A strange thing to do
In many ways taking someone outside and dunking them in a pool full of water in the middle of January seems like a strange thing to do. But that’s exactly what we did with four adults and two children this morning – for me probably the highlight of all our years as a church community in Bullbrook.
Baptism isn’t a new idea, doesn’t just happen in this country, and isn’t just another quirk of the Church of England. In fact, baptism dates back to before there even was such a thing as the church.
So why do we do it? Not because it’s some sort of a magic trick that when performed in just the right way causes a sudden outward change. Rather it’s a ritual or a symbol that makes a public statement of something that’s already taking place, and provides a helpful picture of something more profound. All of which sounds a bit abstract. So I began thinking about what an equivalent ritual might be today…
An outward sign
Think of it like this: imagine that after all these years, the luck has finally gone your way and you’ve won the lottery! Have you ever wondered how that works? How you actually get the money? It’s probably not a question of showing up with empty suitcases to load up with cash; in reality I guess it’s just a quiet electronic transfer that occurs behind closed doors at the click of a button.
But you don’t want to leave it at that. Instead you have the big ceremony where they hand over the giant cheque, the local press take their photos, and you have the most enormous party with all your friends and family (and a suddenly-appearing group of hangers on). But what if in the revelry you lost the cheque – would that be it, you’ve lost the money?
No: the cheque and the party are simply outward, public signs of something deeper, more permanent, more real. It’s an important part of the whole experience, but without that transfer of money it would be meaningless.
So if baptism is like the big cheque moment, what’s the underlying reality it’s intended to represent? What’s going on behind the scenes? To see this let’s take a look at a story from ancient history, the story of the Exodus.
Picture the scene: you’re standing on a vast beach. The sea glistens in the bright sunlight. Your family are stood beside you, and in many ways it feels like the perfect summer holiday scene.
But things are not as they seem. Only days earlier, you were at home awoken suddenly in the night. And not just you, but your whole family, all your neighbours, everyone was awake. There were urgent whispers: Tonight’s the night. It’s time. You quickly gathered up the few possessions you could carry, already prepared because you knew this moment had been coming, and stepped out into the night, filled with a deep sense of foreboding and excitement.
Because the reality is that you, your family, your entire nation are slaves. For generations you’ve been held captive in a foreign land, forced into a life of hard labour. Generation after generation denied a proper childhood – reared only for labour like animals. A whole people living constantly in fear of rubbing up their masters the wrong way and suffering the bloody consequences. Denied the freedom to come and go as you please, and with no hope for a different future.
But now God has intervened. After an increasingly bizarre sequence of events over the past few months, that night your masters told you to leave. And they didn’t have to say it twice. Like scenes we see today on the news from war torn countries, a whole nation of people moved en masse, a sea of humanity carrying what they could, and leaving everything else behind.
So now you find yourself on that beach, not only with your family, but every family, and with the sea glistening in the sun. But it’s not just the sea that glistens: on the horizon you catch the glint of metal. A horrifying sight gradually emerges: the mighty armies of an empire marching towards you, filled with anger and a new determination to recover their workforce. They’ve changed their minds, and you’re trapped between their advancing forces and the deep blue sea.
Picture the scene: You’re gripped by fear, at the prospect of being marched back to your old life, or worse. Your instincts tell you either to turn around and fight or to make a dash for it along the seashore.
And then Moses, the awkward man with the stutter whom God has chosen, stands by the seashore and raises his arms outstretched. You hear the sound of gathering winds and before you know it the sea is beginning to part. And now you’re walking across dry land towards the safety of the other side. The wind howls around you and a wall of water looms forebodingly to the left and to the right. But ahead you see the sight of freedom. Behind the army try to follow, but the waters crash down onto them and they’re gone, washed away for ever.
Picture the scene: imagine how you would feel. That sense of elation, relief, freedom. Leaving behind the oppression, the uncertainty, the sense that somehow you weren’t fully human. And looking forward – knowing that God has promised not only to save you from captivity, but that he is leading you into a new life, a promised land. That though there may be hardships ahead, and you may still have times when you doubt God, you now have a hope and a future.
Fast forward 1500 years. The first Christians are trying to get their heads around all that they’ve just witnessed. Three years of Jesus bringing healing, freedom, hope and love through his words and deeds. The deepest of despair as he hung dying on a cross, arms outstretched. And the elation as he rises back to life, coming through the deep waters of death and out the other side.
And gradually it dawned on them. Jesus had achieved a modern-day Exodus on a far grander scale, performing not just a one-off rescue for a single nation, but a permanent and lasting liberation of the whole of humanity. Washing away not just an army of flesh and blood, but sweeping away the power of sin and death itself!
So as the pieces began to fall into place, the early Christians began looking for their big cheque moment. An outward sign of the deeper, more profound reality. And they settled on baptism, not least because Jesus had led the way by himself being baptised – an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come. By reminding us of that first rescue all those thousands of years ago, baptism helps to explain what it means to become a follower of Jesus. That sense of elation, relief, and freedom. Leaving behind the things that held us captive in the past, the uncertainty, and the sense that somehow there was more to life, more to being human. Knowing that although there may be hardships ahead, and you may still have times when you doubt God, you now have a hope and a future.
And so equally baptism is about looking forwards. It’s about joining a movement of people who believe in a promised land, believe that God created humankind to make that promise a reality. To care for his creation and one another, to fight injustice and stand up for the oppressed. We’re not only saved from something, we are saved for something as well.
One of the first people to fully understand this bigger picture was a man called Paul. In a letter to one of the early churches he described the life available to us in Jesus as glorious riches. The difference between these riches and a lottery fortune is that it’s not just available to one or two lucky winners. In fact it’s not even just for those who bought a ticket. It’s freely available to anyone who is willing to trust in Jesus’ power to save. To trust that if you step out onto the dry land and place your life in his hands, then he will come through for you. That rather than following the instinct to fight in our own strength, or to try to escape from our troubles, you can rely on his promise to do great things in and through your life.
That’s why as Christians baptism is our big cheque moment, and why it’s worthy of a far bigger party than any lottery win.
This blog post first appeared as a sermon at the Bullbrook congregation of Warfield Church. For more information visit www.warfield.org.uk.