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Immersed by Grace

A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on October 28, 2012.

Matthew 3:13-17

Today, we’ve had the privilege of witnessing the baptism of Sophie, Lily, Ayodeji and Isabella.  Since we are a Baptist church, there is within our tradition a commitment to the importance of believers’ baptism by immersion.  In many Christian traditions, one is baptized by sprinkling or pouring water over the head of the baptism candidate.  But in Baptist churches, baptism candidates are dunked fully into the water . . . and some Baptists joke that that if you’re not wet all the way through, then your baptism didn’t take! 

While I happen to be a Baptist who appreciates how other Christian traditions understand and practice baptism, for me, there is something beautiful and powerful in the act of baptism by immersion.  As the apostle Paul stated in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Baptism is a powerful symbolic enactment of a disciple dying to his or her old life while submerged in the water, and then being raised into a new life in Christ when he or she comes up from the surface.  My systematic theology professor described baptism as the first sermon a believer preaches about the power of Christ’s death and resurrection.  This morning, these four who were baptized preached that sermon, and what I’m about to say is merely a footnote to their proclamation.  

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus came to Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  John couldn’t understand why Jesus would need to be baptized.  After all, Jesus was the Christ, and if anyone needed to be baptized, it should have been John by the hands of Jesus.  Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner considers this incident at the Jordan River to be Jesus’ first miracle: the miracle of his humility.  Bruner writes, “The first thing Jesus does for the human race is to go down with it into the deep waters of repentance and baptism.  Jesus’ whole life will be like this.  It is well known that Jesus ends his ministry on a cross between thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he begins his ministry in a river among sinners.  From his baptism to his execution Jesus stays low, at our level, identifying with us at every point, becoming as completely one with us in our humanity as he is believed to be completely one with God in eternity.”[1]  Jesus was sinless; He didn’t need to be baptized.  It was actually beneath Jesus to be baptized by John and they both knew it.  But Jesus, in his humility, was baptized to fulfill all righteousness.  It was Jesus’ way to give a public witness of his desire to obey and follow God in every possible way.   And so, Jesus, who at his birth was called “Immanuel — God with us,” begins his public life by being baptized, immersing and identifying himself with us and our sinful human condition. 

As soon as Jesus was baptized, as soon as he got out of the water, at that moment, heaven was opened and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  After Jesus’ baptism, God the Father spoke divine words of affirmation for all to hear: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  What child would not want to hear such words from a parent!  These words announced to the world the true identity of Jesus, a beloved child of God.  Before his baptism, Jesus had no résumé, no recorded accomplishments, and no credentials.  He was just Jesus from Galilee, known as Mary’s son more than Joseph’s.  Before Jesus could do anything to prove his divine identity, God revealed Jesus at his baptism as the true Son of God.  At Jesus’ baptism, one can sense the close fellowship and communion between God the Father and God the Son through the power of God the Spirit that descended from heaven like a dove.  As heaven was opened, one could almost hear God the Father saying to Jesus: “Even as you identify fully with human beings, rest secure in your identity as my Son.  There is nothing you need to do to earn this identity.  You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  As you seek to begin your ministry, as you seek to obey me in every possible way to fulfill all righteousness, remember that the things that you do will be based on who you are, and not the other way around.” 

Lily, Sophie, Ayodeji and Isabella, as you were immersed in baptism this morning, hear again God’s gracious words to you: “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  These words of grace remind you that first and foremost, your identity is based on who you are in Christ, and not on what you do.  As God’s beloved child, may you experience close fellowship with God the Father, communion with God the Son, through the power of God the Spirit. May you respond by wanting to obey and follow God in every possible way to please your heavenly Father. 

Congregation, as we witness this beautiful event, I hope it brings to mind your baptisms.  God has also proclaimed us to be the beloved children of God.  Our baptism is the basis of our discipleship, as we are called to follow Jesus and live our lives based on who we are.  When we are secure who we are, when we are secure in our heavenly Father’s love, we will stop looking for love in all the wrong places.  When pleasing our heavenly Father becomes our first priority, then we will be less concerned about pleasing others and less enslaved by the expectations of others, even when those others are our bosses, our friends, our children, our spouses and even our parents. 

At this point, some of you may think to yourselves, “But Michael, you don’t know who I really am.  You don’t know my struggles and failures.  You don’t know about my temptations and the wrong things I’ve done.  You don’t know about the opposition and challenges I face, the betrayal and suffering that I am going through.”  My reply to you is “You’re right, I don’t.”  But I do know of One who has immersed Himself so deeply in our human condition, One who has identified Himself so closely with sinful humanity, that He knows what it is like to experience temptation, opposition, betrayal, suffering, sacrifice and even death.  The writer of Hebrews reminds us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16).  

Baptist historian Bill Leonard tells this true story about his daughter, Stephanie, who is a person with special needs, with learning and motor skill disabilities.  Leonard writes: Concepts do not come easily for her.  Because of that I supposed that she might never receive baptism since she cannot meet all the conceptual pre-requisites demanded by many Baptists.  But on the third Sunday in December, 1991, on the way home from church, Stephanie, age 16, announced to her mother and me, “I think it’s time for me to be baptized.” 

 

We talked about it and she was resolved, so we went to see our pastor, and he was everything a pastor should be for such a moment.  He did not speak to her of what she had to KNOW, but what she wished to BE.  “If you receive baptism, Stephanie,” he said, “you are saying that you want to be a follower of Jesus.  Do you want that?”  She said yes and we prayed together.

And on Christmas Eve, Stephanie entered the baptistry of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church, Louisville, the same pool in which her father had been baptized years before.  “Profess your faith,” the pastor said.  “Jesus is Lord,” Stephanie replied.  And under she went in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the presence of a congregation that had nurtured her to faith throughout her sixteen years. 

Bill Leonard then concludes: We are all special needs persons, you and I.  In some of us, it is just more public than in others.  Not one of us can ever conceptualize enough to make us worthy of God’s grace.  If pressed, I must admit that I know more about sin and salvation, doctrine and dogma, than my daughter ever will.  But I am not certain that such knowledge makes me any closer to grace than Stephanie was on that Christmas Eve.[2]

On this day of baptism, we are invited to remember Jesus’ baptism and our own.  We are invited to jump into the deep end of the waters of faith and be a follower of Jesus.  There we will find our beautiful Savior already waiting for us to live our lives as beloved children of God.  So, go down deep into God’s living waters, and when you do, you will find that you will be immersed . . . by grace.  Amen.

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, p. 101.

[2] Bill Leonard, http://day1.org/2540-the_river.