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The Baptismal Vows of Jesus

When  I graduated from the Baptist Leadership Training School in Calgary, 1967, before University and theological college,  the school yearbook had some caption about us under our photographs. Somebody wrote about me "Harold always has a quote from James S. Stewart for every occasion."
James S. Stewart was a famous Church of Scotland preacher in the early 1900's. I found him an engaging writer and still do. I very much admire him, though I rarely quote from him anymore. Today will be an exception.

In his book on the life of Jesus1, Stewart comments briefly on Jesus life up to the time of his baptism.
Stewart's take on the silence of Jesus' first thirty or so years of life was that he lived a normal life of learning and growing the same as any young boy. We see occasional glimpses of his life; his birth, Jesus at the temple, but apart from that, all we know is that he "grew in stature and in favor with God and man." And that's about it. Everything else is speculative until His baptism when he steps center stage into the life of the world.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.
 But John tried to deter him, saying, ?I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me??
Jesus replied, ?Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.? Matthew 3:14-15

When  I graduated from the Baptist Leadership Training School in Calgary, 1967, before University and theological college,  the school yearbook had some caption about us under our photographs. Somebody wrote about me "Harold always has a quote from James S. Stewart for every occasion."
James S. Stewart was a famous Church of Scotland preacher in the early 1900's. I found him an engaging writer and still do. I very much admire him, though I rarely quote from him anymore. Today will be an exception.

In his book on the life of Jesus1, Stewart comments briefly on Jesus life up to the time of his baptism.
Stewart's take on the silence of Jesus' first thirty or so years of life was that he lived a normal life of learning and growing the same as any young boy. We see occasional glimpses of his life; his birth, Jesus at the temple, but apart from that, all we know is that he "grew in stature and in favor with God and man." And that's about it. Everything else is speculative until His baptism when he steps center stage into the life of the world.
People have speculated about how much he knew as a young man about who he was and what his mission was to be.
Even that brief passage where we see him with the teachers at the temple doesn't satisfy all our questions.
It tells us that he had an acute awareness of his relationship with God, but not much beyond that.

James S. Stewart said that God has drawn a curtain of privacy across Jesus early life, perhaps so that he could grow up and learn life as a normal young boy. Children thrust too young into the public spotlight are usually affected by too much attention too early. Whatever else Jesus is, he models what it means to be a mature, well rounded human being.

And with all our questions unresolved, we wait for the beginning of Act 1 of the drama of the Son of Man.
Wait, you say, "What about the advent and the nativity, and the magi. Isn't that Act 1, Scene 1?"
To which a voice says, "No, that was the prologue. Here the drama begins."
Well that's my version, and I'm sticking with it.

John was preaching a baptism of repentance. In that way he was in line with the Hebrew prophets who did the same. What was novel with John was baptism. Jews were not baptized, males were circumcised. Gentiles were baptized as converts to Judaism. Jews were born into it.
What John is saying is that no one is born into the kingdom of God.
You come in by repentance and faith.
God had made a covenant with Abraham, but the people had to live the covenant. When they did not, they were as much children of Abraham as the stones of the Judean desert were children of Abraham, until they repented and renewed that covenant.

And so Jesus comes one fine day to be baptized by John.
A second voice is heard, "Why would Jesus need to be baptized? He didn't need to repent."
In fact that is very much what John says. He sees Jesus coming and says, "Look, here is the Lamb of God who is going to take away the sins of the world."
How did he know that?
The Holy Spirit gave that to him.
When Jesus wades out into the water to join John in the Jordan river, John says, "You should be baptizing me, not the other way around."

But Jesus insists.
When we are baptized, we are baptized both into and out of.
We are baptized into the death of Jesus with the hope that by his resurrection we will also inherit his eternal life.
We are baptized into the fellowship of the church and community of faith.
We are baptized out of any claim that sin and judgment have upon us.
We are baptized out of the old and into the new.

Jesus who was born and raised the same as you or me, is baptized out of any claim that he might make to special status.

Jesus Baptismal Vow
He is baptized into the river of humanity and all its sufferings.
Just as we are baptized into his death, he is baptized into ours.
Or to put it in plainer language, through his baptism, Jesus is symbolically saying that he lays aside any claim to special privilege and accepts that his is to be a life of pain, suffering and ultimately death. That death is something he could have escaped, since he is the sinless one of God. But he says to John, "this must be done."  He says the same to Peter when Peter tries to talk him out of the way of the cross.

When he meets with Satan in the wilderness immediately following his baptism it is on this very ground that he is attacked.
"Don't give up your special privileges", says another voice. "Death and the grave need not be your fate."

John says to Jesus, "You don't need to do this."
Jesus could have replied. "I don't need to lay down my life in death either, at least not for my sake, but in another way I do need to do it."
And so Jesus is baptized out of special privilege and special status.
He is baptized into the river of our humanity and our need of forgiveness.

Jesus reaffirms his baptismal vows
In baptism we symbolically have our sins washed away, but the dominant symbolism is death and resurrection.
We die to our old self so that we may rise to our new self in Christ.
Jesus need to reaffirm that at many times in his ministry. Out in the wilderness with Satan tempting him, he had to reaffirm what his baptism meant. When Peter challenged him to detour around the cross the needed to reaffirm what his baptism meant. When he prayed in the garden, "let this cup pass from me", he had to reaffirm what his baptism meant. It meant "not my will but yours."

Is it so strange that we too need to reaffirm what our baptism means?
That it means, "not my will but my Father's".
That it means learning again to die to our sinful desires and follow Christ.
That it means affirming again that it is only in having faith in what Jesus has done for us that we have any standing with God.
That it means remembering again that no matter how we feel about ourselves, God has already washed us clean and before our Lord we are seen and accepted as his children.

And it means reaffirming again and again that death has no ultimate claim on us.
Jesus was baptized into the river of our humanity and it took him to the cross.
We are baptized into his death and it takes us to the gates of eternity, which swing open for us because we belong to him.

Jesus came to the river to be baptized.
John said, "Look, here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
When Jesus waded into the water, John says, "You have no need of this."
But I am glad he walked into the river of our life.
Aren't you?
Let's tell him how much it means to us.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you did not have to do what you did for your sake, but you did it for ours.
You kept your baptismal vow to share our suffering and to bear our sinfulness.
We are not so good at keeping ours but we ask again for your mercy and your help. Help us by your example and by your Spirit to fulfill what we really intend.
Accept our thanks and our praise. In the name of the one who died for us. Amen

Preached  January 9, 2005
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia


1.  James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, Abingdon, 1978


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