The questions are heavy, ominous. They sound like they come from a different age or perhaps from a horror movie:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
In a few minutes, I will ask these questions of the parents and godparents of Annelie, Edward, and Kenley. I don’t know if they’ve thought about what these questions might mean; I don’t know if you in the congregation have ever thought about what they might mean. I don’t know if any of you have even thought about them. Why are they here, asked every time we celebrate baptism; asked of every parent and godparent; and in the case of people who can speak for themselves—asked of every candidate for baptism.
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God? These questions are at the beginning, at the very heart of our baptismal liturgy and thus must be at the very heart of what we mean when we baptize someone, but I doubt very much that many, if any of you, really think in terms of the movement described in those first few questions of the baptismal liturgy: Three questions about renouncing evil and sinful desires, then, finally another question: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?”
What is happening in these questions is a dramatization of the movement each of us makes in our own baptisms, the movements we make on a regular basis in our daily life, movements away from evil and toward the good, efforts to change, to grow, to reject old patterns and habits and adopt new ones. We are all familiar with vows like these—New Year’s resolutions, promises we make to ourselves or our loved ones to lose weight, or help with the cleaning or laundry. We also know all to well how easy such promises are broken, how quickly and easily we fall back into old patterns, how quickly our desire to change ends in the same old lifestyle and behavior.
So on one level we get these questions; but on another level, I don’t think most of us get them at all, and if we did, we would be even more uncomfortable asking such questions at baptism than we are already. Most of us are comfortable thinking about choices we make in terms of bad or good, or better or worse; for the most part we’re comfortable thinking about people we know as good or bad, better or worse. We are more comfortable talking about people we don’t know—politicians, particularly heinous criminals, people like Hitler or Stalin as evil. We might toss around the term “evil incarnate” in reference to such people, but I don’t think we’re likely to think about the forces that impinge upon us as evil. There may be some of us who have had personal encounters with evil, but I suspect that our experience of such evil is largely second-hand, via news accounts or reading history. For we would probably say that if we were to encounter such evil, or the temptation to such evil directly, in real life, we would certainly reject it.
The questions are there, not just as some embarrassing relic of past Christian doctrine and practice. The questions are there because they direct us to the central action in the sacrament of baptism, the turning away from evil and the turn toward Jesus Christ.
Baptism is a turning point; the moment when we turn away from all of the evil in our world, turn away from the evil within us—our selfishness, self-centeredness—and turn toward God. It is a turning point, just like the confession of sin that we make every week in the Eucharist: an acknowledgement that we are broken human beings and need God’s help.
The baptism of Jesus was also a turning point in his life. The gospel of Mark is clearest on the significance of Jesus’ baptism, for Mark begins his tale with Jesus’ baptism. It’s as if nothing in Jesus’ life matters up to that point. Of course, Matthew at least tells us the story of Jesus’ birth but even he has a sudden and dramatic transition from Jesus’ infancy to his adulthood. For Matthew, Jesus’ birth may have mattered, but nothing between his family’s settling in Nazareth and his encounter with John the Baptizer was worth mention.
It’s an odd story because Matthew has told us that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, he basically says, “Why bother? You should be baptizing me.” But Jesus persists, and the point of the story becomes clear. It is about Jesus’ baptism of course, but it is also about more than that, the public acknowledgement that Jesus is God’s beloved son. Jesus will then begin his public ministry. Something else happens, though—the heavens are opened and we are reminded of the cosmic significance of Jesus’ coming, that the separation between God and the world, heaven and earth, has been overcome in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ baptism was a turning point. Every baptism is a turning point. But that turning point is not dependent on us alone. Indeed, we can’t do it on our own. The marvelous thing is that in baptism, God acts on us. The water of baptism symbolizes the grace of God that washes over us and makes us new. The water of baptism begins the process of recreation that makes us new creatures in Christ.
When I think of baptism, I’m always reminded of something Martin Luther wrote about the baptism of infants—that it is a reminder that our salvation is dependent entirely on God. Babies don’t usually want to be baptized. They are brought to the font by their parents and godparents. When the water comes over them, it’s likely they will cry. Luther says that shows all of us watching that God’s grace is more powerful than our own will and desires, that grace is not dependent on our action or decision. All we need to do, Luther says, is trust in God’s promise that God saves us.
There’s another dramatic moment in the sacrament of baptism that brings this idea home. When I mark these three babies with the sign of the cross, my thumb dripping with the oil of chrism, I say to them, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” These babies will not remember those words; but their parents and godparents will. And when they grow up and come to church, and see other babies baptized, they will hear those same words, and know that they, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever.
They are powerful words, words that make us children of God for all eternity, words that identify us as members of his body, words that affirm us and help us grow into our nature as Christ’s own. Our own baptisms, and every time we observe the baptism of others, all of them are opportunities for us to claim and reclaim that identity, to remind ourselves that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Baptisms are opportunities for us recommit ourselves to follow Christ, to live into our identities as children of Christ, as beloved of God and grow into the beings God has called us to be.