There is an old story about Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was a very devout Roman Catholic evangelist. One of the stories that grew out of his ministry concerns a time when he was baptizing new converts in a river. He would wade out waist-deep into the water and call out for new Christians to come to him, one by one, to receive the sacrament.
Once he baptized a mountain chieftain. Saint Patrick was holding a staff in his hands as the new converts made their way into the water. Unfortunately, as he was lowering the chief down under the water three times, he also pressed his staff down into the river bottom.
Afterwards the people on the riverbank noticed their chief limp back to shore. Someone explained to Patrick that, as he pressed the wooden staff into the riverbed, he must have also bruised the foot of the chief. Patrick went to the chief at once and asked, "Why did you not cry out when I stuck you in the foot?"
Surprised the chief answered, "I remembered you telling us about the nails in the cross, and I thought my pain was part of my baptism."
Most of us don’t think this way about baptism. Not in the least. In fact, we usually regard baptism as a warm-fuzzy event. And who wouldn’t? I mean, when we experience baptism in our congregation, it is usually is a heart-warming event. Parents and God-parents gather up here at the front of the church with their little one. We hear words about the miracle God is performing as He adds this little one to His family and to the Church. We ooh and aah as I walk that little child up and down the aisle here and talk about the great thing God has done by bringing this new brother or sister into our midst. Nearly every time, the child smiles and coos as I do this, and it brings smiles to our faces.
Baptizing an adult is a little different, but the same such thoughts are at play. An adult has been touched by the Holy Spirit and has decided to commit his or her lift to following Jesus Christ. That adult now is given the promise that he or she now belongs to God and is a child of God. Even though I don’t carry this person up and down the aisle, we still offer our welcome as God works this miracle of grace. It is a cause for celebration. It is a cause for joy. There is no pain involved.
Oh, but let’s take a step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at our gospel lesson for today from the book of Mark. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. Let’s see how it matches up with our perception of what baptism is all about.
John the Baptist is out in the desert proclaiming the Word of God and offering a baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus comes to John to be baptized. As Jesus comes up out of the water, we are told He sees the heavens torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him as a dove. A voice then thunders from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased!"
At this point, Jesus’ baptism meets all of our warm-fuzzy perceptions. Jesus is announced as the Son of God. Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. God tells Jesus He is pleased with Him. What’s there not to like about this story from Scripture? It’s nice. It’s neat. It’s very affirming especially when we remember our baptism and remember that we too are adopted as God’s children. We too receive the Holy Spirit. We too are told by God, "With you I am well pleased." Case closed. Where’s the pain?
Well, the story of Jesus’ baptism isn’t quite finished yet. We might like it to be, but it’s not. Take a look at verses twelve and thirteen, "12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
Wait a minute here. What’s this all about? The Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness? Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days being tempted by Satan that entire time? He was with the wild beasts? That doesn’t sound like too much fun. That doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy. That sounds almost...well...painful. What is the point of all of this being driven, being tempted, and hanging around wild beasts?
Stop and think a moment about one of those dangerous threads that seems to permeate Christianity. It’s the thread that says, "If you commit your life to Christ, and if you believe strongly enough, and if you have enough faith, and if you think enough positive thoughts, then your life will be great. You will have wealth. You will have privilege. You will never suffer or go through tough times."
Hey, you might even get a little of that from me from a certain perspective. I mean, I know that I have repeatedly said that if we follow Jesus and put Him at the center of our lives, we will have peace. We will have joy. We will have contentment. We will have happiness. And I’m not lying when I say this. We will have all these things. However, there is a price we will end up paying as we receive these things. We will have pain. We will also suffer. Because at our baptisms, we are not only called by Christ, we are not only claimed by God, we do not only receive the Holy Spirit, but like Jesus, we too are sent into the world. We are driven into the wilderness where we too face temptation and are surrounded by things that are wild and crazy and obnoxious. We too are assaulted by things that challenge our faith, drive us to despair, and undercut our relationship with God and our relationships with others.
I mean, think about this for a moment. If indeed we are claimed by God... If indeed we are filled with the Holy Spirit... If indeed we seek to follow Jesus’ teachings to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves...doesn’t it follow that our hearts will become full of compassion, our hearts will become full of empathy, and our hearts will become full of a desire to ease the suffering of others? And if that is the case, and our hearts become full of such things, doesn’t it follow that we will indeed find the saying of St. Paul true? You know, the one in 1 Corinthians 12: 24-26, " But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."
"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." Did you know this was part of being a Christian? Did you know that suffering would be a part of your life if you sought to follow Jesus? Yes. It is. It’s part of being sent into the world. For God does not ask us to simply sit and enjoy our baptisms. He does not ask us to simply kick back with the knowledge that we are His children and relax and watch the world go by. He didn’t do that with Jesus, and He certainly doesn’t do that with us. Instead, God sends us out to proclaim what He has done to others. He sends us out to be His hands, His feet, His eyes, His ears, His shoulders, and His mouth in the world. He sends us out to show compassion to those whom the world has abandoned. He sends us out to offer comfort to those the world has hurt. He sends us out to shine light where there is darkness.
And this is not easy. Not in the least. It’s hard, hard work. It’s difficult leaving comfort and security. It’s difficult taking such risks. It is painful. But as we enter into such things. As we go into the wilderness. As we suffer as Christ suffered and feel the same pain He experienced, we are strangely comforted ourselves. We are strangely met with a peace that passes all understanding. We are reminded that we are God’s children doing God’s work. And joy permeates our being. Yes, this is what happens when we remember that we are baptized and then sent. Amen.