Isaiah 43 begins with two powerful words:
They tell us that a significant change is taking place: “Before, things were one way; BUT NOW a new thing is happening.”
Jumping into the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, we can easily miss the “before.” So go back in your Biblical memory bank – way, way back. Remember how God built Israel into a mighty nation: saving them from slavery in Egypt; leading them to a Promised Land; raising up kings like David and Solomon; commissioning the Temple. Remember that for a time, Israel had all the trappings of a mighty nation: wealth and soldiers and land and buildings. As Israel reached its pinnacle, it began to behave like an overconfident teenager who forgets that she owes any of her success to her parents. Israel turned away from their God to worship other gods. They did it again, and again, andagainandagainandagain. God sent prophets to warn them again and again… but no use.
The consequence to that sin was exile – being kicked out of their own Promised Land. The Babylonians took Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BC. Most of God’s people were scattered across the Babylonian Empire.
They were exiled. Exile is the “before.”
Something new is taking place. With the rise of Persia comes the Edict of Cyrus in 587 BC, announcing that the scattered peoples can return to their native lands. Or, as Isaiah puts it:
“I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, Do not withhold;
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isaiah 43:5-6).
They were separated but now reconciled; sinful but now forgiven; exiled but now reclaimed.
What power in those two small-but-mighty words! They embody God’s work in the end of Israel’s exile.
In the same way, those two words embody God’s work in our baptisms.
As United Methodists, that can take us by surprise. If you’re a regular church attender you might be familiar enough with the baptism liturgy to know that “but now” is not a part of it. No, we don’t say those words – but they’re present in a deeper sense, in the meaning rather than the speaking.
But for many of us, that meaning is lost.
See, we Methodists have a good habit of baptizing babies. “Good,” because when we baptize a baby we make some important claims about God. Baptizing a baby affirms God’s prevenient grace, a grace that works for us before we even have the power to ask for it. Baptizing a baby shows that baptism is God’s work – not ours. The bulk of the heavy lifting was done for us (not by us) 2,000 years ago through a Son and a cross and an empty tomb. That’s why it makes sense to us to baptize human beings who can’t ask for it themselves.
But there’s some fallout, some things that we miss while we’re oohing and aahing over an infant in a white gown. We might forget that baptism is a radical initiation into God’s holy family, the church. We might miss that it’s a dying to the old self and a being born again to the new. We might witness 10, 50, 100 baptisms and never notice the incredible “BUT NOW” that’s happening.
Go witness just one baptism by immersion – and the “but now” will be hard to miss.
As a born-and-bred Methodist, I’ve only seen a handful of baptisms outside the church sanctuary – but they do happen. Maybe you’ve never seen a baptism by immersion before. If that’s the case, then go there with me in your mind…
Imagine that it’s you being baptized. You’re thigh-deep in the cold water of the Valley River. The pastor puts one hand behind your head and one hand across your folded arms. You’re nervous, and already a little cold. Your feet are unsteady. But you take a leap of faith give a little nod to show that you’re ready. Then, like a crazy trust fall, the pastor dips you back; you lose the footing under your feet and fall into the pastor’s arms; you go completely underneath the cold water for a startled moment; and then, the pastor brings you back up into what feels like a whole new world. There are some practical, obvious differences: you were dry and now you are wet; you were only kind of cold and now you are freezing. But you also feel strangely warm. And you feel some other changes that are harder to put into words. Some old part of you has died; some new part has woken up.
Can you feel the “but now” in that? A powerful before and after, hinging on one moment. It’s like coming back from exile – coming back into God’s arms. You were lost but now you’re found; you were a slave to sin but now you’re a servant of Christ; you were sleep-walking your life but now your entire being is alive to God!
Doesn’t that sound amazing?
If you were baptized as a baby, this might make you think you missed out. Perhaps you ought to have a redo?
Ah, well – I hate to disappoint, but I wouldn’t be able to do that for you. We Methodists don’t baptize more than once. It’s for the same reason that baptize babies: because it’s God’s work, and God’s work sticks.
So, sorry; we can’t all go out to the Valley River and have a second go at it.
But there’s good news.
First, because baptism is God’s work (and not our own), all the good “but now” stuff happened whenever you were baptized. When Isaiah 43 begins with “but now,” the change isn’t that Israel is doing something to bring themselves back – it’s that God is doing something to bring them back. The same is true with our baptisms: whether we’re babies or adults, God is at work to make the “but now” possible. That same God is eternal – so the “but now” extends to our whole lives, whether we’re baptized on day 1 or day 10,001.
We don’t need to redo our baptism; it still applies. What we need is to remember it.
Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, often encouraged people to remind themselves daily, “I am baptized.” In his Little Catechism he asks the rhetorical question, “What does such baptizing with water indicate?” The answer: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Daily contrition and repentance.
Daily drowning and dying and emerging and arising.
Daily “but now.”
Try it, right now. See how it feels. Take a deep breath and imagine the waters of your baptism – whether they were in a small basin in a church or a large river in the wilderness.
Say to yourself:
“I am baptized.”
And then, remind yourself of a “but now” brought on by your baptism. Here’s a few:
“I was lost but now I am found.”
“I was a slave to sin but now I am free to serve Christ.”
“I was alone but now I am part of the body of Christ.”
“I was as good as dead but now I am fully alive.”
Martin Luther thought we needed this kind of reminder daily.
I think he was a pretty smart guy.
So try it, every day this week. Don’t let a day go by without remembering the incredible “but now” that embody’s God’s work for you.
Note: Haven’t been baptized? I (or your pastor) would love to talk to you! Contact me at email@example.com