Epiphany 1b 2021 Baptism of Jesus Mark 1:4-11
Each year, the second Sunday in January is devoted to a celebration of the Baptism of
Jesus. All of the Gospels tell of this event, because it is crucial to the ministry of Jesus. In
Matthew, Luke and John, the event comes after a number of other stories, of birth, of childhood,
and much about John the Baptist. But Mark’s gospel begins with a brief introduction to John the
Baptist, and then, in verse 9 of the first chapter, we are treated to a short but very powerful
description of the moment.
All of the stories agree on three things: Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River,
the Spirit descended like a dove, and God’s voice was heard.
God’s voice – that calls us to our responsibilities, to bring order and discipline, to love
and comfort, to live full lives. Anything and everything can happen. And that is what we
experience when we are baptized. This is the beginning of a formal faith life, to be welcomed
into the community, to join in the joys and sorrows, to live in the light of God.
Each time we witness and participate in the sacrament of baptism, we are reminded of
our own faith journey, of our vows to God, of the need for the Holy Spirit in our lives. Sharing in
our service today are people who were baptized as infants or little children, whose parents, and
Godparent or sponsors, took vows on their behalf. There are those who came to baptism as
teens or adults, when they felt the call of Christ. There are those who renewed their baptismal
vows at confirmation, or in response to an important faith event in their lives.
There are those who have not been baptised; who may be waiting for the right moment,
or who come to be among us as friends, and who are also wrapped in God’s love and the joy of
this congregation. Faith is a process of growth, and we are equal in God’s sight.
And so we come to the passage from Mark. His gospel is much shorter than the others;
his purpose is to tell of the life of Jesus and the events of the crucifixion, and in this way, to lead
us to an understanding of God’s promises, how God reaches out through faithful witnesses, and
how God works through the beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist came to begin the process - he used water, but it was Jesus who first
felt the Holy Spirit. We need both water and the Spirit to lead full lives. We need action and
In my years of ministry, I have been involved in many baptisms. They have all been
different, because each soul is uniquely created. Today, I would like to share some of these
stories, which have enriched my life and my faith.
My first baptism took place soon after my arrival in the north, to serve in Hazelton and
Gitsegukla. A young family in the first nation’s village had a baby, and I was so excited to be a
part of their lives. We met in the church, mummy, daddy, tiny adorable baby. I had brought all
my papers to fill out, and was quite sure I knew what to do. We got all the information, and I
explained the service. They were happy, and we looked forward to the following Sunday. They
got up to leave, and then the young man said “Oh, yeah, my brother has a new baby too. We
want to have the boys baptized together.” I asked him to get his brother and family over to the
church, and prepared to do the whole thing over again. “He can’t come.” “Why not?” “They are
in Vancouver.” When will they be back?” “On Saturday, I think.” After a long series of
questions, it became clear that the brother, his wife and baby were at Children’s Hospital. The
baby was two weeks old, and had been born with a defective kidney, which had been removed.
I said I didn’t think they would be back by Sunday, and offered to postpone the baptism, or
celebrate the baptism of the other baby later on. “Oh, they’re coming back.” I was still doubtful,
but promised that I would talk to the family if they showed up on Sunday.
Sunday came, and I was prepared. I had extra candles, extra forms, extra baptism
certificates. Lots of them. And there, in the first row, were the two families. I spoke to the
second family, held the baby, and heard the story. He had been diagnosed before birth by
ultrasound, and the family were flown down to Vancouver for this very special delivery, which
went without a hitch. Baby was well, everyone was happy. Then the two men stood up. “Uh,
we’ve never been baptised, and we think this is the time.”
They don’t teach you about this in theological school! The church doesn’t say a whole lot
about a situation like this. Good thing I had brought lots of extra stuff with me. Because, in that
moment, I realized that this baptism was a blessing for the whole village. A child was alive,
because of God’s grace and the wonders of modern medicine. It was a celebration of God’s
healing power, of the Holy Spirit in action. It was humbling and joyful, to be part of this miracle.
We found some cushions in the pews. The two fathers knelt down and took their vows,
and then held their babies at the font. I was no longer so sure of myself, but I was very sure of
At my first Easter service, I was asked to baptise a three year old boy. He was a foster
child from one of the villages, who had developmental challenges. His foster mother was a
preschool teacher, and she was patient and knowledgeable. Little Franklin was a happy child,
and he was absolutely enchanted by anything Batman. He insisted on wearing a Batman cape
every day, and he had several little flannel receiving blankets, so a clean one could be pinned
onto his shoulders each morning.
