Baptism as an act of rebellion and resistance
A sermon based on Matthew 3:1-17
I was baptized by Hiram Lemay in 1980. Brother Lemay was a nice middle aged man who pastored a church called Una Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Brother Lemay looked as much like a preacher as a person can look, with white bucks and a preacher swoop to his hair. And Hiram Lemay preached the gospel. You know the kind… the kind that makes you hold on to the seat in front of you during the invitation because you’re sure he’s talking to you. The kind that requests one more verse of Just As I Am, with “every head bowed and every eye closed,” and allows you to raise your hand, if you’re too scared to walk the aisle. He was THAT kind of preacher.
He had come over to the house to lead me through the Roman road of Scriptures. I was convinced (or convicted, as they say) that I was a sinner and that Jesus had died so that I might not face death, but instead have eternal life. I believe I had a true meeting with God on that day, but I’m not so sure that it had to do with that particular set of Scriptures. I still remember thinking, “Well, that’s kinda harsh.”
But it stuck, somehow. And thus began my Christianity, and the path that got me here, today. A few weeks after my profession of faith, and walking the aisle of the church, I got baptized. That I remember clearly. I remember the tiny little back room where I changed into my slip and the white robe. I remember the smell of chlorine as I walked across the baptismal waters. I remember thinking, “Hmm. This is deeper than I thought.” Brother Lemay had told me that he would hold my nose, and I would hold his arm. And he didn’t so much push me down as lead me up with that arm. I remember he asked, “Lia, do you believe that Jesus died on a cross to save you? Do you want to follow him?” I remember those words, “Lia, In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I baptize you my sister in Christ.” I remember feeling different coming up out of the water.
And then I remember going back out into the church after the baptism, feeling somehow special in my new dress and wet hair. It was, for me, a turning point. A choice to live a different kind of life. A decision to put Jesus at the center of my life and to reorient my thinking to what God wanted for me.
Do you remember your baptism?
This morning, I’d like for you to think about baptism as a radical reordering of our lives as individuals and as a community.
On January 21, 1525, twelve or so men in Zurich met at the home of Felix Manz… the City Council of Zurich had that day ordered Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel to quit offering Bible classes. And four days earlier, that same City Council had required all parents to have their babies baptized within eight days of their birth or be banished. After discussing all that had gone on, the men prayed to God to know and do God’s will. Then George Blaurock stepped forward and asked Grebel to baptize him in the apostolic fashion, upon confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ.
These people who met were called Anabaptists, re-baptizers, although they did not re-baptize people at all. Instead, they believed in believer’s baptism, that one must understand God’s message for our lives prior to being baptized. This was a radical idea, given that EVERYBODY was baptized at birth, this idea that men and women could freely and personally choose to follow Jesus. And the Anabaptist set out to live as communities of people committed to follow Jesus.
According to Bruce L. Shelley (Church History in Plain Language), the Baptisms performed were clearly acts of rebellion. They flew in the face of a government that ran the church, a government that encouraged the docility of the church in order to control people’s lives. But Blaurock and Grebel saw through the control, and knew that they wanted Jesus in control, not the state.
Let’s look at our text this morning:
We have John the Baptist. A wild man, by the looks of things, with is camel hair shirt, and eating locusts and wild honey. A prophet. A man unwilling to bend to the state of Israel (which was, make no mistake) a governor. He even called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” an insult that speaks to the meanness of the people. Vipers are known to eat their way out of their own mothers’ bellies. Don’t try to tame John the Baptist. He is, in every way, an enemy of the state. That’s why Herod killed him.
And Jesus. Dear sweet Jesus, that kind and loving man, who we see as someone just trying to get along, being nice to everyone, holding on to little children, who we say only once really got angry… Who we soften every time we can…
And when we look back on this baptism, we also see this act as an act of faith in the person of John the Baptist. To me, this is the radical re-ordering of the world. That the king of the world would be baptized by someone we would all call crazy. That this ruler of all would believe in the goodness and wonder of a single person (and, as it turns out, all people). That this creator of the universe has faith in John the Baptist and places trust in him. Just like God has faith in you, and trusts in you.
It’s the radical idea of the priesthood of all believers. That we’re all set apart to minister to this world. That we’re all a piece of this puzzle, and this puzzle doesn’t get solved until we’re all in our places. That we are intimately connected to the rightness of the world.
We talk about Jesus’ baptism as an act of submission. But who are we kidding? His baptism could not have been an act of repentance—he never sinned. His baptism could not have been an act of getting right with God—he was God! His baptism was probably not a visible sign of the change in his life. He had nothing to change from.
His baptism was instead an act of resistance. He would not be ruled by the rulers of Israel. His baptism was an act of rebellion. He would not go to the mikvah waters of the Temple. He would not bow to the institutionalized religion of his time. He would not bow to the governmental powers of his time. He would, instead, go to a wild man.
And this act of rebellion and resistance would re-orient his thinking towards what God wanted from him. This act would be the beginning of a ministry that would not be only kind and gentle. It would not be only loving. It would not be only good. It would change the world. And change the world in such a radical way, that we’re still talking about it. It would question authority. It would rearrange our thinking about who is most important in the world. It rearrange our priorities in such a way that we would be thinking that the first is last, and the last is first, that the poor are rich and the rich are poor, that the one who wants to sit at the right hand of God will not be there at all.
It all starts here. In the baptismal waters.
We’re going to have a moment of silence here. Because I want you to remember your baptism. I want you to remember what it meant to you to be dipped in those waters. To hold the arm of someone you trust to pull you back up out of the waters. To have water sprinkled on you or dumped on you, or just gingerly placed on your head. Remember your baptism. Ask yourself, did it reorder you enough? Was it an act of resistance or an act of submission? Are you still lving out the promises of that baptismal water? Are you still clothed in the robes of the priesthood of all believers? If not, imagine yourselves in the baptismal waters today. How will you re-order your life to reclaim those promises? How will you resist the powers that be and radically re-orient your life?
Creator God, our soul’s delight,
your voice thunders over the waters,
liberating the future from the past.
In the Spirit’s power and the waters of rebirth,
Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved Son;
may we recall our baptism,
and be disciples of the Anointed One. Amen.
(from the Revised Common Lectionary Page of Vanderbilt University)