That renews us
Published 4:38 pm Sunday, January 15, 2023
I moved to campus over 30 years ago to begin my seminary studies. Unlike when I had left for college terrified a few years before, as I headed off for my theological education I had hardly felt as certain about anything in my life.
I knew what I felt called by God to do. My life was already mapped out, in my head at least, and in those days I could see clear across a career to the finish line of retirement. All I had to do was get through the rest of school and then go take the church and publishing worlds by storm.
Seminary as a concept was all brightness and excitement. I mean, how hard could this be? Bit by bit, my gaze into the future shortened and my certainty eroded. I was up against a rigorous academic challenge, and from the get-go I was moved to ask new questions. A legitimate theological education caused me to see things in ways I never had before.
My own assumptions and beliefs were pushed up against, and my sense of calling softened into something I’d like to think God had a much better chance of actually shaping. I look back now at where I’ve been so far. Life has not turned out to resemble very much at all of what I had planned.
If you can recall a time when you felt certain about something in the beginning, only to feel a bit less certain later on, then you’re in the right frame of mind to hear today’s scripture. Our story in Matthew 3: 13-17 takes us to Jesus’ baptism.
John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel here knew Jesus. Until he didn’t. But in this minute, John was certain. We should learn from his clarity, because it didn’t last long. John’s life probably didn’t go much as it appeared it might when he was introducing Jesus to others.
We can’t forget that later, over in Luke 7, this same John will dispatch some of his disciples after his own arrest to speak on his behalf with our Lord. Then, he will be less certain about Jesus. He will send them to ask if Jesus truly is the promised Messiah. The anointed one. Or, if perhaps they should be waiting upon another to come instead.
Having acknowledged that little backpedal, then, what is here for us? Well, I said that John would be less certain later. I didn’t say he would turn out to have been wrong. Now in the first of the year, as Epiphany has just dawned, Jesus is revealed in this encounter that we read about. Water comes front-and-center as the setting for his baptism. By the time Matthew portrays Jesus and John meeting up at the River Jordan, water indeed will not be new to us in the Bible.
Our memories from the Creation stories will include water just under the firmament, but largely covering the earth. Water will destroy life. Water will give life. It may be navigated by humans, but in the Bible it will only be controlled and moved by God.
We share in this rite of baptism as a rich reminder, to us and to others who may witness it, of how much our faith means to us. But if this story is about Jesus’ Baptism particularly, that is yet another matter perhaps of even more significance.
To John’s protests of not being worthy, Jesus responds by insisting not only that John indeed baptize him. But he also wants to do so ‘now.’ But why so? God has covenanted through Christ to fulfill the restoration, redemption and salvation of humanity. Jesus will be the way that God does this.
At some point, learning more about this moment in Jesus’ life might send us back to our own baptisms. For a life ahead where God would shape things now. We might consider that in some way, God was indeed powerfully within the water and preparing us for a lifetime of continuing Jesus’ work. Rinsing our own certainty a bit.
We might consider that in baptism, we weren’t just cleansed in some symbolic way. We weren’t just welcomed into the membership of our local churches. Ideally, baptism’s water rinses our certainty a bit.
Instead, if we were faithful and willing as we entered the water then we were also anointed – with Christ – into a lifetime where God calls us alongside Jesus to bring about righteousness and justice here and now.
Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.