Sermon Briefs: Mark 1:4-11
Olympia Brown was a pioneering nineteenth century Universalist pastor, the first woman ordained by an ecclesiastical association beyond the congregational level.1 In an undated sermon reconstructed from notes, she offers a doctrinal sermon that stresses the baptism of the Holy Spirit as the essential feature of baptism. In response to those who would insist that the mode by which baptism is administered is important, Brown insists that its real power and significance lies with the Holy Spirit and the intentionality of the recipient. "The baptism with water is but the symbol, the foreshadowing of the baptism of the Holy Spirit."2 The baptism of the Holy Spirit, in turn occurs when "filled with lofty aspirations, kindled by a desire for excellence, [the baptized] resolves to consecrate one's self to the good, laying aside sin."3
For Linda Clader, repentance and forgiveness are the keys to the story of the baptism of Jesus.4 Her lyric sermon has a poetic meter, as she moves from the baptism of Jesus to our baptisms.
Clader recreates the scene of Jesus' baptism, telling the story from his point of view, and invites us to imagine what the baptism of Jesus must have been like for him. Jesus entered the water, was baptized, and heard a voice. "Imagine what that must have been like," she suggests, "Imagine hearing that you are God's child, the beloved! Imagine hearing that God is pleased with you! Imagine the feeling of elation—the feeling of empowerment! The Spirit of God is in me! I am God's child, God's chosen! Imagine what it must have been like!"5
We don't have to just imagine what it must have been like FOR JESUS to have been baptized. For whether we remember our own baptisms or not, our experience is like that of Jesus. "Every one of us who has been baptized has, in fact, had this experience...maybe we don't remember—but at our baptism, that voice did speak, naming us too....This is the knowledge, the reality, the assurance that offers us the strength, the courage, and the faith to strive for justice, to be the hands and feet and voice of God in the world, and to offer to others the healing word of God's forgiveness."6
In his sermon John's, Jesus', and my baptism,7 L. David Brown observes how commonplace it has become to blame all manner of human failures, disappointments, and brokeness on low self-esteem. For parents, whose job is defined as fostering HIGH self-esteem in their children, this is a real burden. Even so, many persons are struggling with feelings of shame and worthlessness. For many modern persons, the crisis of their lives is an IDENTITY crisis.
The baptism of Jesus addresses this contemporary crisis and human need for affirmation and identity. John the Baptist stands as the model of a man who had a clear sense of his identity, as well as insight into what his contemporaries needed. What they needed was not more self-esteem, not more encouragement. What they needed was "the cleansing water of renewal" for their sin-wrecked lives.8
In the sacrament of baptism, the church offers the gifts of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. In baptism we participate in the death of Jesus Christ and receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. "And so we have an identity. We are the forgiven followers of Jesus Christ empowered by his spirit. We are baptized, therefore we are forgiven. We are baptized, therefore we are empowered by the spirit."9
Greg Jones, in an unpublished sermon from 1997, The Waters of Baptism, links baptism with repentance. He begins by confessing his discomfort with the word repentance. The word has been so misused for so long: "Some have severely tainted the term by employing it as a club to pound sinners into submission, threatening, `you had better repent before it's too late.'" Politicians have cheapened the word with their self-serving "repentance" for private sins, which have become public knowledge, and thus political liabilities. Despite these problems with the word, repentance remains linked to baptism. "The word repent means to turn and go in a new direction. Baptism marks a new way of living."
R. Charles Grant
1. The distinction of being the first woman ordained to the ministry belongs to Antoinette Brown (no relation). 2. Olympia Brown, "Baptism," And Blessed is She, ed. By David A. Farmer and Edwina Hunter (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1990), p. 39. 3. Ibid. p. 38. 4. Linda L. Clader, "A Sermon Brief on the Baptism of the Lord," The Abingdon Women's Preaching Annual Year B, compiled and edited by Jana L. Childers and Lucy A. Rose (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), pp. 40-43. 5. Ibid., p 42. 6. Ibid., p 43. 7. L. David Brown, "John's, Jesus', and My Baptism," Augsburg Sermons, Gospels series B (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975), pp. 53-57. 8. Ibid. p 54. 9. Ibid. p 57.