"Baptism:  An Experience Or A Compass"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 11, 2009

Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7

     The Sunday following Epiphany, or the arrival of the three Magi in Bethlehem, is always the Sabbath where Christians reference and celebrate Jesus’ baptism.  This event begins the liturgical calendar for the church year.   What prepared Jesus for his awakening?       

     The years between Jesus’ birth and his baptism remain a mystery.  There are several first century traditions that circulated in the early church.  There were also references that might help us discern some life-issues that Jesus faced during his early years. 

     For example, after the birth stories, Jesus suddenly appears as the sole economic supporter of his family.  Joseph is not mentioned after the accounts surrounding Jesus’ birth.  Tradition has suggested that Joseph was killed in a derrick accident while working on Herod’s palace at Masada.   Being the eldest son, Jesus had to take responsibility for his family.            

     There is also Jesus’ remarkable spiritual discernment when he entered his ministry.   Jesus possessed a commanding knowledge of the prophets of his religious heritage.  There was the episode where Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue, indicating that he had mastered that skill.  Only a small percentage of wealthy citizens in Jesus’ world could read. 

     The manner in which Jesus handled himself while addressing the Pharisees, Scribes and Teachers of the Law demonstrated repeatedly that he had a more perceptive understanding of the faith traditions of his people than most of them.  These skills presume that Jesus had been given an extensive formal education during his childhood and adolescent years, more than likely under the tutelage of some very wise and learned rabbis.           

     With Joseph gone and Jesus carrying on his father’s carpentry business, there were long stretches of solitude when Jesus worked alone as he created products for his countrymen.  Judging from the direction of his ministry, Jesus had grown cynical of the practices of religious leaders. He saw the buying and selling of products on the Temple grounds.  He witnessed the charade of pious Pharisees as they paraded their faithfulness to the Laws of Moses while wearing their long flowing robes.  He watched the treasury of the Temple grow larger and larger while the poverty of widows and orphans was ignored.           

     Perhaps during these days, someone brought Jesus a yoke that needed repairing.  While making small talk, the man asked, “Have you gone down to the Jordan to listen to your cousin, John?”  Jesus responded, “No, I haven’t.  I’ve been too busy.  I understand that he’s creating quite a stir among the people with his words.”  The man replies, “You ought to go.  Folks are saying that Israel has not heard prophetic preaching like this for at least 400 years.  He is telling people that the Kingdom is at hand.  He is even talking about the chosen one coming during our lifetime.  Take some time off and go listen to him.  You won’t be disappointed.” 

     Whatever happened to motivate him to go, Jesus took the time and went down to the Jordan.  John’s words, indeed, were powerful.  He watched and listened to his cousin as he paced back and forth chiding the rich and famous Pharisees and Sadducees, “You snakes, John exclaimed, who told you that you could escape the punishment that God is about to send?  The ax is ready to cut down the trees at their roots -- every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  I baptize with water, but one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 3:7f) 

     What happened next is shrouded in mystery.  There is quite a bit of colorful imagery connected with Jesus’ baptismal experience.  The Gospel writers have slightly different versions of this event.  We have no idea what Jesus’ experienced or what it looked like when “the Heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in bodily form like a dove.”   In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is the only one who saw the dove come down, but there was no voice declaring that Jesus was God’s Son.  John did not know how to interpret what he experienced.  (John 1:32-33) 

     What appears clear is that, whatever happened to him, Jesus’ personal encounter pointed to a journey quite different from his current path.  Jesus’ experience shattered his daily routines, his desire to remain a carpenter, his family ties and his association with the way the faith of his fathers was being characterized by religious leaders.  At the time, John was not convinced that Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus and John’s ministries ran parallel to each other until Herod silenced the Baptist’s prophetic voice.  (Luke 7:20) 

     In our second lesson today, the Book of Acts provided readers with a different definition of baptism, one that had nothing to do with water.  Paul asked some Ephesians, “Were you baptized by the Holy Spirit?”  They answered that they were baptized by John and were not aware of a Holy Spirit.  Paul baptized them again and this time they were overcome by a unique and strange presence. 

     What I want to suggest to you this morning is that the act of baptism has evolved into a sacrament of the church, a sacrament that goes back to a time when people connected directly to God.  What we practice today is symbolic of our washing away of the old and the dawning of a new life in Christ. Or, as in our tradition, parents promise to mirror what love looks like to their children, an act that will later be confirmed by them at the age of twelve.  As we all recognize, sometimes that connection to God gets a little frayed. 

I received a cell phone call from a friend of mine who was driving while icy rain and intermittent sleet were falling on the roads.  This is what he said: 

Dick, I have my entire family with me and I am calling to see if you can answer a theological question for me.  We have been in traffic for two hours and we are just on the other side of the Roosevelt Bridge.  My children are watching me and listening to me so I want to be a good role model here.


I am currently driving in the slow lane because I intend to make a turn a mile up the road.  However, there are other cars that are going to make the same turn and they are going into the faster land with intent of breaking in line further up the road.  Because of their strategy, the slow lane is not moving.  Get the picture?


Right now, I am looking at a gentleman who wants me to let him in front of me.  I am calling you to find out what Jesus would do in this situation.  Right now, I want to turn my wheels toward this guy’s car and mash on my accelerator.  However, my daughters and wife are watching me. 

     There was laughter in the car and on my end of the phone.  I simply asked him a question, “What does extending love look like to you?” This was all in fun, of course, but this episode does illustrate what happens within us as we face every day temptations to shroud love’s presence.   

