The Unexpected Gift of Baptism

Sunday, January 7, 2024
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Finding Light in Unexpected Places Series 

Mark 1:4-11 

Grace and peace to you from God our creator, and Jesus Christ, who gives life through the waters and promise of baptism. Amen. 

We’re beginning a series this week called Finding Light in Unexpected Places. The season of Epiphany calls us to look for Christ’s light and hope, and even expect that the presence of Christ in our lives and the world actually changes the way we live our lives. The thing about Jesus’ presence is it’s often not obvious. Faith is rarely flashy. Christ’s presence is subversive and surprising many times. It shows up in people we’d least expect, and at times in our lives we’d least be on the look out for it. Most of us don’t expect grace to grab hold of us, especially at times when we least deserve it. I suppose that’s why it’s grace, right? We don’t always expect what God gives us, but there it is, the light and hope we need to find our way through another day, to find ourselves who we’ve been created to be, and to find God in the midst of it all.  

 I once read about Ken Fuson. Ken was a former reporter for the Des Moines Register and the Baltimore Sun. He wrote his own obituary before he died of liver disease at the age of 63. It was funny and honest, and really didn’t read like an obituary at all. Ken didn’t just highlight the good he did or the things he liked, though he did some of that. He wrote about the surprising and sometimes devastatingly bad turns he took in life, and the places and people who helped him find life again.  

 He was breathtakingly honest when he wrote of himself, “For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. He lost his wife, his home, and nearly his career. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. Miracles abound.” 

 It seems rare for someone to talk so openly about some of the greatest mistakes of one’s life, especially in an obituary. Most of us work so dang hard not to be wrong or do wrong so we don’t have to ask for grace, let alone accept it. Such honesty happens when you’ve been changed by grace and stop believing that the worst things you’ve done are the only things to define you. 

I can only imagine what kind of folks made their way out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Some were probably folks like Ken, who at some point in their life knew how much they needed a miracle, to repent – to turn their lives around – and find forgiveness. Some were drawn to the spectacle of John – he seemed like a wild man, with a mysterious and powerful message. Who doesn’t want to be part of that? Some may have been spiritually curious, not knowing exactly what they were looking for, but saw something potentially powerful in this experience.  

 John’s baptism was a ritual cleansing. It was a personal and private experience, like going to the spa. The spa’s great. But a few hours or days later, it’s effects wear off. People could have come out repeatedly to repent and be forgiven with John’s baptism. In the long run it may not have had much effect on changing their lives.  

 Repentance, that willingness to reflect on our actions and recognize potential harm we’ve done is important for any of us who look to follow God. However, lasting repentance starts with recognizing the gift of God. And John knew this, right? He says in so many words, “I’m baptizing you with water, but Jesus, he will do something far more powerful, more lasting, more life changing than anything I can do. Look to him because his baptism comes with the Spirit of God!”  

 It’s Jesus’ baptism that changes everything. It’s his baptism that not only cleanses us once, but once and for all. In Jesus’ baptism, the division between Heaven and earth is torn apart. Human and divine come together, and God’s Spirit falls on the one who gives life to the whole world.  

 It’s this baptism that we are bathed in our own baptisms, that kills sin and death, and raises us to new life. This is why when we affirm our baptisms, as we will do later in worship, we renounce any other powers or forces that stand against God’s way for us and for the world. This baptism should come with a warning label. “Caution: New life ahead! Prepare for impact!”  

It’s this baptism that calls us out of ourselves and into grace and truth. We share this as a community, where no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you’ve done or not done, you experience the unfailing love of God who meets us in these waters. God sets no prerequisites for baptism, no culture or race, no skills or ability, no specific sexuality or identity. In the waters of baptism, all are made one – beloved and forgiven. It’s our call as the church to embody this promise, to ensure that whoever someone is or what they’ve done, they are “right where they belong” because they and we all belong to God. 

To be baptized into Christ is to reorient our lives and perspectives to God’s, to be open to being changed by the power of the Spirit at work in us, and open to those God calls us into relationship with. As Lutherans, we don’t talk a lot about conversion. And frankly, that kind of language may give some of us the heebie-jeebies. But baptism is a conversion, turning away from ways of the world that divide and seek to dominate, and toward the expansive ways of God that invite all people into a deeper life with Christ as our teacher, Master, and friend.  

 Now you might be thinking, “How do we convert little babies that we baptize here in worship?” Conversion isn’t just a personal private event, it’s a call for the whole church to embrace God’s grace-filled ways. Martin Luther said that if we are baptized, we are to practice a daily dying and rising with Christ. The fact that we welcome little children into the family of faith through baptism is one of the countercultural, inclusive ways we follow Jesus. We don’t ask questions of who they are or who they may grow up to be. Jesus just said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.”  

 That’s why it’s important for baptisms of all people to take place in worship. We need to be reminded of the countercultural ways of being God’s beloved community. The writer of Hebrews says it well, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us (all) lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The race of faith is set before us – it’s communal. We’re all in this together. Baptism reminds us of this unexpected gift! 

 The unexpected gift of baptism is that God lives in us through our faith and following Jesus. It’s not just for individuals, it’s for faithful community. It’s God’s gift of grace and forgiveness given to the world through us. The unexpected gift of baptism is that God has the power to save and transform our lives and others when we live out our baptism. This is good news for us and for the world. So church, let it be so. Amen.  

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