The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 1/12/03
Text: Mark 1:4-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The Baptism of the Lord. In a former congregation of mine, a Sunday School teacher told me of an incident that happened there some years ago. Two of the young girls in her class - both about nine years old - came to her and said they wanted to be baptized. She was understandably pleased at their desire and told them to go home and talk to their parents about it, then appropriate arrangements could be made. A week later the girls came back with the sad news that the parents thought they should wait until they were older and could understand more of what they were doing. They were disappointed. Sometime later the teacher talked with the girls about baptism again, and allowed as how she knew they were looking forward to it someday. But the girls said no, they had already taken care of it - the two of them had gone down to Buffaloe Creek and baptized each other.

Sounds very much like an old episode of "All in the Family." Archie Bunker thinks his new grandson ought to be baptized and he tells his daughter and son-in-law so. Gloria and Meathead say No, they don't believe in it. So Archie surreptitiously takes his grandson down to the church, meets with the minister, says he wants the boy "done." The minister tries to explain that baptism is not something just "done," but rather a rite of initiation into the church, and appropriate when the parents want to make that commitment. The program ends with Archie alone in the darkened church sanctuary except for the infant grandson he is holding carefully. He reaches into the waters of the baptismal font, brings the hand back to Joey's head and reverently says, "I baptize thee..."

Yes, the ecclesiastical purists will heartily object to both of those scenes, but I wonder. I wonder. True, the theological niceties were lacking, but there was an affirmation of faith there, an unnamed understanding of something powerful at work that is more to be experienced that explained.

Do you remember the movie, "The Apostle(1)?" It came out not too many years ago. Robert Duvall, in a masterful performance, played a Pentecostal preacher from Texas named Eulis 'Sonny' Dewey. He is living what he thinks is a happy life with his beautiful wife Jessie (played by Farrah Fawcett) when suddenly his world crumbles - Jessie is having an affair with the young youth minister, Horace. Sonny gets enraged and hits Horace with a baseball bat, putting him into a coma. Sonny leaves town, and quickly. He heads to Louisiana and begins a new life. What would be in store for him? In his own unique way, Sonny wants to start things right. He makes his way into a river, stands waist-deep in the water, lifts eyes and hands to heaven and prays,

With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord. Therefore, without witnesses, I baptize myself in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost...and in the name of Jesus.

That brings us back to the scene at the River Jordan. Not just a solitary figure this time, but a throng of people from all walks of life are there. They have made a mini-pilgrimage into the countryside, come to see an itinerant preacher who is more than passing strange - a coarse camel's hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, the uniform of a prophet since the days of Elijah.(2) It was longing and anticipation that brought this mass of people out - there was a sense that something was missing in their walk with God, so they were ready to listen to a new voice.

And this is a powerful voice: "You pack of snakes! Who warned you to run from the anger of God that is coming on you? Clean up your act! And do not presume to rely on that fact that you are Israelites - God's CHOSEN people - to save you. GET right and DO right." The crowds asked what to do. He responded, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Tax collectors were told, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers were instructed, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."(3) It was a message that affirmed what they already knew: if they would be right with God, they had to be right with, not only God, but God's children as well.

Time to make a commitment. As a sign of their resolve to repent and make a change, they came down into the river, allowed John to "bury" their old ways under the water in baptism, then raise them again to a better life. Neat ceremony. Wonderful symbolism. Sonny Dewey understood.

And in the hands of a dynamic personality forceful and impressive that some were led to think that John was the promised Messiah finally come. He debunked that notion out of hand: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Then one day it happened...Jesus. The request for baptism. John's initial reluctance, then acquiescence. Finally, the dramatic climax. As our lesson has it, "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens TORN APART...not just "opened," the Greek schizomai means SPLIT, RIPPED, SUNDERED...and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. The voice from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'" What an image! It is as if God the Father is confined to heaven at this fantastic moment and in euphoric frustration rips and tears the very fabric of the universe to lay claim upon Jesus, the Son. It is a cosmic YES, arms raised high and feet dancing. It is love spilling out, the cup overflowing. Not celebrating the conclusion of a work-well-done, but before ANYTHING was done, and now about to embark on his ministry.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING! Jesus' baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John's baptism was, but the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.(4) Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it.

Part of the message of Jesus' baptism and our own is that we are loved. Most folks understand that, and that is why they get all warm and fuzzy when it comes to presenting their little ones for the sacrament. But there is more: WE HAVE WORK TO DO. Remember, this happened at the START of Jesus' work. This was his commissioning service. Now, almost 20 centuries later, when someone is baptized in the church, whether infants or adults, it is no different. We still have work. We are receiving our commission.

If that scares you a bit, there is one more piece of good news I have for you about your baptism. Remember that picture at the Jordan - there is the crowd, John, Jesus...and the dove. The Holy Spirit. Do not forget the dove. Clearly, Mark wants us to understand that from this moment on, Jesus and his ministry are EMPOWERED by the living presence of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, there IS something powerful in baptism. This is why Sonny Dewey would baptize himself, come out of the water with a new name - the Apostle E. F., he called himself - and begin to preach again - first on a local radio station, then on the streets, and, finally, in a renovated ramshackle church that he founded called "The One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple." And preach he did - he called himself, "a genuine, Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preachin' machine." Baptism. Power!

I wish we could remember that. I want to ask you this morning,

  • Where do you find the power to hang in there in this world?
  • Where do you find the power to keep going when the going really gets tough?
  • Where do you find the power to continue to believe in love in a world that is filled with hate?
  • Where do you find the power to continue to work for peace in a world that is addicted to violence?
  • Where do you find the power to continue to believe in good in a world that is filled with so much suffering and pain?
  • Where do you find the power to continue to believe that ultimately God's kingdom will come and God's will, as revealed in Jesus, will be done in all of the creation?
  • Where do you find the power to be a disciple of Jesus in this world?(5)

There is no question there is LOTS to get us down. The message of Jesus' baptism, and yours and mine as well, is we HAVE the power. It is the generous gift of a gracious and loving God. We are God's people, empowered in our baptism by the Holy Spirit

    • to think more clearly,
    • to feel more deeply,
    • to love more generously,
    • to speak more truthfully,
    • to serve more faithfully,
    • to give more lavishly,
    • to live more fully.

We HAVE the power to both BE different and MAKE a the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! In a moment we will remember and reaffirm our baptisms. Remember with a sense of holy awe. Remember. Power!


1. ©1997 Butchers Run Films. Produced, written and directed by Robert Duvall

2. 2 Kings 1:8

3. Luke 3:7-14

4. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #2764, 1/5/97

5. James A. Harnish, "Out of Sight!," Tampa, Fla. 5/19/96 quoted in Homiletics Online,

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