On the Sunday, he appeared in church, in long pants, a white shirt, a vest and a bowtie.
And the cape. He was surrounded by love, and we all had a wonderful time. The following
Easter, at the children’s story time, I asked him “Franklin, do you remember what happened last
Easter?” And he grinned and said “Yeah, I got Batmanned!” He had received the power of the
Spirit, big time.
Another unconventional baptism took place in the Terrace Hospital. One of the elders
from Gitsegukla had had a stroke, and we were all distressed. The following week I went after
church to bring communion to the family as they sat with her. The prognosis was not too
encouraging. When I got there, with my juice, and bread and oil – I thought they might like a
healing prayer also, the whole family was in the room, including her latest great grandchild, a
little boy only a few weeks old. The grandmother had made him a tiny button robe, and the
parents had brought bannock to share. As I talked to Norah, the elderly woman, she whispered
something in Gitk’san which I didn’t understand. She wanted to have the new baby baptised
right then and there, before she died.
The young mum burst into tears. She wanted to do this in church. She had a lovely new
christening robe for her baby. By this time I was used to quick thinking compromises. I
suggested that we baptise the baby in the hospital, and we could have a blessing in the church,
with the white gown, the following week. Mum dried her tears, and we got organized.
We wrapped the baby in the lovely button robe, and put him gently into great-granny’s
arms as she lay in bed. A nurse brought in a small basin, the water was blessed, and baby was
baptised. The oil for healing was used to make the sign of the cross, we had a healing prayer
for Norah, and then shared communion with the home made bannock.
Granny recovered, and lived a few years longer. She was quite certain it was because
of the sacred time we had shared in that hospital room.
While still in Hazelton, I was asked by one of the youth group if I would baptise her. Her
grandfather was a retired Baptist minister, living on Vancouver Island and the two girls,
according to that tradition, would be baptised when the Spirit moved them. I asked her if she
would want her grandfather to preside at the service, but he was too frail to make the journey.
And this young woman, about fourteen at the time, wanted full immersion. None of this
sprinkling stuff for her! I phoned the grandfather and asked for any support and advice he could
“Just make sure the robes you wear are weighted at the bottom, otherwise they will float
all over the place. And when you immerse her, put your arm under her shoulders, so you can
lift her up easily.” They didn’t teach that at VST either.
We decided to have the baptism on the second Sunday in September, in a lake near the
church. I figured the water would still be warm after the summer. I was wrong. We had frost on
both Friday and Saturday night.
I had made plain white gowns of heavy cotton, and sewed tiny pebbles in the hems. We
all gathered at the church, had the regular service, and then, instead of the final blessing we all
got in our cars and drove to the lake. Maila and I wore white sweatsuits under the robes. We
took the Christ Candle from church, and re-lit it at the beginning of the ceremony. As we went
into the water, I said to her “this is a holy moment. We will not feel the cold.” And for once, I
As we rose from the water, I saw her little sister give the mother a funny look. Later, I
heard the story. Little Freya had asked her mum if there would be a dove, like in the baptism of
Jesus. “Don’t be silly, dear” was the reply. “We don’t have doves this far north.” As we rose
from the water, two loons took off from the opposite side of the lake. The Holy Spirit was
present after all. For me, the Holy Spirit will always be a loon.
I have dozens of stories about baptism, because each one is different. No matter how
you plan, or how many rules you follow, when we say “yes!” to God, we need to be prepared for
surprise, challenge and excitement.
Karoline Lewis, a Lutheran pastor, offers some wisdom in her reflections on the baptism
of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:
“I worry when we take a ritual executed in the wilderness, with God’s ripping apart
the heavens to get to God’s son, to get to the people God loves, and create every possible
restriction. As soon as we make baptism legalistic we have domesticated Mark 1:1-
11…There is nothing tame or orderly about baptism at all. “
In this new year, as we follow the gospel of Mark, let’s be aware of the surprises in store
for us. Let’s take this passage as a guide, and hear the voice of God, and feel the coming of the
Spirit, every day. For your waking thoughts, perhaps you might want to say to yourselves.
I am a beloved child of God, with whom God is well pleased.