Take out a five-dollar bill and hold it up to the light. What do you see? You should see, very faintly on the right hand side, a watermark of the number five. That watermark is a special label that tells us whether or not we have a genuine five-dollar bill. To put it another way, the United States Treasury has put its mark of approval on this bill. We can take this bill and exchange it for goods and services because the U. S. Government puts its full faith and credit behind it. Did you know that you and I have been watermarked? Through the waters of baptism God marked us. Do we bear that mark well?
Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, his baptism wasn’t an afterthought. He didn’t wander by the Jordan River one day, see a crowd of folks getting baptized by John and say, “Hey? I think I’ll follow the crowd.” According to Matthew’s Gospel, it was an intentional act on Jesus’ part to participate in John’s baptism. That must mean that baptism was important to Jesus. As disciples, if it were important to Jesus, it should be equally important to us.
That truth is supported by John’s reaction when he saw Jesus standing in the line of sinners waiting to be baptized. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John stammered (Matthew 3:14). Think about it this way: Jesus coming to John for baptism is sort of like me cooking at home and Bobby Flay knocks on my door and wants me to cook dinner for him. “Hey, wait a minute,” I say, “You’re the expert. You’re the one who should be cooking for me!”
John’s baptism of Jesus reflects the truth that even John himself understood: Baptism is a gift from God–God-designed and God-ordained. Baptism is not something John the Baptist made up, not something Jesus made up, nor something the Church made up. Baptism was God’s idea and God’s gift of grace.
We United Methodists believe baptism is a gift from God. The word we use to describe it is “sacrament”, from the Latin sacramentum, meaning “sacred.” We believe that God’s grace is given to us when we participate in baptism. The Bible teaches we are changed by God’s grace through the act of baptism. Thus, baptism demonstrates God’s actions, not ours. According to our Church’s official document on baptism:
“Grace brings us to an awareness of our sinful predicament and of our inability to save ourselves; grace motivates us to repentance and gives us the capacity to respond to divine love. In the words of the baptismal ritual: ‘All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price’.” By Water and the Spirit—A United Methodist Document on Baptism
Our baptism is special because it is a God-designed, God-ordained channel of grace into our lives, and thus, through baptism we are blessed beyond measure.
Baptism is a channel through which we receive God’s blessings. What do I mean? Think of it this way. Did you receive a gift card for Christmas? A gift card doesn’t look like much – a piece of plastic with some fancy writing on it, but it entitles you to a tangible blessing like a meal or merchandise. In the same way, baptism may not look like much more than a nice photo-op, especially when one considers we Methodists take a few handfuls of water and splash them over a person’s head while some fancy theological words are spoken, but baptism connects us to tangible blessings from God. John understood well that one blessing was the forgiveness of sins. That’s another reason he was so confused when Jesus requested baptism. Jesus didn’t need forgiveness, so why was he asking to be baptized?
Although Jesus didn’t need the forgiveness that baptism offers, he was baptized anyway. The events that immediately followed his baptism illustrate what happened at our baptism. Matthew tells us that after Jesus was baptized, heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father boomed: “This is my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with Him” (verse 17).
It really is an amazing scene. When Matthew says that heaven was opened he wasn’t just saying that the sun managed to poke through the clouds; he was describing how God’s blazing glory burned through the skies. Accompanying this heavenly display was the Father’s voice marking who Jesus was. “This is MY Son, not Joseph, the carpenter’s son. He is the Son of God.” Not only did the Father identify Jesus as his Son, he went on to put his mark of approval on what Jesus had come to do when he said that he was “well-pleased” with Jesus. The same thing happens at our baptism. God put’s His name on us. He calls us his son, his daughter and says that he is well pleased with us. And, he sends the Holy Spirit to give us or strengthen our faith in this announcement. Through baptism, heaven stands open to us.
How do we know that we really receive these blessings from God? The dove is all we need to know! Remember the account of the flood in Genesis? It was a dove that Noah sent out from the Ark when the rain (another water image, I might add) stopped, and it was the dove that brought back an olive branch to show Noah that the floodwaters and, therefore, God’s wrath had receded. By alighting on Jesus in the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit was marking Jesus as the olive branch the Father was extending to us. In Jesus we find peace from God’s wrath because he came to switch places with us. Peace with God is what Jesus was signaling with his baptism. He got in line with those sinners at the Jordan River, not because he needed baptism but to say to the world, “I will become what you are so that you can become what I am. I will become what you are when I let God the Father sweep all your sins into his heavenly dustpan and dump them all on me at the cross. Yet, you will go free and will be declared to be what I am – a faithful child with whom the Father is well pleased.” Now, that’s a blessing if there ever was one!
Baptism is God’s watermark of approval. Just as the watermark on the five-dollar bill assures us that a $5 bill is real money, the watermark of baptism assures us that we have forgiveness and that we really are God’s children. I didn’t make this stuff up about baptism, nor did John the Baptist invent this sacrament of cleansing. God did…to put his mark of approval on us.
There is so much more that baptism means for we United Methodists. I’ve only scratched the surface, but above and beyond all that baptism is, it is a gift of grace to us. We must never forget that fact. Never forget…
Until next time, keep looking up…