

And Jesus joined them.

Why would the one person who has no sin to repent of join this throng in the waters of baptism? It is a puzzle.

But something does change when Jesus immerses himself into the Jordan. Something quite remarkable.  Jesus enters the waters as a relatively unknown carpenter and emerges as Messiah – voice from heaven proclaiming he is the One. God’s beloved son. The heavens open and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Jesus may not have had to repent of sin, but in this baptism, there is a kind of turning. Jesus steps away from his private life, and into a new calling, a new identity, and a new future.

This is first time that baptism is mentioned in the Bible. The Old Testament includes instructions about ritual washings, but not the practice of baptism. But by Jesus’ time, ritual immersion into water had become a very common and important practice in Judaism.

Worshippers would immerse in what is called a Mikveh. In Hebrew this literally means a gathering of waters.  Rivers and pool were used, but ritual baths were also created.  They have been found all over the holy lands, many in desert areas such as the Qumran where the dead sea scrolls were found as well as in Jerusalem.

Worshippers would immerse in the before entering the Temple or Synagogue. and Priests would immerse before performing rituals. In Jerusalem, archeologists have found evidence of 48 such baths near monumental staircase that leads up to the temple complex.

These baths had two sets of steps, one going down into the water, and another set on the opposite side coming back out.

Worshippers would descend steps into the water, immerse by squatting down, and then emerge to ascend the steps on the opposite side. The water had to be living water. Living water, that flowed from the hand of God. For example, from a spring, the ocean, rainfall, or a flowing river. But water carried by man or collected in a cistern or standing stagnant did not have the power to cleanse.

How did they get this living water, in such a dry climate?  Herod built two huge aqueducts bringing water from mountain springs to the temple. It flowed through the mikvehs and was also used to flood the area where sacrifices had taken place to wash the blood away.

Immersion was common, but the most important of all these was “proselyte baptism.” In the Old Testament, if a Gentile converted to Judaism, circumcision was undertaken. But by Jesus’ day, baptism was also required.

This conversion was not lightly undertaken. After a period of instruction, the proselytize or “God Fearer,” as they were known, would renounce all other gods and profess their faith in Yahweh alone. Then, without a stitch on, he or she would step down into the mikveh and die to their old self and life. When they emerged, they were born again… as an Israelite.

The mikveh was called the tomb and the womb of the world. The tomb and the womb. It was a place where you died and then rose again to a new life. The convert was now considered a Jew in every way – physically and spiritually. They received a new Hebrew name, a new identity, and a new life.

Does this imagery ring any bells?

Romans 6  says,

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

The Greek word for baptism is “Baptizo” which means to immerse. That word is commonly used for dying things from one color to another. For example, if I wanted to dye a white sweater red, I would “baptizo” it in a dye bath. When the sweater comes back out, it has changed from white to red, taking on the qualities of what it was immersed in. For us, when we are baptized in Christ – the true living water – we become completely saturated with Jesus and his life. We are changed. We die to our old self and are born a new creation.

Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and the Church has been baptizing Christians ever since.

 Christian baptism is performed in different ways throughout the Church. Some sprinkle or pour water, some immerse, some baptize infants, others only confessing believers. But regardless of how it is administered, baptism is always an act of our saving God. Through it you are named and claimed as God’s beloved child and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus stood at a threshold between his private life and public ministry. He entered the Jordan River which itself a symbol of transition…bordering the wilderness and the promised land. And he gave himself – his life and his future completely over to his father, God.

We as individuals and as a congregation, are at the threshold of a new year and a new future. We stand on the border of the past and a brand-new beginning.

It is a threshold time.

A time to affirm our own baptisms by again by dying to the old self.

It is a time to fully submerge ourselves in the living waters of God’s love.

And then fully saturated with the Holy Spirit, to be born to new life in Christ Jesus.

In baptism God claims and names you as his own.

Listen! Do you hear it?

You who are the object of God’s love;

you who are dearly loved by God.

Washed in living water. Bathed in the Holy Spirit.

Listen! Do you hear it?

A voice from the heavens – calls you by name.

“You are my [child], my Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

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