"Pictures of Baptism" Sermon on Colossians 2 - By Michelle Ellis - Aug. 15, 2021
Since we have the honour and joy of witnessing two baptisms today, I wanted to take some time to explore together the rich picture of baptism and some of what’s caught up in it.
Baptism is a gift to God’s people in that it gives us a tangible picture and experience on the outside of the sometimes hidden and invisible work of God in his people. Baptism is not meant to be like a graduation ceremony in that it’s something that you do when you pass all your God courses and know all your stuff, or for when you’ve reached a certain level of certainty or soberness in your faith. Instead, baptism is something you’re invited to at the beginning of your walk of faith. Aleya and Bethany described to me that part of the reason they wanted to be baptized is because they wanted to take the next step in God. That is the perfect reason. Baptism is a gift for you for when you first feel the stirrings of God in your heart and wonder if you might like to follow him. In the case of infant baptism, it’s a gift for you before you even know that you belong to God. Baptism is not a sign that you have arrived, but it’s how you’re invited to respond when you begin to sense that you are being invited on a journey in God. I’d like to explore together how baptism gives us a picture of the work that God is doing in his people.
The first picture I’d like to explore together in baptism is the picture of the turning point on the journey from slavery into freedom. You might remember that for generations, God’s people, the Israelites, were slaves in Egypt. They didn’t belong to themselves. They were slaves to cruel masters and it was beyond their power to be free. A couple years ago I had the chance to visit Egypt and the thing that impressed me the most was the images of power. Even thousands of year old ruins were intimidating, and even from that space in time I could feel that in its prime Egypt was a force to be reckoned with. God’s people were slaves in the wealthiest and most powerful nation of the time. It was beyond their power to be free.
Then God worked to free his people from the powers that were too strong for them. In his power he released them from their hard masters. Baptism recalls us to the moment when the Israelites were fleeing from their slave masters, they pass through the water from the land they are fleeing onto the other side. It’s the turning point for them from being slaves to being free people. That is the moment that the picture of baptism calls to mind. This afternoon, Aleya and Bethany are going to step into a river, just like the Israelites did. And in that moment, what they are called to see and know is that God is inviting them too on a journey from slavery into freedom. They are invited to see too, that though they come up against powers that are much too strong and powerful for them, powers that would want to make them slaves and belittle them, that God has already gone ahead to free them from those powers, the powers they can not overcome on their own. Baptism marks the turning point in the journey from slavery to freedom.
Of course it’s unlikely in Bethany and Aleya’s situation that some nation would capture them and make them into literal slaves. But there are a lot of other powers at work which might call them into being less-than-free, less than the fully human young women that God is calling them to be. There are lots of ways they might be drawn into tying up their worth with their grades or accomplishments, with their relational status, or with how they are perceived by others. There are lots of ways they might be drawn into making their way on their own instead of finding place in and relying on community, or into believing that their worth depends on how much they are able to achieve or how many friends they have. There are many ways they might be drawn into resentment, unforgiveness, or hardness of heart. There are many voices which might suggest that they should be less than free, less than fully human and there can even be some feelings of security that come along with that. It can feel good and safe to meet the expectations for what your own culture wants you to be. Remember how after they were freed from slavery, some of the Israelites longed to go back to Egypt where at least they could count on a good meal?
What I appreciate about the picture of baptism is that it gives a clear turning point from slavery into freedom, and that a journey is involved. You’ll remember that there was a good chunk of time when the Israelites traveled from the land of slavery into the land of freedom. There were lots of challenges on the way and many moments where people wanted to turn back to what they knew before. That is also a picture of the Christian walk, the post-baptism journey into freedom. It will be a lifelong path—though we are moving in a freedom direction, there are lots of our slave ways and habits that keep hanging on. It takes time and work and much faith to continue to trust that walking through the desert is going to lead us to the promised land and that what’s ahead is better than what we are leaving behind. A long journey of trust and believing what we don’t feel or always experience to be true can be a very normal part of the journey from slavery into freedom, just like it was for the Israelites.
The other thing that I appreciate about Baptism as a picture of the turning point towards freedom is that it highlights that God does the work of freeing. Often being a follower of Jesus is framed so that “real good” followers of Jesus are those who can muster enough willpower to stand up to powers on their own. Those who by summoning good work ethic and strength can free themselves from their own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. But that’s not the picture that baptism gives. God defeats the powers that are too big for his people and then invites them into the freedom he gives. It gives the picture of being freed and then the journey of travelling towards that freedom. Of course, you have a choice whether to cooperate with that freedom or not. You can live trusting and hoping in that freedom or not, but the idea is that there are indeed some powers that are too big to overcome, and that God has gone ahead to defeat these powers such that ultimately, they do not have a hold on his people. When Aleya and Bethany step into the water this afternoon, it is a picture of the journey that God has been and will continually be leading them on their whole lives long of passing out of slavery and into freedom. It’s a picture of the adventure that God calls each one of us to. It is a picture of the guarantee that is theirs that if they follow Christ, he will lead them out of slavery and into freedom.
The second picture I’d like to explore together in baptism is a picture of dying and rising. This is the piece of baptism that Paul highlights in his letter to the Colossians that we read today. Paul invites us to see baptism as a picture of going down into the water of death and rising out of it again into new life, just as Jesus went down into death and rose again to new life. Paul says something mysterious here. He invites us to see that when Jesus faced the powers of sin and death and slavery, when he died and rose again, he defeated those powers for the sake of his people, that something of our lives died, too. We came to life in a new way in him. Much of this is mystery. What I’d like to notice together though is that baptism and the Christian life involves death and coming to life, neither of which is any small thing. The Christian life is a pattern of dying and rising, dying and rising. Dying to sin and rising in Christ. Dying to slavery and rising to freedom. Dying to individualism and rising to community. Dying to despair and rising to hope. Or dying to one kind of hope and rising to another. Dying to protecting oneself and rising to vulnerability. Dying to comfort and rising to courage. Dying to pride and rising to humility. Dying to boredom and rising to joy. Dying to selfishness and rising to generosity. Baptism gives a picture of what following Jesus looks like. It means following him through death into life.
Dying is no small thing. There is grief involved. Many of us resist it. But paradoxically, it is the path to life that God has prepared for his people. Baptism is a picture of the journey to life through death that God will call his people to again and again. It is a path that has been blazed by Christ who has shown us that it is good on the other side. The path through the valley of the shadow of death into true life. Come into the water, says Jesus. The water is fine. Come in! You will go down, but you will come back up again and you will know what it is to be truly alive.