A Hidden Mystery
July 16, 2017 Pastor: Matt Wilcox
Topic: Baptism Scripture: John 2:1–2:11
We can all think of certain talents or skills we wished we possessed. And I’m not talking about funny things like being able to fly or, in my case, use the Force to open grocery store doors. I’m talking about real, tangible talents that we’ve seen other people do. Some of us might watch an athlete and think: wow, I wish I could hit a 3-pointer like that. Some of us might see friends or neighbors working on their own cars and wish we had the knowledge and skills to do our own car maintenance. We might wish we could bake a certain kind of cake, grow a garden, or play the guitar. For me, there’s always been one skill I wished I had…besides the whole using the Force thing. I always wanted to be able to do magic tricks. Card tricks, slight of hand…that kind of stuff. Just last week I was playing a game with Conner and Chris and some of the students from our church and Ian McAllister whipped out a magic trick. I’ve got a buddy back in PA who has a really successful side job doing magic for casinos and charity gatherings and things like that.
Magic is awesome. That’s obvious. But I think one of the reasons we find magic compelling is because while we are watching, something happens that we can’t see and therefore can’t explain. From the most basic of card tricks, all the way to the feats of magicians like Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, and Criss Angel – we have our eyes wide open and yet can’t explain something incredible. And these guys weren’t the only ones to perform incredible acts. We rarely call it magic when it comes to Jesus. Instead, we like the term miracles. But Jesus did some incredible things that no one could explain right in front of close friends and huge crowds. Our text this morning is the very first of those unbelievable moments. We’re in John chapter 2, verses 1-11.
* Read John 2:1-11 *
As I said, this is the first of Christ’s miracles. And, really, if any of us were there we would have probably considered it magic. This event occurs after Christ’s own baptism and after he has begun calling his disciples. When we stop and look more closely we can see evidence that this is a family affair. Jesus and his mother are both there so there is a family invitation extended, not a singular one. Also, the fact that Mary gets really concerned about the wine running out hints to us that Mary had some kind of personal investment in this celebration. We know Mary wasn’t a wedding planner and I highly doubt the mother of God was just stressed out about not begin able to have another glass of wine.
So we are at this public celebration that is probably similar in some degree to our own experience of weddings. Everyone knows the couple. You might know a few cousins or grandparents really well. You don’t know most of the friends and co-workers and even some of the family there barely register in your memory banks. This is likely the kind of scenario Jesus is within. An open celebration surrounded by some people who knew him well and some who didn’t know him at all.
And then Mary comes to Jesus and explains the situation. At first, Jesus is taken aback. He’s not being disrespectful when he calls his own mother “woman” but rather that’s just a cultural thing. And it’s not as if Jesus is some kind of prohibitionist or party-pooper. Instead, Jesus views what he is about to do as the beginning of his journey. A journey that ends at the cross and his own death. Once that journey is begun, it cannot be abandoned.
And then we get the magic trick. Jesus instructs some servants to fill six huge stone jars with water. When I say huge, I mean it as the text tells us - each could hold 20-30 gallons. So they do it and fill up these jars with common water. Then Jesus tells them to draw out some of the water and give it to the master of the banquet and we learn that somehow the water has become the finest of wine. We have no idea how. Water was poured into common pots and….boom! Wine. It’s a hidden mystery.
And just like that wedding crowd, all of us witnessed a hidden mystery this morning. We observed with our eyes something seemingly ordinary and simple. A few words spoken and some water placed on little Jack’s head. But we also were present for the hidden mystery of baptism. Just like those servants at the wedding in Cana, we have no way of really explaining how water went from being the simple liquid it is to becoming the means for Christ to serve and touch the lives of so many. So this morning I want us to explore the hidden mystery of baptism. We received a glimpse last week when we reflected on the baptism of Cruz, Quinn, Cash, and Colt Martin.
The truth is that baptism is a vastly expansive subject. There are countless books written about it. Church denominations of every variety have faithfully-crafted, passionately-held opinions about the sacrament. Even our own Book of Confessions with the Presbyterians – which is like our manual for Christian doctrine and belief – covers baptism in almost every one of our confessions. There is no way I can even begin to address all that baptism is, let alone hope to sum it up. But there are three aspects about baptism I feel are crucial for us to know if we want to truly grasp just how remarkable this sacramental practice is; not only for the little ones like Jack and the Martin boys, but for all of us.
The first is seeing baptism as a sign of adoption. Adoption is perhaps one of the most moving and full images we have when trying to understand the love of God and how He calls us His children. Throughout the entirety of Scripture we find the language and example of adoption being used to describe our relationship to God. If we want to, we can see the sacrament of baptism as a physical representation of an already existing love and desire, sort of like the signing of adoption papers today. The signing of those documents doesn’t increase the love of the adopting parents but it does provide and physical, public, shareable demonstration for that love to all the world.
I mentioned that our own book of confessions describes baptism in multiple places. In the Second Helvetic Confession it begins to answer the question of what it means to be baptized with these words: “Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the children of God.”
Baptism is a physical, outward sign of God’s loving decision to reach out to us and include us as His own children. We gain all the benefits and inheritance of being a child of God, the greatest of which is being brought into a warm, personal, intimate relationship with the God of all things. Baptism signifies God’s incredibly gracious initiative and His action. Again, just like with the signing of adoption papers, baptism declares to every person that this child/this person is beloved by God, claimed by God, and a member of the family of God.
