Under Water

(An all-ages message for Baptism of the Lord Sunday A–January 8, 2012–Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11)

This Sunday we had an intergenerational service, and rather than preach from a manuscript as I usually do, I invited the children forward for a talk about Baptism. This is an approximate recounting of what I said.

There are four books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, and today we’re reading from one of them, called the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel, there aren’t any stories about Jesus being a baby. In Chapter 1 he appears on the scene already grown-up.

Here’s the story:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”


In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11, New Revised Standard Version)

That John was kind of a wild man. He dressed up in skins and ate locusts and wild honey. He was living out in the desert, eating whatever he could find. He was baptizing people in the Jordan River, but first he was talking to them, pointing out all the ways they had a bad relationship with God and telling them ways to fix it. God would forgive them, he said, if they really wanted to change their lives.

And that was the important part. They had to want it. They had to want to be different.

Now, when we baptize people in this church, we use our font.

*The children remembered a day when we baptized one of their friends, and they also remembered a time we baptized a baby doll! *

Our font has a little dish in it for the water, but it doesn’t hold much. On the Communion table today we have a big bowl of water, so that we can see what the water looks like. But John was baptizing people in the river, where they could lie right down in the water.

*The children agreed that the bowl was not big enough for that. We asked the congregation and discovered that quite a few people had been baptized by going all the way into water.*

When they came back out again, it was sort of like going for a bath, except it wasn’t their bodies that felt clean. It was their hearts.

Now Jesus came along and he wanted to be baptized by John, too. It wasn’t that he had done things wrong. This was the way people would know he was the one John had been talking about. So he walked right into the river and let John push him under the water.

Have you ever gone under water?

*Yes, the children had all been under some kind of water: in the pool, or a lake or the ocean.*

What happens when you go underwater? What’s it like?

*The children volunteered that you can see underwater, but it’s a little different, and if you’re in the ocean it’s a good idea to wear goggles. They agreed that sounds are muffled underwater. And finally someone remembered that you need to hold your breath!*

So why do we do this, put each other under water, either a lot of water or even a little bit of water?

Because we believe baptism does something. We believe it makes us clean, not like going in other water, but cleaned up from the yucky way we feel when we’ve done things wrong, which everyone does. We believe it touches us with the Spirit of God, like the dove coming down to Jesus. And we believe it reminds us that we are God’s beloved children, too, and being reminded helps all of us live the way God wants us to live.

Have you ever tried to float in water? Sometimes it’s hard to hold still or keep your feet from sinking down. When you’re in all that water, you might be worried about staying where you’re supposed to be. But you don’t need to worry, because when you’re being baptized, you are never alone. There is always someone there to support you and help you.

One of the children, D, volunteered to help show you what I mean. He stood sideways in front of me, and I bent him over just the way my pastor did for me long ago when I was baptized. I looked down and realized he was holding his breath!

I held him that way a pretty long time.

Finally I lifted him back up, and he breathed.

Just like Jesus had John, D had me to make sure he could get back up again. John supported Jesus when he went under the water, held him there, and then helped him come back up again.

He was never alone; he didn’t have to do it by himself.

And that’s what we have together in church. We are always here to help each other. Sometimes things happen in our lives, sad things or hard things; it might almost feel like being underwater.  Sometimes it feels like we can’t see or hear or breathe quite right because we are worried or afraid. But this community, this family, this church promises to be here, each one of us for all the others. We promise that to babies when their parents bring them to be baptized, and we promise that to grown-ups when they become members of the church.

None of us will get stuck under the water. We always come up again. And when we do we can remember how God called out, “This is my beloved child,” not just to Jesus, but to all of us.

I offered a blessing to each of the children, touching them with water from the bowl and saying, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God.”

After we sang a hymn, I read these words:

In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the Spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God’s people always. (United Church of Christ Book of Worship)

Then the adults were invited to come forward for an Act of Remembrance of Baptism. Touching them with the water, I said, “Beloved Child of God, remember your Baptism.”

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