YOU ASKED FOR A SERMON ON BAPTISM
I: -- "He's three months old and he hasn't been done yet", the conscientious mother says to me. She is conscientious; she wants to be a responsible parent. Responsible parenting includes taking her child to the family physician for regular checkups, providing the nutrition which promotes growth, ensuring that inoculations and vaccinations and immunizations are received on schedule lest infectious disease overtake the child. Responsible parenting also includes getting the child "done", says our friend.
I used to ask why. (I don't ask why any longer, and in a minute I shall give you the reason.) The answers I used to receive were startling. (i) "My child might get hit by a car." It wasn't thought that baptism was a charm which fended off mishap, since it was admitted that baptism would not prevent automobile mishaps; but it was thought that when the automobile had done its worst to the child, the child's baptism would make all the difference imaginable before God. (ii) "Until my child is baptized she won't really have a name". What the parent is struggling to say here is that name is associated with identity; until the child is baptized it will be lacking identity; the child will be some sort of non-person or half-person, forever humanly incomplete. (iii) Another reason for having the nipper baptized: "he needs to have his sin washed away." If only it were this easy! If I could lighten the enormous weight of sin upon humankind by administering water I should never move away from the font. A bizarre aspect of the reply, "He needs to have his sin washed away", was that the parent stating it appeared to be entirely unconcerned about her own sin. (iv) A fourth response to my question had to do with the notion that baptism was one facet of a multifaceted birth announcement, other facets being a few lines in the newspaper and a card sent via Canada Post.
A minute ago I said I should tell you why I no longer ask the question, "Why do you want your child baptized?" Here's why: most of the answers I received were out-and-out superstition, and in my heart I knew that parents were simply giving back to me the superstition they had acquired from the church. When I was newly ordained and newly exposed to presbytery meetings, grave concern was expressed at a presbytery meeting that parents in our secularized society were not bringing their infants to the church for baptism as they once had. At the same meeting, I noted carefully, there was no concern about the parents who were thoroughly secularized; that is, there was no concern about evangelism, no concern about commending the gospel to ungospelized people; no concern about the spiritual life of congregations (that is, no concern about the environment of children who might be brought to the church for baptism; above all, no concern that if parents had brought their children for baptism, the congregation would have been asking parents to promise for their children what the parents did not cherish for themselves (in other words there was no concern over the fact that parents were going to be asked to perjure themselves.) Myself, I don't feel I can fault parents for a defective understanding, even a superstitious non-understanding, of baptism, when it has been an indifferent or confused or ignorant church which has fostered the superstition in the first place. For this reason I think it inappropriate for me to ask parents why they want their child baptized; and in fact I never do.
II: -- Then what is baptism all about?
(A) Baptism is first of all a public acknowledgement that before the all-holy God our sinnership has become a horror to us. Not an acknowledgement that we commit sins from time to time; this would be much too superficial. Not an acknowledgement that we have the spiritual equivalent of a rash: slightly unsightly, but scarcely life-threatening; an acknowledgement, rather, that we have blood-poisoning, a systemic disorder. When Peter preached, Luke tells us, men and women were "cut to the heart" and "cried out". They were cut to the heart in that they were suddenly aware that they were disordered in their innermost core. They cried out, in desperation, inasmuch as they knew they could not alter their innermost core themselves. No wonder the gospel struck them as good news!
John the Baptist shocked people in his day not because he told sinners they should repent and be baptized; Israel had always invited gentiles to become baptized as a sign of their repentance and new-born faith. Gentiles (known popularly in Israel as "dogs") upon coming to faith in the holy One of Israel,had always had themselves baptized as a sign that they were washing away pagan impurities. John was shocking not because of what he said; he was shocking because of the people to whom he said it. Israelites, he said, need to repent every bit as much as gentile dogs, since Israelites and gentiles have exactly the same status and standing before God. Church-membership going back for generations confers no superiority. In fact, said John, church-membership is too readily co-opted as a smokescreen behind which silly people think they can hide their sinnership from the coming judge; a smokescreen which leaves people dangerously deluded.
