Holy Spirit Baptism
Baptism of the Lord
January 7, 2023

I don’t know about you, but I have a vivid memory of my baptism.  As I have shared with many of you, I was baptized in the Alapaha River when I was about 12 years old.

It was a place I grew up fishing and swimming, and while I had previously attended other baptisms here, including my siblings, mine was different.  It was a new experience for me.

Like anything you do for the first time, you are a bit nervous because you don’t know what to expect, exactly, and having a near drowning experience, I certainly didn’t like the idea of being dunked.

Yet, here I stood on the banks of the Alapaha River waiting to enter the water with a preacher and a deacon, trusting that I would not lose the grip of their hands as we waded out into the moving current.

Then came the moment I was most anxious about…being dunked!  The relief that washed over me as I resurfaced and caught my first breath was surely the Holy Spirit upon me as I was elated to be breathing above water again!

This was just the beginning of a new journey that I did not even begin to fully understand at age 12.  What I understood most profoundly, as it had been hammered into me by preacher after preacher, was that I had secured my place in heaven, and avoided hell.  After all, that’s what baptism is supposed to do, right?

My parents, aunts, uncles, Sunday school teachers and even my friends’ parents had taught me right from wrong.  Everything seemed pretty simple at age 12, if I did these things, I went to heaven, and if I did these bad things, I went to hell.  It seemed like a pretty easy choice.

However, as I grew into my teenage years and older, the choices didn’t seem to be so black and white, and at times, life became very confusing as to what was right and what was wrong.  To let you in on a little secret….it can still be confusing!

As a teenager, temptations were all around, and when having fun with my friends, the right and wrong sometimes was a little blurred.  It really was like having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, constantly weighing if something I was doing was “right” or “wrong.” 

I found that I spent a lot of time reading my bible and asking forgiveness from God, wondering if I might end up in hell after all, but something kept nudging me forward.  When some friends got into real trouble I wondered why, and when some friends seemed more successful, I wondered why.  As the years went by friends that I had spent my entire childhood with, were replaced by new friends I met along life’s journey, and eventually I moved to another church, and later here to First Valdosta.

All along my journey, I didn’t always make the best choices, and I certainly was not perfect; however, for some reason, I kept studying and reading my bible to seek answers when the way wasn’t clear; when I felt alone and empty.

When I came to the Presbyterian Church, I learned a lot about grace, and for the first time, I truly began to understand exactly what it meant to be baptized as a disciple of Christ.  I began to understand there was more to Christianity than going to heaven, in fact, like Jesus showed us, there is a lot to do here on earth in our life’s journey, and maybe we can experience a little heaven here on earth.

It became clearer and clearer that baptism isn’t the last step to heaven, but the first step to walking as a disciple of Christ, and experiencing heaven on earth.  As a disciple of Christ, we recognize that God is with us at all times.  Isn’t that heaven?

  Baptism is the first step of receiving the Holy Spirit, being filled with energy and inspiration to WANT to do good things, to want to help other people so that heavenly joy from within is realized now.

While being taught right from wrong at an early age gave me a good foundation, good values and moral conscious, everything moved from black and white to different shades of gray, to even bright, joyful colors.

Although darkness is still experienced at times in pain and grief, there is comfort in knowing we do not walk alone, and God has provided us with the Holy Spirit for strength to get us through those tough times, those times when we don’t understand why we are going through something difficult, and those times when our lives seem off the rail.  As tough as it is, God is with us, and the Holy Spirit of our baptism is there to comfort, strengthen, and guide us to our next step. 

Baptism, I learned, is about following where the Holy Spirit leads, even when that path is not easy or clear.  It’s having faith to trust the Holy Spirit to see you through because we have been promised by God that he is always with us in all situations, good and bad.

John the Baptist knew that while he symbolically baptized with water as going down with repentance and coming up with renewal, that Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit that gives new life within that shines forth to others so that all may be able to see the Light of Christ in us so that God has the glory for all works.  God wants us to experience the joy of heaven now.  Joy that can be experienced through a prayer for a friend, a helping hand to someone when you bless them with a meal or an errand, a smile, a touch, a caring stranger that I call God’s angels.  Might you be one of those angels carrying the light of Jesus?  The light of love and compassion.

Our message from Paul is so amazingly critical to understand that until we are baptized with the Holy Spirit by Jesus, until we have received the Holy Spirit through Jesus, we are empty vessels.  With the Holy Spirit, we are continually re-energized, refilled, and replenished to continue on our life’s journey that causes us to want to help others we see in need.  The Holy Spirit fills us with compassion and love for others.

As we begin this New Year and approach the communion table this morning, let us remember our Holy Spirit baptism, and as we take the bread and cup, let us be renewed in the body and blood of Christ to continue God’s work in the world in this New Year.

Might we even say, Happy “Holy Spirit” New Year!