Changed for the Better

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Mark 1:4-11

    What have been some of your most life-changing experiences?   They could be good or bad – most of us remember exactly where we were on 9-11, for example. I clearly remember March 13, 2020, the day we shut down all in-person activities at church, not realizing we wouldn’t be reopening for several months due to an unprecedented global pandemic.  The events of this past Wednesday, January 6, with images of protesters storming the capitol is one that is burned into my memory.  On the happier side of things, we might think about our wedding day, or the first moment we met our spouse, the birth of our children, our high school or college years, a particular vacation being life-changing experiences.  Many of us, however, would not think of our baptism day as one that was life-changing, unless we were baptized as older children or adults and can remember the experience.  We talk about baptism a lot in church, we witness the baptisms of others, but we aren’t accustomed to thinking of baptism as that important or life-changing in our day-to-day lives outside of church.
    As we leave stories of Jesus as a child to enter into stories of Jesus’ adult life, our gospel from Mark asserts that baptism is a life-changing event.  When Jesus is baptized, he sees the heavens torn apart!  Anyone there that day witnessing Jesus’ baptism would have surely noticed that God was up to something, hearing that voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.  Jesus’ baptism begins his public adult ministry.  From here he will go on to call his first disciples, teach, preach, heal, cast out demons, and even raise people from the dead.  Jesus’ baptism is a public reiteration of what God had already declared at Jesus’ birth, that God is not a heavenly benevolent deity watching us from a distance up in the sky, but God has come down to be with us in the flesh in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit moving among us.  Baptism has been a big deal ever since in the Christian church.  So today is a day to remember collectively what we may not remember individually about our own baptisms: that our baptisms also were life-changing, world-altering events where God calls us to a lifetime of public ministry – that our baptisms are also the beginning of learning to follow Jesus, serve others, and share God’s good news in word and deed.  While the world news from day to day may cause us to wonder about what is going on and how are lives are changing racial unrest, political unrest, and a global pandemic, the assurance that God loves us and values us in the midst of the mess is one that we continue to cling to.
    This morning I’m beginning a six-week preaching series on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus that will be following our “Exploring Faith” discipleship class that we’re having after worship each Sunday.  Last week, our class started by talking about baptism. It was a privilege to hear each person’s unique baptism story, and it was a testament to how God works in all kinds of ways, through different denominations of churches, as babies and adults, even how we maybe began a life of faith as children, faithful in Sunday School attendance or confirmation and then lapsed, only to return to the faith and the life of the church later in life.  In Lutheranism, we consider two rituals to be sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  They’re considered sacraments because there is a visible physical element like water in baptism, bread and wine in communion, and they are done as well as commanded to be done by Jesus himself in scripture.  
In our increasingly secular culture, baptism has become less important.  In our class, some people shared how several decades ago a baptismal certificate could even be used as proof of a birth date.  Over this pandemic time, I’ve enjoyed getting back into my family genealogy I had been interested in before I had kids, and often the only surviving records of the existence of someone is a baptismal certificate in a church somewhere in Norway or Germany or wherever.  It is much more common today for people to consider themselves Christian without being baptized, or to have their children baptized but never go to church as sort of a family tradition or ritual.  Sometimes, it sadly seems that the baptisms we witness today are a far cry from the earth-shattering, world-altering baptism of Jesus described in Mark’s gospel.
    No matter what denomination or how you do baptism – dunking as an adult or a sprinkle on the head of an infant, there is one thing Christians almost universally have agreed upon – baptism is important, regardless of what the larger culture thinks.  This is what God tells us today through our scriptures as well.  Through baptism, we receive forgiveness of sins and the assurance of God’s salvation. We are officially welcomed into the church. But most importantly, and I think most relevant to where our culture is at today, baptism declares us to be children of God.  No matter how little the culture may value us, or how little we sometimes value ourselves, we are of ultimate worth and value to God.  Each of us are as of much value to God as Jesus himself, God’s only Son, our Lord.  That is why baptism is important. 
Baptism is the beginning of our journey of faith, no matter how winding it might be. Knowing that we are baptized brings us back to God, assures us of God’s presence with us always, and most importantly, tells us that we matter to God.  The voice from heaven that tells Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” is God telling us as well, “You are my child, my beloved, with YOU I am well pleased.” We can go back to this again and again, whether we remember those words told to us on our actual baptism day or not.  Later today, think about whether you still have that baptismal certificate, or banner, or candle, napkin, or other baptismal keepsake.  Try to find it if you have time.  You may not remember your baptism, but God does.  As we continue to explore what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus in the next few weeks, we can keep coming back to this baptismal moment – that we are of priceless worth to God, and that our baptism into Christ changes everything, for the better.  Amen.