Baptism, or ritualistic purification by means of water, has been a part of almost every religion and cultural practices throughout time and history. It has been the source of religious schism and has been used to ignite battles. As I researched baptism this week and looked at the little bottle of Holy water I have in the office, I sat in awe. How could water, a seemingly ordinary and mundane part of life, spark such controversy? Baptism in the New Testament was meant to honor and signify new life and new beginnings. It signifies the welcoming of a new life into the faith. It signifies the washing clean of one’s soul. Yet it has been used throughout time for many different purposes.
In Jesus’ time baptism was not new. It had existed as part of the Jewish tradition for generations. Baptism in ancient Judaism was the purification of the body so that one could enter into the temple and participate in the sacrifices and rites of the faith. It was the washing of one’s impurities away as a sign of one’s true repentance though one was not guaranteed forgiveness. John the Baptist was utilizing a tool common in Judaism at the time to bring people to an understanding of the need for repentance and not just from impurities such as touching a person with Leprosy but a search for forgiveness for one’s sins. He also used the practice of baptism to reach out to a people in need with a very special message, a message that repentance and baptism was going to be changing and that God was going to be offering a forgiveness of sins to go along with baptism for the first time. Even Jesus felt it necessary before starting his ministry to receive this ritualistic purification, a dedication perhaps of himself to the will of God.
I have had a long time to contemplate the idea of baptism. I have been baptized twice in my life which in today’s day and age is rare. In Jesus’ time it was much more common and happened several times in an individual’s life. The people John the Baptist baptized had probably experienced baptism several times in their lives. I was baptized for the first time as a baby, a little three month old with chicken pox. I was speckled in all my baptismal pictures. At that baptism, I was welcomed in the church family and that Christ’s salvation was being extended to me as a child. It was a time when the church promised to help raise me in the faith and to guide my spiritual journey whatever it looked like for me. But as a person, I was completely unaware and really not involved at all in this first baptism.
When I turned 17, I traveled to Israel with my minister Rev. Fred Dole and members of my church family. We journeyed to all the holy sites including the Jordan River, the site of Jesus’ baptism. When we arrived, Rev. Dole offered to baptize me for the second time except this time it was of my own choosing. I choose to experience for the first time full immersion baptism in the cold February waters of the Jordan. This baptism I remember very clearly. Rev. Dole very quickly dunked me in the water backwards.
I wasn’t really expecting just how cold those waters were. They sucked the breath right out of me and I managed to get water all up my nose and into my sinuses. So I was really purified inside and out. It was like a shock when I was brought up out of the water. The shock of coldness sucked the air right out me. But I can understand how people feel purified and renewed ready for whatever God has planned for them.
Jesus was baptized in a way to purify his body for becoming the temple of God where God’s word would be brought to life for the world. Something unique happened with Jesus’ baptism that had not happened before or since. Our scriptures say, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’”. God’s approval and sanctification came upon Jesus in a way that let all who were present know that God was preparing to do something amazing. Jesus was unique and unlike any other before him. In John’s Baptism people were offered purification for their sins and yet our scriptures state that God was pleased with Jesus and that He was the beloved. He was without sin, without need of this type of purification.
To God, Jesus was his beloved, yet we are reminded with every baptism we do, in our special times in life when we renew our dedication to God and each other that because of Jesus we too are among the beloved of God. Through Jesus we have received repentance and new life and we are all valued and loved by him. In our baptismal experiences, or that moment when we join a church, we are supposed to feel as if everything has changed.
With our baptism or confirmation of our baptism, everything has been made new. We are now solidifying our dedication to the teachings of Jesus. We are opening our hearts to God and we are supporting others as they discover that same dedication and new life in Christ. It is a new beginning.
This morning we are being challenged to remember the moment of our baptisms, or if you had an infant baptism, the moment you signed your name into membership of a church. We are called to remember what we have dedicated our lives to, to remember that Christ is reaching out to each of us and saying, “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. So let’s take some time this week to contemplate how we might renew our dedication to the message of Christ in this world and in the lives of all whom long for something more.
 Luke 3: 21-22, NRSV.