     Our encounters with God can provide remarkable experiences of God’s infinite, forgiving, accepting love of us just as we are.  They also can provide us with a compass that points us in the direction of acting the same way toward others, even when they are being rude, calloused and selfish. 

     Jesus drew a line in the sand that separated him from thousands of years of religious tradition surrounding obedience to the Law.  He condensed the words of the Law and the Prophets into a universal language many human beings could readily understand.  Jesus taught his followers to share willfully the good news of how to make God’s likeness visible to others.  When we do that, we open a channel for God’s creative love to come through us. 

     In his book entitled, Mistreated, Ron Lee Dunn told an interesting story about two altar boys.  One was born in 1892 in Eastern Europe and the other was born three years later in a small rural town in Illinois.  What the boys shared in common was an experience they shared.   

     Each had been assisting the parish priest during Mass.  Their responsibility was to hold the chalice that held the sacred blood of Christ, according to Roman Catholic tradition.  Ironically, both spilled some of the wine on the carpet. 

     The priest in Eastern Europe, upon seeing the stain, slapped the little altar boy across his face.   He ridiculed the boy for being so clumsy and stupid while handling the precious blood of Christ.  He ordered the boy to leave the altar area immediately after publicly humiliating him.  The angry voice and actions of the priest were witnessed by the stunned congregation. 

     The priest in Illinois saw the stain on the carpet, and he knelt down to be on the little boy’s level.  While looking into his eyes, he said, “That’s all right, son.  You’ll do better next time.”  He placed his hand upon the lad’s shoulder and said, “Perhaps some day you will become a fine priest who will touch many people with your words and spirit.” 

Two young boys with identical experiences evolved in quite different directions.  The altar boy in Eastern Europe grew up and became Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, the communist strongman who was dictator from 1943 until 1980.  The other young man grew up in Illinois and became Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.   All God needs from us is an opening to the life of another. 

     Unless we are blind to our faults and have an enormous narcissistic pride that we cloak in piety, few of us consider ourselves worthy to experience the presence of God’s overwhelming love being focused on just us.  We are all sinners.  Like the two altar boys, we miss the mark and we know it!  Yet God continues to love us anyway.  There are other times when God comes unannounced during moments when we are least prepared. 

     There was no baptism involved when Moses turned aside from his chores to see a burning bush that was not consumed.  Having recently come from killing an Egyptian, Moses would never have imagined that God had something for him to do. Saul of Tarsus was not involved in a baptismal experience when he encountered a life-transforming moment while on his way to Damascus. 

     Who knows how unprepared Jesus was for his encounter?  After all, thirty years had passed since Mary had pondered her experiences in her heart.  So far there was no evidence of Jesus building a kingdom that would have no end.  Could the angel Gabriel have been mistaken? Jesus was ensconced as a carpenter and a family provider until he went into the Jordan and encountered God.     

     Jesus once taught the true meaning of baptism of the Holy Spirit when he said, “The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is like this with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8) 

     God meets people where they are. There are times when people’s lives are not working and they cannot imagine living even one more day.  God visits them where they are in their vulnerability when they reach out. 

     There are other times when God comes to people while they are at the pinnacle of their success and may offer guidance that their skills are needed elsewhere.  Success can often leave people feeling empty and they reach out to God whom they may never have experienced. 

     There are countless examples of this.  Tom Monaghan who founded Domino’s Pizza and who owned the Detroit Tigers sold everything to build churches in Central America.  John Shirley, the number two person behind Bill Gates of Microsoft, left everything to spend more time with his family.  Joseph Kordick, the general manager of the Ford Motor Company’s Parts and Service Division, walked away from his job in order to volunteer for hospice in Florida. 

     During one of his resurrection appearances before the disciples, Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.  Then he breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)   This is where the experience of God’s loving presence in our lives also becomes the compass that offers us guidance.  We need to remember our baptism, recalling that we are people who have a mission to fulfill.  All we have to do is make love visible and God will do the rest. 


     Even though our New Year’s resolutions have just been made, many of us still recognize that our minds and hearts need to be coaxed into experiencing moments of solitude.  There are times when seeking your guidance is not one of our natural responses.  We are more prone to allowing our schedules to set our priorities.  The demands of life appear to take more from us than we are prepared to give.  Inspire us to move beyond such thoughts.  Inspire us to understand that our reservoirs, filled with our abilities, are never empty.  As we follow the Master, enable us to do so with the sense of joy, not sacrifice.  Motivate us to seek what we can give rather than what we are owed. Enable us to rely on your guidance as we communicate your qualities in our world of change and uncertainty.  Amen.


     Gracious and loving God, thank you for providing us with many sources of inspiration. We thank you for the angels who surround us when we enter our sanctuary. They sit with us in our pews. They shake our hands. They help us to laugh and enable us to reveal who we are. They help shyness and reticence to melt away. Just as you love us, they give us the gift of acceptance just as we are.

     We thank you for your word that comes to us in many forms. It may be visible to us in a prayer, a hymn or a Scripture passage. It may come through a sermon illustration. Yet when it touches our spirits, we are made aware that you are reaching out through the thoughts of another as you communicate, "You are my beloved son or daughter and I love you more than you can understand."

     We pray that as our spirits continue to learn and grow, that each of us will take our turn to smile and speak, to ask the question that helps another self-disclose, or to invite someone to become more active in our church family.  We confess that we do not know each other as we could, so we ask that you give us the moment of inspiration causing us to break the ice with our words as we extend your presence to them. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .