This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” (Mark 1:1–8 NLT)
In many ways, a baptism is like a tree that falls in a wood.
For both the person being baptized and the tree, this is a monumental event in their life. Both are strongly associated with death – in the case of the tree, literally, but in baptism the death is a symbol of the old life being drowned in the living waters found in Jesus. On the other side of this death, for both there is new life. The downed tree will decompose into fertile soil that fosters the growth of plants young and old, even as the log is made into a refuge and new home to flora and fauna of various types; the second half of a baptism – the person being pulled out of the waters – is yet another symbol, of new life in Christ. To paraphrase Ephesians 2:6, it is a sign of being raised from the dead along with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms.
Then there is the question of audience. If a tree falls in a wood and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? If a new believer is baptized but there is no one around to witness it, does it still qualify as a declaration of a new way of living?
Unequivocally, yes on both counts.
Even so, an audience makes a world of difference in the ultimate impact made by either of these events. To observe a 50-foot spruce fall all on its own would leave an indelible impression on all who saw it. To bear witness to someone declaring with their whole person that they choose to follow Jesus is to be invited to and to celebrate a new way of living.
Baptism is a wonderful, celebratory act that is best accomplished when it is rooted in community. A baptism devoid of an audience loses something. There is still power in the symbolism of the act, for it is ultimately an act of worship to God. But it is also a declaration of new birth in Christ and an announcement of the arrival of the Lord, in our lives and in our world – or in the case of John, an announcement of the Lord who was soon to come.
Ultimately, there are two baptisms, one of water and one of Holy Spirit. Baptism by water is a one-time event, but to be baptized by the Holy Spirit is an ongoing act of dying to self and being raised up again in Christ. We are to be a baptized people, and as such, we are to be a people of celebration and announcement, declaring the arrival of the Lord through our words and our actions and proclaiming a new way of life through living as a sign, servant, and foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
Michael Benson is the communications director for the North American Baptist Conference.