By now John the Baptist was in full flight. "I baptize you with water", he continued, "but the coming one whose way among you I am preparing, he is going to baptize you with fire." In other words, John and Jesus together administered the one baptism of God. And the one baptism of God consisted both of water and of fire.
Saturated in the prophets as both John and Jesus were, they knew that God's fiery judgement was nothing to be trifled with. Everywhere in the Hebrew bible God's fire cleanses those who humbly acknowledge their sinnership, even as it destroys those who do not. Daniel, whose very name means "God is my judge" (Dan-i-el), had said of God, "A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him...and the court sat in judgement, and the books were opened." Inspired by the same Spirit the prophet Malachi had written, "The day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble, says the Lord of hosts...". Yet we must not think of Malachi's message as bleak, for the fire of God which was to consume the arrogant would also refine the non-arrogant who admitted the legitimacy of God's judgement upon them and who submitted to it as surely as the person with blood-poisoning gladly submits to medical expertise. Concerning these people Malachi wrote, "God will refine them like gold and silver;...those who fear his name shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall." To be refined like gold and silver is to be precious before God and now rendered useful to him. To go forth leaping like calves from the stall is to rejoice before God with carefree exuberance.
John's preaching electrified people and they came to him for baptism; these people welcomed God's fiery judgement because they knew that the fire would refine them. They would be useful to God and would ever after rejoice before him with carefree exuberance. It was as if, having already passed through God's refining fire, they were now cooling off in the Jordan.
When you and I are baptized we are publicly acknowledging our sinnership; not admitting that we behave inappropriately now and then, but rather confessing that life-threatening systemic infection is the human condition before God and we know it. In addition we are acknowledging that our sinnership merits the judgement of God. We are also publicly declaring our gratitude that God's fire has not consumed us as we deserve but has refined us, thus rendering us useful to him. And rejoicing in all of this we are found cavorting like calves let out to frolic.
Baptism means this.
(B) It also means something more. In his letter to the congregations in Rome Paul states that in baptism the old man, old woman, was buried with Christ, so that the new man, new woman, might actually walk "in newness of life" as Christ himself stands newly raised from the dead.
The weather was frequently hot in first century Palestine; the one thing you didn't do with a corpse was leave it lying around. A corpse wasn't merely repulsive, it was a source of contamination. So bury it! Deep! And what has been buried should be left buried, never to be disinterred, lest others be contaminated.
Think about ambition. The "old" Victor is ambitious to gain promotion or recognition, whether in church or university or community. The "new" Victor (I trust) is eager to glorify God and magnify Jesus Christ his Son, saying with John the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease."
Think about our children. What do we want for them? Are we going to settle for that greater ease, greater comfort, which succeeding generations have had in Canada for the past 150 years? Or do we want, above all else, that our children should discern God's will for them, obey him in it, never look back, and find in him and his way for them that contentment they will never find anywhere else? Do we want this for them regardless of cost to them and separation from us? The new parent wants only the latter for his/her children.
Think about the confidence in God we say we have. The old man and woman look out over modern life with its boastful secularity, then out over the mainline church with its feebleness and foolishness -- only to despair and do nothing, or get desperate and resort to gimmickry. The new man and woman, on the other hand, stake everything on the promise of God. We live in an era which bends over backwards to ensure results. We have polls and market surveys and psychological techniques. When an election is to be called, when a new product is to be marketed, when a government policy is to be changed, we know what the techniques are for "bending" people. Frankly, the "church-growth movement", generated in the USA and exported to Canada, is one more "bending" technique. Denominations of every theological colour have pinned their hopes to the "church-growth movement" inasmuch as denominations are getting desperate for warm bodies. The new man/woman, however, does not traffic in this. The new man/woman bears witness, in word and deed, to the person, presence and promise of Jesus Christ. We are confident that Jesus Christ will, in his own way, own that witness to him which his people render him. Because he will own it the truth of the gospel will penetrate the head and heart of the most self-preoccupied secularite. Because our confidence in our Lord's promise is unshakable we forswear any and all techniques which merely manipulate people, even as we fend off any and all temptations to doubt, discouragement and despair.
Baptism is a public declaration that the "old" man or woman, the person who blindly assumes that the world's game is the only way to live and therefore tries to exploit the world's game for profit; this person has been drowned, is now appropriately buried, and has given way to the new person who walks henceforth in newness of life.
(C) Baptism means something more. Everywhere in the New Testament baptism is public commissioning for Christian service. The service to which all Christians are commissioned is of the same nature as the servanthood of Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus was baptized the word which was heard from on high appeared simple enough: "Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased." It appeared simple but in fact was revolutionary, in that it brought together two matters which had never been found together before. "Thou art my beloved son" comes from Psalm 2. It is God's appointment of the king, the royal ruler, the one possessed of genuine authority. The words, "With thee I am well pleased", come from Isaiah 42. This pronouncement is God's approval of the servant of the Lord, more commonly known as "the suffering servant". We read about the suffering servant at least once per year, on Good Friday. "He was despised and rejected by men...and we esteemed him not."
At his baptism, when Jesus heard both pronouncements, he knew that his kingly authority was to be exercised through a servanthood which entailed hardship and sacrifice and social rejection.
That ministry to which all Christians are commissioned is a ministry of service, not domination. It's a ministry of self-forgetfulness, not personal advantage. It may even entail social rejection rather than public congratulation. Every time someone is baptized, that person is being commissioned to a ministry which is one with the ministry of Jesus Christ himself. Such a ministry will unquestionably be effective as surely as it will invariably entail hardship and sacrifice.
(D) Baptism means one last thing. It means solidarity with all Christians everywhere; it means oneness with Christians throughout the world. In a word, it means that we have more in common with fellow-believers in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Ukraine and Uganda, than we have with non-Christians two blocks away. To be sure, the Christian in Thailand speaks a different language, is marked by different skin-pigmentation, knows different customs, eats different food, wears different clothing; unlike us in so many respects, yet identical with us, ultimately, in all respects. That person and we are followers of the same Lord, are invigorated by the same Spirit, aspire to the same obedience, know the same pardon, and have been appointed to the same future; namely, to praise and enjoy God eternally. However much Christians may differ socially, ethnically, linguistically, historically, what we have in common with each other is so profound and so pervasive that it eclipses our commonality with those Mississaugans who disdain the gospel. Baptism is a public declaration that the most important (because the most profound) linkage in our life is our linkage with fellow-believers throughout the world.
III: -- There is one matter to be discussed this morning. What does all this mean when we baptize infants? Let's be sure we understand this much: no magic is being worked in the child. The child hasn't suddenly been given an invisible shield which magically protects him against who knows what. Neither has the child been given preferential status before God. Then what are we doing when we baptize infants?
(A) The parents are stating publicly that they want for their child everything of which baptism speaks, everything which we have examined throughout the sermon today. They want it for their child so badly that they are willing to make a public promise to God, a promise to which the congregation will hold them, that they will do everything in their power to foster in their child everything of which baptism speaks. Whatever sacrifice this may entail they will regard as a trifle compared to the riches which their child will know in Christ when the child matures to an age of discretion.
We might think of the service of baptism for infants like a cheque promising riches which is made out to the child. At this moment the parents are holding the cheque in trust. When the child matures the riches will be his/hers, as long as the person to whom the cheque is made out endorses it. They endorse it by entering upon the way of faith and obedience themselves. At this point they own the promises which were made on their behalf, and everything which the promises held out they now subscribe to themselves.
(B) When we baptize infants we are saying as well that we, the congregation, have such confidence in the understanding and integrity of the parents that we suspect neither superstition nor perjury. We are confident the parents mean what they say and say what they mean.
(C) Lastly, when we, the congregation, baptize infants we are declaring our confidence that this congregation is so gospel-possessed that it will most certainly provide the nurture and encouragement needed for Christian development.
In a word, we are saying that we feel we can baptize the child in anticipation of the child's subsequent discipleship.
F I N I S
Victor A. Shepherd March 1992