Rev. Bruce Morgan
I JOHN 5:6-8; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
I John declares that there are three witnesses to the truth that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. They are the water - the blood - and the Spirit. It took the water of baptism, the blood of the Cross, and the wind of the Spirit to confirm and complete our covenant with God and our personal relationship with Christ as Lord. Our salvation does not come cheaply, or easily. It required sacrifice on the part of Christ, and it requires a decision of faith from us, before the spirit of God can breathe into us new life.
Water marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry: the water of the River Jordan where he was baptized. Jesus went to John to be baptized by him, confirming him as the Savior who opens to us the Kingdom of God. "If Elijah had his moment of empowerment on the mountain", writes Peter Gomes, former Chaplain at Harvard, "Jesus, had his in the river, at his baptism." There the heavens opened, and the spirit of God alighted, like a dove, upon him, testifying to Jesus as Messiah. "This is my beloved Son", said the voice from heaven, "on whom my favor rests". From the moment of his baptism, Jesus was empowered by the spirit of God to live for us, to serve us, to heal and restore us, to die for us, and to live again for us.
The primary reason Jesus agreed to be baptized by John was to confirm his call to ministry, and establish himself with the people as Messiah. It was Jesus' moment to come out of the shadows and let the world behold him as Lord. Jesus' baptism was a highly personal experience in which he felt the Spirit of God take hold of his life and confirm his role as Son of God. The voice of God spoke to him, assuring him of the rightness of his choice to declare himself and begin his public ministry. At his baptism, God mapped out his course for Jesus when he spoke these words to him: "You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." This saying of God is composed of two texts: "You are my beloved son" comes from Psalm 2:7, a reference to the coming Messiah King. "In whom I am well pleased", a part of Isaiah 42, is a description of the Servant of the Lord. Jesus' baptism proclaims his identity as Messiah of God, coming not in power and glory, but in humility, to suffer and die for us upon the Cross of Calvary.
Just as water marked the beginning of Jesus' ministry; blood marked the ending of his earthly ministry. Jesus' own blood, shed on the cross of Calvary, as he died a public death by crucifixion, became the everlasting symbol of Christ's sacrificial and selfless love for his people. His blood is the witness to the truth that Jesus so loved us that he would die for us.
The water of baptism and the blood of crucifixion are the bookends of Jesus' mortal life; each one declaring him as Messiah. One is the preface; the other the climax. One opens the story; the other completes the drama. But it is the third witness, the Spirit, whose testimony to Jesus as the Messiah of God, empowers believers, and breathes life into the Church. At Jesus' baptism, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove, equipping him to serve God's people.
These are the three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three agree, says John. The three agree that Jesus is the Messiah; the Son of God; our light and our salvation.
In these ways we bear witness to the truth that Jesus is Messiah and Lord: First, we follow Jesus in water baptism, bearing public witness to our faith. Next, we testify to his crucifixion by coming to the Lord's Supper to drink the cup of love, symbol of his blood. And, finally we receive the Holy Spirit, welcoming the wind of God's spirit to blow across our lives and equip us for our ministry of serving Christ in loving deeds.
In Baptism, all things are made new. We become a new creature. Once we sign on as a follower of Jesus, and publicly profess our devotion to him in baptism, we put away the old life; we put the past behind us; we turn away from our sinful ways; we experience a total change of heart. We are, in Gospel language, "born anew". At our baptism we become a new creation, cleansed in baptism by God's forgiveness.
Paul reflects on the symbolism of baptism, when he says in Romans 6:4: "when we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; and when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus." Immersionist baptism, which Baptists and a few other protestant denominations practice, is not only symbolic of the cleansing of our lives from sin, and the washing away of our pride and selfishness and neglect of God's way; it is also an everlasting symbol of death and burial with Christ, and resurrection to new life with Christ. In baptism we publicly proclaim to the world that we are followers of Him who is the way, the truth, and the life. And the changes that the Spirit makes possible following baptism are remarkable.
I must confess that my baptism in the First Baptist Church of St. Albans, WV, at the age of 11, didn't set off too many fireworks. I don't remember any voice from heaven. I certainly did not see a dove descend. But I do remember that the water was cold, and that my father as he baptized me, looked very imposing and very godly. I do, however, remember feeling that something very special had happened; something that could shape me as a servant of God. Strangely, from that moment forward I found myself increasingly drawn toward the vocation of pastoral ministry, and toward a life of Christian service. A few years later, at age 16, I made another public statement of faith, much like my baptism, when I declared that I would prepare for a life of Christian ministry in Christ's Church. And, here I am, 55 years later, at the age of 71, still irresistibly invested in Christian service as a pastor.
The change in my life that began at my baptism is a crucial milestone for me, that led to a personal transformation of my life, my faith, and my value system. But my story is nothing compared to that of our son, David, now 43 years old, who has been through a personal transformation that makes mine pale in comparison. I had the privilege of baptizing David as a young boy, and I saw in his life so much beautifully innocent trust and faith, and so much potential, as he made his pledge to live as a follower of Jesus. But by his high school years, David had begun to make other choices, bad choices; he choose ill-advised friends, lost his focus, and strayed from the teachings of his home, his church, and his Lord. By his late teens, David was alcoholic and seriously involved in drug use. His downward spiral continued over the next dozen years, resulting in hospitalizations, DUI arrests, employment struggles, failures in college, and financial crisis. If the toll on David was high, the toll on us, his parents, was devastating. Although we never ceased praying for David's healing; and never gave up on the power of God to reclaim him and give him a rebirth, we struggled to find glimmers of hope in a life mired in an abyss of alcohol and drug abuse.
Then, one day, a miracle happened; and it followed no script I would ever have written or prayed for David. He called to say that he and his girlfriend were expecting a baby. Although the idea of being a grandparent appealed to us in a pretty powerful way, the idea of this hopelessly lost alcoholic being a father, without benefit of marriage, scared the life out of me. But that event proved to be a surprising miracle of God; an act of grace; an act of transformation by the Spirit. On that day, David admitted himself to an alcohol treatment center in Cincinnati, OH, and began the first step on the road to recovery, in order to become a responsible father to his new son. Next came AA, turning his life back over to God and admitting his utter dependency on God to heal him and make of him a new creature. Then came the AA meetings and the slow, daily discipline of walking by faith, rather than by dependence on a foreign substance. Next came his return to college, in order to prepare for a career that could sustain his family. I celebrate the good news that David has now been clean and sober for 13 years, the age of our grandson, Garrett. He has completed his BS and MBA degrees and holds a responsible civilian job with the US Air Force as a contract negotiator. He is a fabulous father and a faithful son. Every word in the theological vocabulary can be applied to him and his story: He has been transformed by the Spirit of God. He has been resurrected from certain early death, to new life in Christ. He has become a steward of the good mind and loving heart God gave him at birth. He is a new creature. And I have a new appreciation for the image of baptism, and a new understanding of the infinite power of God to transform us by His Spirit.
There are three witnesses to the truth that Jesus is Messiah and Lord: water, blood, and spirit. The church celebrates these three realities in its symbols and liturgy. The baptistery, the cross, and the dove attest to this great truth of our faith: Jesus is Messiah and Lord, the one who transforms each of us at our baptism into a new creature, and grants us, by the power of the spirit, life everlasting!
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing; So that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy spirit. People of God, go in peace, and serve the Lord. Amen.