Yesterday was one of those rare days that makes a lifetime memory. It started almost two years ago, when I held a naming ceremony for the Jewish grandson of a close friend. The parents are intermarried. He is Jewish. She is not (but she is learning what being Jewish means). (Note: Yes, I am aware of the halakhah regarding Jewish identity being matrilineal–maybe a topic for another time.)
Sometimes our work in Messianic Judaism is to help people reclaim what was lost. This young father is from an interesting Jewish family that became joined with an interesting Baptist family in an old Southern town. If New York has many children of Jews and Catholics, shouldn’t the deep South have the children of Jews and Baptists?
When I was asked to perform the naming ceremony, I was ecstatic. I had a chance to revive a Jewish identity on the edge of extinction. A Jewish ceremony might awaken what was in danger of being lost.
What happened that day was the preparation for a friendship. That friendship was sealed yesterday, when I was able to officiate yet another Jewish ceremony for this young couple.
About two weeks ago, the wife and mother called and said she wanted to be baptized. They were both experiencing God in their lives like never before and felt as though they were cheating God. They had not committed their lives through the ceremony of immersion.
One of the joys of being a spiritual leader is that occasionally, just once in a while, you feel you may actually help people. I suppose doctors must feel this way. For every twenty people who can’t be helped or whose medical care is routine, there is one case that is special. I get that sometimes. I am a catalyst for people, helping them to grab hold of God’s tassel and to be taken along on a journey into mysteries beyond words. Leaders like me, we get too much of the credit.
Through a series of twists and turns we wound up in small Baptist church. It is too cold for a lake, river, or swimming pool. So the nice baptismal pool at this country church was an ideal place.
That too is a story. The young pastor is on his own journey of discovering Israel and the Hebrew scriptures. He is yet another friend made in this story of God touching lives.
We gathered, the young couple and their children, both sets of the young man’s parents and step-parents, the pastor, and a friend from the area. We were a small group.
I explained to them that this ordinary ceremony was an earthly picture of a heavenly reality. We stood in freezing cold water, since the church’s heater would not work, in a slightly rusty baptismal pool. The story of Yeshua’s baptism sounds much more idyllic at the Jordan in the Judean wilderness. But was it really? The Jordan is not an impressive river today and I really don’t think it was back then either. Rivers do have a certain beauty, but they also are quite ordinary.
In Yeshua’s time, baptism was a daily occurrence for some and quite a common sight. Any good tour of Jerusalem will reveal the mikveh pools near the temple, remains of the custom of immersion before entering the temple courts. The Qumran community, those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, practiced immersion twice a day every day.
The original symbolism is descended from Leviticus. Those who had become unclean were, in some cases, commanded to bathe in order to become clean. The waters of baptism are first a matter of purification.
John the Baptizer added a new dimension. He led a movement in Israel for restoration. John’s way of restoration was not through revolt against Rome but through returning to HaShem. He commanded a baptism as a sign of repentance and a new start. His baptism was not a cleansing before entering a holy area in the temple, but a baptism of life. It was analgous to a wedding ceremony, a commitment of life to live under God’s rule.
Purification and a new start. If anybody needed these least it was Yeshua. He had no impurity. He had none of the false starts in life that are common to man. Yet he walked down from Galilee, no small journey, and saw that it was done. Can we doubt the importance of this earthly sign when our master saw it this way?
Later, a new dimension was added to the meaning of baptism. The act of being buried under the water had always resembled the burial customs of the Middle East. Yet it wasn’t until after Yeshua’s death and resurrection that it became clear that this too was a part of the symbolism of baptism: being buried with Yeshua and then raised with him.
Ordinary water. A few friends to witness the event. A door between heaven and earth is opened. We know how the Father is, always rejoicing in repentance and commitment. We enjoyed the earthly sign he appointed of a heavenly reality. The cold waters and rusty pool became something more.
The kingdom does still grow from time to time. My newfound friends entered into that with their commitment to Yeshua. We went out for coffee afterwards and began to really get to know each other. This is the community of Yeshua. This is how it works.