“Who invented baptism?”  This was a question I received in an email from Shawn Kiger about 3 years ago.  I was still serving in Lynchburg at Heritage, and I had just spoken at the District Youth Retreat, focusing my conversation on Baptism and Communion.  Shawn was not asking the question.  Rahter, he was asking on behalf of one of the youth from Lane Memorial United Methodist Church who attended the retreat.  They were discussing the retreat at youth group the next week.

One young man in particular, in the way only a youth can, wanted to know who invented baptism.  I had touched on most everything else regarding Baptism and its significance for our lives as Christians:  receiving the Holy Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, forgiveness of sins, new life, and the grace the follows us throughout our years growing in us and helping to direct us towards the person God is calling us to be.  Yet in this young man’s mind I had left out a critical detail.  Who invented it?  The great part about the answer to this question is that the answer is less than clear.   Sometimes, now that I find myself serving at Lane Memorial, I wonder to myself who it was that asked this question!

It is one of the things I love about the beginning of the Gospel text for today.  John the Baptist suddenly appears.  This figure in the wilderness suddenly comes on to the scene.  He speaks a word of judgment, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He is not the one we would expect to be saying such things.  He appears not in courts of Herod.  Rather, he appears in the wilderness as far from the centers of powers as possible.

He is a rugged character, complete with camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist.  He is eating bugs.  And perhaps most surprisingly, people are responding to his message.  They are coming from all over the place to receive this baptism and confess their sins.  Mark gives us nothing more than he thinks we need to know.  We receive no back-story except that in Mark’s opinion all we need to know is that people have been expecting this unexpected character to turn up for a long time:

“‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century Swiss theologian, had a reproduction of a famous altar piece painted between 1510 and 1515 by Matthias Grünewald for the monastery of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.  This painting hung over the desk at which he worked.  Barth because he referred to this altar piece at least 50 times in his speaking and writing.[1]  

Barth’s imagination was captured by Gruënewald’s depiction of John the Baptist’s hand.  John the Baptist extends a skinny small finger, and he points.  He is pointing at Christ.  But not just Christ, Christ crucified.  He points to the wound in Christ’s side, from which bright red blood flows.  It is, as we see today, John’s job always to point. He points not to himself, but to another.

John says in our passage today, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  He points to the one who comes after him.  Barth understood this to be at the heart of our identity as Christians.  He says, “Shall we dare turn our eyes in the direction of the pointing hand of Gruënewald’s John? We know whither it points. It points to Christ. But to Christ the crucified, we must immediately add. That is your direction, says the hand.”[2]

John appears.  He points.  But it doesn’t tell us who invited baptism.  I could go on and talk about the history of ritual cleansing in Israel, and I could expand and describe on the outsider community of fringe Jews called the Essenes of which many people believe John the Baptist was a part.  Yet, it still doesn’t answer the question.  It doesn’t answer it because while it is a good question and one worth thinking through, when we look at John’s finger pointing at Christ we begin to ask different questions.  He points at Christ.  Baptism is important because Christ underwent Baptism, and he invites us to do the same.  It is interesting that Jesus chose to undergo Baptism, considering it was for forgiveness and repentance, which he did not need.  Yet, he insists that John baptize him.  Why?  The youth and I wrestled with this for a while on Wednesday in our Lectionary Bible Study.

It’s a pretty good question, yet Mark’s matter of fact style seems to circumvent the question to hurry up and get to the good part.  Mark doesn’t care why, he cares that it happened.  More importantly, he cares about what is revealed in the Baptism of the Lord.  The heavens are torn apart.  It’s funny.  When I read these words, I thought back to our conversation during Advent where Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  It appears that is exactly what is happening.  The heavens are torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  Then we hear a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What we see in Jesus’ baptism is nothing short than a revelation of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit descends on the one the Father identifies as the Son.  In this revelation the church was able to look back and see glimpses and hints of God’s Triune nature from the very beginning.  The Old Testament Lesson comes from the beginning of Genesis today because in it we see God in the beginning.  We see God’s Spirit moving across the waters.  And then God speaks.  The Word of God.  It has been there from the very beginning, yet only in Jesus Baptism do we have eyes to see that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune name in which we baptize.

Jesus, though he did not need John’s baptism, sanctified it, so, as John himself points out, John’s baptism is with water; but Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. We are baptized by water and the Spirit.  This means that while our baptism includes repentance and forgiveness, it is deeper than that.  It is an entry point because God is choosing us.  Jesus has been baptized, and he invites us to join with him and swim in the waters.

As we join him in the waters, he invites us into himself.  We become a member of his body.  He begins to work us more and more deeply into being a part of him, and we are re-born…we receive and live a life that is new, a life that wades into life that is eternal.  Today as we celebrate Christ’s baptism it is also a celebration of baptizing Mary Alex.  Yet, in this act there is also a solemnity present here.  Today, Mary Alex undergoes a death and a resurrection.  This is made possible because Christ invites us to baptism.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we may share in his resurrection.

As we wade into this life, and he lives us in us and we live for him, we experience the working of a grace that comes not to us just one time when the waters pass over us and the Triune name is spoken.  Rather, it is a grace that grows within us, that follows us.  It is the place in which God begins to call out to us, and it is that grace that allows us to recognize within ourselves who we authentically are created to be.  It is, as I have said before, the ordination of all people who follow Christ to be ministers of the Gospel in the world.

Or, perhaps, Barth might say, Baptism is our initiation to pointing.

Mary Alex cannot point yet, as far as Morgan and I know.  Yet, God is choosing her today in baptism to be God’s very own.  Not because she is a preacher’s daughter.  Not because she is somehow more special than everyone else, but because God loves her and wants her to be a part of the body of Christ.  The promises that Morgan and I make today point not to ourselves, nor to Mary Alex as cute as she may be.  They point to Christ and Christ crucified.  And the promises her Godparents make point not to themselves, but to Christ and Christ crucified.

We are reaffirming our promises, and we are promising to direct Mary Alex’s attention towards Christ and Christ crucified.  So that one day, through God’s grace operating in her through the power of the Holy Spirit, hopefully she will decide she wants to take responsibility to point to Christ with her own life.  This is not an individual endeavor; it is a community endeavor.  We make promises today, and so do you.  You promise “with God’s help,” to

proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others.  We will pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[3]

We are all in this together.  As theologian Laurence  Hull Stookey says, when we receive baptism, “we renounce the popular notion that “I can be a committed Christian without being a member of the church. “[4]  We need each other, and we are drawn toward one another into Christ’s body when we are baptized.  We point together.  We don’t just point for people who aren’t Christians yet.  We point for each other.  We remind each other of who Christ is and that we belong to him.  We point for each other.  God chooses us so we can choose him and each other. In those moment where perhaps we have trouble saying part of the creed, the rest of us can say the creed together and we can speak those words for each other.  We can point.  We can be reminded of who and whose we are.  It is true that right now Mary Alex cannot point.  Yet as she prepares to undergo the waters of baptism in just a few moments, I think of the hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

[1] James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 2.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 112. Cited in James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 3.

[3] “Baptismal Covenant I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN:  United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism:  Christ’s Action in the Church, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 45.