There is a similar sign in the Jordan River near the traditional spot where John baptized Jesus. The sign says this: “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” A friend of mine took a photo of that sign when the Jordan was experiencing a flash flood … the sign partway submerged in raging muddy water.
I think this sign should be posted on top of every baptismal font. Seriously … “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” is a pretty good description of baptism. When we enter these waters, we do enter them at our own risk! And so did Jesus. Today we hear Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke (the synoptic Gospels) all give a direct account of Jesus’ baptism. John’s gospel even gives a veiled reference through the testimony of John the Baptist telling about seeing the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove while he was baptizing. It is in Matthew’s account, though, that we get this dialog between John and Jesus. John objects to Jesus coming to him to be baptized saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Some suggest this was to address the question of why Jesus, who was “tempted in every way we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) would even come to John for a baptism which involved “confessing of sins.” (Matthew 3:6) Jesus tells him to let it be so to fulfill all righteousness – which is kind of a cryptic response, if you ask me.
But this dialog aside, the bottom line is Jesus comes to John for baptism – a ritual washing which is framed by John preaching repentance. Repent is one of those loaded words in theology, but one of its meanings is simply to “turn around” – to change your mind. It is an invitation to turn around and turn back to God – to get back on track with God and God’s will as the center of your life, not you and your own will. Or in other words, to reorient yourself to live the truth that God is God and you are not.
Repentance has another more subtle meaning too. It is the realization that something has profoundly changed in you. Perhaps not such a dramatic 180 turn, but the knowledge that from this point forward life will be different – very different. Repentance can mean the ending of one way of being and the beginning of a new way of life.
We really can’t get into Jesus’ head about what he was thinking when he came to John but I think it’s a fair statement to say something in Jesus drew him to being baptized by John and I think repentance is part of it. Jesus’ baptism takes the shape of that second kind of repentance – the end of one way of being to step into a new life. Jesus will no longer be “Joseph the carpenter’s kid” – he will be the Messiah. His public ministry begins in a very public way – this is no private revelation! Of course, what we don’t hear in today’s gospel reading is that right after he comes up out of the water, receives the Holy Spirit and hears the proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” … Jesus was lead up to the wilderness by the same Spirit for 40 days and nights to be tempted by the devil. Baptism isn’t going to confer a safe, easy life on Jesus! Hazardous waters … enter at your own risk indeed!
Today’s baptisms won’t be quite that dramatic. I can’t promise the heavens will be opened and the Spirit descending like a dove or anything like that. I can promise that I’m not going to take the suggestion of my Lutheran pastor colleague Bob Ierien and take a SuperSoaker to you en masse. But I can promise today will be a turning point in the lives of Kristine, Kennedy, Emory, Quincy, Callista, Aidan and Scarlett. Today marks a turning away from the powers and forces of Sin and Death which can only lead us down dead ends and towards Christ who promises eternal life.
In a few minutes, we will ask you a series of questions known as the renunciations and affirmations. We ask you six main questions indicating a turning – a turning away from the powers of Sin and Death as they come to us through the world, the flesh and the devil and a turning toward Jesus Christ as savior in whom you will place your trust and promise to follow him. This is repentance – turning around and heading for your true home in God.
But make no mistake – you are entering hazardous waters and at your own risk. It is a big risk to your ego to turn over your trust to Christ and let God’s way be your way. “Thy will be done” is really the only legit prayer a Christian will ever say the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do! Just as Jesus went straight from his baptism to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, you also will face temptations to return to doing life on your own terms. That’s what it means to be human. You will struggle for the rest of your life to live into the vows you make today. But the good news is we don’t enter these hazardous waters alone! Being baptized means joining the Church – which, by the way, is much bigger than just us here at Grace (although I admit, God is doing some pretty cool stuff here through us!). The Church, across time and throughout the world, is an extended family of sisters and brothers, most of whom you will never meet in real life, who support each other through love, prayer and self-giving so that when those temptations to return to life on our own terms bubble up, we have a community that can help us turn around and back to Christ. You do not enter these hazardous waters alone! You are entering them with two millennia of believers who have gone before you and you enter them just as we have … and we are here for you, to encourage you, to pray with you, to rejoice with you, to grieve with you – to live fully with you as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. And that is awesome because we need each other.
Each of us comes to these hazardous waters lacking. We know we are broken in body, mind and spirit … even when we are little kids, we can feel small, helpless and inadequate. I was the dorky, weird kid in my school. I often felt alone and isolated growing up. Brokenness isn’t something that only adults feel. But the promise we have in baptism is that Christ knits us together into a community who can carry us when we can’t carry ourselves. It’s no longer about “me,” it’s about “we.” And when we make our baptismal covenant, that promise of where we will place our trust and what we promise to do as members of this community, the answer to the promises we make is “I will, with God’s help.” God’s help is necessary, not optional. We cannot live into the promises we make in these hazardous waters without asking God’s help … and that help comes through this community. We never go it alone!
So yes, today you enter hazardous waters at your own risk yet not alone … but fear not. Like that scary death sign at the Kern River, if you let that stop you you will miss out on following Christ, which is the greatest adventure of your life.