They say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” In Holy Baptism we know where we are going because we see where we have started. And no matter how far we travel down the path to where we are going, we are no closer to the goal than we already were at the beginning, because from the beginning and all along the way of the path we are already at the goal. It is the mystery of Holy Baptism, of life out of the water.
Everything changes when Jesus becomes a part of it. Being human changed because of Christmas and the birth of Jesus, God in human flesh. In Jesus God now eats and drinks, laughs and weeps, feels pain and pleasure, God senses the passing of time, He grows, lives, and dies. Everything about being human changes because Jesus is part of it.
Now that’s true for baptism, a ritual washing that was already a very, very old custom even back in the days of John the Baptist. Yet at Jordan’s stream, baptism, that ancient Israelite ritual, becomes Holy Baptism, becomes Christian, because Jesus has become part of it. And that changes everything!
Without Jesus baptism remains a work of the Law. It is an act of repentance, an act of obedience. It is an outward sign of a spiritual action. Without Jesus, baptism remains something that human beings must do, or at best, choose to do. But that’s it.
Here at the Jordan River, Jesus goes down into the water and comes up out of it again (a sign of things to be). The Spirit descends upon Him like a dove. The Father’s voice declares, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased!” The new creation, the new genesis is revealed out of the water. And everything changes. Baptism is now a gift of God instead of a human choice. Baptism is now a new birth instead of an act of human obedience. Baptism is no longer a thing of the Law, it is a precious treasure of the Gospel. It is life coming out of the water!
And as soon as we enter that water—because Christ has entered that water—everything changes about us because He is there. When we are baptized we now belong to Jesus. We are taken away from Adam, and all that dust to dust, and we are given to Christ, in whom, though we die, yet shall we live. Our own past and our future are rent asunder. The old has passed away, everything becomes new. As St. Paul writes, we have passed away; we have become new, because we come out of water that Christ has shared with us, we come out of that water in Christ.
So Baptism as a divine gift and no longer an act of human obedience, baptism is about our identity. God’s voice from heaven addresses Jesus in the first person: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” In Holy Baptism we see who we are—God’s beloved children. In this water, God confers upon us the same promise of His unconditional regard for us.
In an era when so many of the elements which create human identity have been diminished, because we change jobs and careers so frequently, because we live in all sorts of places rather than grown up and live in a single community, because fewer families remain intact…with the traditional elements of human identity shattered, there is a craving to figure out just who we are.
Baptism declares that who we are comes in relation to whose we are, namely, God’s beloved children. And because Baptism is wholly God’s work and not a human choice or act, we now have the confidence that no matter how often we fall short of God’s intentions and our own, nothing we do or fail to do, can remove the identity that God has bestowed on us by this gift.
Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up because we didn’t establish it. We do not befriend Him; He befriends us through Jesus in Holy Baptism. Oh, yes, we can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, abuse it, run away from it, ignore it…but we cannot destroy it. God’s promise to love us in Jesus is too deep and complete ever to let us go.
In an age when so many relationships are fragile and battered, it is incredible good news that this primary relationship with God, through Jesus, remains solid and intact no matter what. And trusting that this relationship lies in God’s hands, we are free to give ourselves wholly to all the other relationships in our lives. It is an incredible gift! Because everything changes out of this water!
The poet, Robert Frost, penned a classic reflection on life with his poem about the “two roads which diverged in a yellow wood.” In that poem, Frost says that there wasn’t much at the diverging point to commend one path over the other, except that one appeared to be a little less traveled. “Though as for that the passing there /Had worn them really about the same.”
“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back. / I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I— / I took the road less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
Today it’s not a yellow wood, but a river; water. And out of this water two paths diverge. One path sees nothing in the water. It is the path of Adam, the path of dust to dust. It’s the path of those who see nothing in Baptism except a human choice, a human act of obedience. It’s the My-way highway. The end of that path is death. Oh, and it is a well-traveled path!
The other path out of this water is the path which recognizes that Jesus has been in the water, and therefore everything changes. It is the path which sees that stepping out of the water of Holy Baptism is a stepping out with Jesus. It is a union with Christ by His presence in the water. It’s a true washing, an anointing with the Holy Spirit. It’s a true life with the blessing of God: “You are My beloved child; with you I am well pleased”
It is the path on which we already know the end from the beginning. For in Holy Baptism we have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. So we know what will come. We know that we will die, because Jesus too has died. And yet because God dies in Jesus, even death has been changed because Jesus, because God, has been part of it. Death must die and give way to life. And because Jesus lives, we too shall live His same new life.
It’s why Martin Luther so adamantly encouraged making the sign of the cross every morning when we get up. It’s why the little cross is scattered throughout the liturgies in our hymnal. The sign of the cross is a reminder of Holy Baptism. I am baptized; though I will die, yet shall I live. And it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me because of this water. And the life I now live comes by the gift of God in Jesus Christ, the gift out of the water of Holy Baptism.
So now, whether the path that emerges out of that water goes straight and narrow or whether it wanders into many a bruising and scarring domain, whether my days out of the water of Holy Baptism are sunny and bright or pass through such darkness that I too cry out “My God, my God, why?”, whatever the course of the path out of this water for any of us, He who is there at the path’s beginning is already there at its end to welcome us. And He is there in every step along the way from the beginning to the end, because we have come out of the water which He inhabits with us.
Two roads diverge from out of the water today. One is the way of Adam, the other is the way of Christ; one is the way of me, the way of my choice, my obedience, my faith, my relationship with God. The other is the way of Christ’s gift, the way of Christ’s life, the way of Christ’s relationship with God. But…the former is certainly more traveled by.
But for us whose eyes have been turned from self to see Him who shares the water of Holy Baptism with us, for us whose ears have been turned from listening to our own voice to hearing what He promises us about forgiveness, eternal life and salvation in this water, for us who know that the primary thing is not about what we do, but about Him who lives for us and with us and in us…well, this less-traveled path out of the water most certainly makes all the difference!