There are some traditions that struggle with the act of infant baptism, like what we have done with Jack this morning and the Martin boys last week. I said this before: every Christian tradition has strongly-held views concerning baptism. Within our own reformed tradition, the sovereignty of God and His extension of love and grace is of the utmost importance. When we baptize a little baby we are given the most incredible display of that sovereignty and unconditional love. Kids like Jack and Colt, the youngest among us, have no way of declaring their love for God, their need for grace. They can offer God no display of allegiance or offering of worship. And still, our Lord takes these precious children into His embrace and declares them His own children and surrounds them with His love. It is really no different from when back in the Old Testament covenants God would make a promise to men like Abraham on behalf of the whole nation. Those children, both born and yet to come, were included in the reaching and expansive and consuming promise of our loving God.
So when we witness the hidden mystery of baptism we are witnessing a sign of adoption, a declaration of God that He has brought these children/these people into His family and counts them as beloved sons and daughters. The second aspect of this hidden mystery we need to reflect on is understanding baptism as the washing of sin.
In baptism, we use water as the means for demonstrating how the blood of Christ and God’s Spirit washes us, cleanses us, and frees us from the sin we cannot escape. While Christians may differ on their opinion of when we should baptize, very few argue against the why. Again, it is important for us to remember that this is an outward sign of a hidden and spiritual reality. It’s not like when I baptized Jack that we saw globs of sin fall off him or that the water bowl was any dirtier than it had been before. The waters and act of baptism serve as an outward display and declaration of the work God does in the heart and life of the baptized.
Saint Augustine, likely the father of Western Christianity, had a really powerful image for describing this and he took it straight from Scripture. He uses the moments of Moses’ story at the Red Sea. This is a story most of us know to some degree. Moses and the Hebrews are fleeing the Egyptians and they come to the Red Sea. Moses parts the waters, the Hebrews walk through, and then the waters come crashing down on the Egyptians – thus ending the fear of pursuit and the life of slavery the Hebrews had been experiencing.
Augustine says that just as the Egyptians pursued the Hebrews, so too do our sins pursue us. They even come before the waters of baptism just as we do. Our sins are our enemies. They are the force that seeks to keep us enslaved and that tries with all its strength to keep us from following the voice of God. When we are touched by the waters of baptism it is like we are entering the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our sins follow us but the big difference is this: We escape those waters, our sins do not. Where we step out of them into a life of freedom and calling from the Lord, our sins are washed away by those waters. And this is why when I baptize, I do so by making the sign of the cross.
Because it is by the cross and the blood of Christ that these waters have any ability to reveal a hidden mystery like the washing of sins. It is by the work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are freed from our sins. Romans 6:4 sums this up: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” And this is why baptism through immersion or dunking also contains such powerful imagery. The person being baptized is literally plunged under the water signifying the death of sin and the old life and then they are brought out of the water and symbolically ushered into the new life. Both forms of baptism are valid and both contain powerful imagery. And both lead to the third and final aspect of baptism.
Baptism as the beginning of a new life. Paul said it in Romans, we are called to live a new life. Jesus Himself was the recipient of this reality. It’s helpful for us to remember that baptism is not only a command of Jesus but it was also an action He took Himself. Jesus went into the waters of baptism and when he emerged He was declared by God as His beloved son and it is from that moment that Jesus began His public ministry of bringing God’s kingdom to this place.
The Confession of 1967, another one of our Presbyterian confessions, says: “Baptism with water represents not only cleansing from sin, but a dying with Christ and a joyful rising with him into new life. It commits all Christians to die each day to sin and to live for righteousness.” This is one of the most important elements of baptism but sadly can also be the one we forget most often. Baptism is not an accomplishment, it is the beginning of something wonderful. It is the start of a brand new journey. Daniel Migliore describes it this way: “The event of baptism marks the beginning of the Christian’s participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It signals one’s death to an old way of life and one’s birth to the new life in Christ. Christians are given a Christian name, and their whole life becomes a journey of faith in which they enter ever more fully into their baptismal identity. They become participants in the life and love of the triune God in whose name they are baptized.”
For a teenager or an adult being baptized, this is less complicated. We hope and it is expected that when they are baptized that they would take tangible, intentional measures to live into their identity as a child of God and to purposefully orient their lives away from sin. For a baby, like Jack, it becomes a different matter and one they don’t bear alone. This is why the parents are asked baptismal vows for their child. It is why you as a church are asked baptismal vows. Because we become a part of this little ones Christian identity. We take part in the glorious and intimate work that the Lord does in the lives of the babies that are baptized up here. And ya know what that does? It forces each and every one of us to recall, reaffirm, and reengage our own baptismal vows that are perhaps decades old.
The past two weeks we have witnessed five baptisms. If you go back a few more weeks, we can recall three more with Dahlia and Greyson and Oliver being baptized. And in a few months I’ll have joy of baptizing my own son. That’s a lot of baptisms and that’s why I felt compelled to speak so much about the sacrament today. So that we as a church can not only celebrate a warm moment with families we love but so that we can begin to understand the incredible and spiritual event that is taking place when we bring someone to these waters. So that we can stand and marvel as witnesses to this incredible act of love from our God and truly inspiring hidden mystery.