When Shiloh and I bought our first home in Galloway NJ, we planted a tree. I remember the experience because it was one of those first big kinds of milestones in our life. We had been living in dorms and then apartments, then rented houses, but now this was our house, it was exciting and I wanted to plant a tree.
I remember going with Shi to Home Depot to pick up the tree. There they all were, all these different kinds of small trees, on a couple of pallets in a huge jumbled mess. It took us 20 minutes just to sort out the different trees and disentangle them from each other. Then when we finally settled on the one we were looking for, a skinny maple that was just a little taller than me. We had to pry the poor thing out from where it had been “planted” (through a busted pallet), buy it and take it home. Obviously not the best shopping experience we’ve ever had. But just as lousy of a job they did taking took care of that tree we did the exact opposite. I read a bunch of books on planting trees, dug the right shaped hole, fertilized, watered, mulched, planted during the right season, surrounded the trunk with a barrier so the mulch wouldn’t rot the base. We even got one of those bags you put around the base of a tree so it could have a continual trickle of water go deep into the roots. That was one well cared for tree! The tree responded very well to all of the care, growing in leaps and bounds, thicker trunk and bushy leaves.
Then the storms came. Our home was hit by Hurricane Sandy, which then turned into a super storm and then a bizarre wind storm call a derecho with straight horizontal winds blowing past 70 miles an hour. I remember watching out our front bay window as our poor little tree was whipped back and forth, back and forth in the storm, bouncing off the ground like a ping pong ball till it was literally being laid completely flat against the ground for hours while the wind pushed against it. Finally, when all of the storms had subsided and we were starting the heavy clean up work at home and around the city, I went to Home Depot to get a new chainsaw, because half of an old oak tree in the back fell on our roof. Walking through the landscaping outdoor section, I saw all of those other trees that had been planted in the pallets. They were scattered everywhere, busted in half, broken and trashed. An employee was half-heartedly picking the busted pieces up and throwing them into the dumpster.
Pulling up to my house, I looked at the disaster area that was my yard and there was the tree I had planted. It had taken the same beating from all of the storms just like those trees that were planted in the pallets, maybe even more so for being out in the open. But there it was standing straight and tall, (all of it’s leaves were missing!) but it survived and continues to grow strong today. I thought, what a difference it makes where you are planted.
Being planted is a wonderful type of Biblical imagery that can describe baptism. In the waters of Holy Baptism done in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, you are planted into the death of Jesus Christ; planted into his death so we can be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The way Scripture sometimes talks about baptism is that it makes you into a different kind of human being, before apart from God after in friendship with God, before lost in sin and condemnation afterwards a redeemed human being. You are the same but now you are also different. Like the tree planted in my yard.
Whether that tree was planted in a pallet at Home Depot our planted in my front yard, it was still a tree and it still took the blows that the storm dished out. Just like when someone is baptized and the Holy Spirit enters in, sometimes people think that because I’ve been baptized and I’m a Christian then bad things shouldn’t happen to me anymore and they start blaming God if they do. I’m a Christian now, why is this happening? But when you’re baptized you don’t become immune to the storms and problems of life, of course you’ll still be affected because you’re still a human being living in this broken and sinful world. But what’s different is where you have been planted.
Instead of being planted into the world alone, that is born only of natural descent, planted into a world that by and large doesn’t care what happens to you. Just another tree planted haphazardly into a pallet and when the storms come just another one to move away. Planted into the world that says you must make it on your own, only the strong trees survive. Planted into the world that doesn’t care about your spirit or it’s nurture or growth and will not be of any use to you when you are uprooted from this world you were planted in.
When you are baptized, you are now no longer only born of natural descent but also of the Holy Spirit, you are also planted into the eternal land of God who knows every hair upon your head. In baptism you are not just another tree planted haphazardly but you become God’s beloved child and He names you his own. God becomes your caretaker and cares for your body and soul, nurtures and feeds with you His own body and blood and in your weakness He sustains you. When you are uprooted from this world you were planted in you have a heavenly land to live within, the land you already have been planted in through baptism holds you tight and keeps you there even when you die here.
This is the language of baptism, you are planted into the death of Jesus Christ, so just as He lived for the Father, died and rose again to everlasting life, we too in our baptism may live for the Father, die and like Jesus rise again to everlasting life with Him.
How can water do such wonderful things?
It’s not a magic trick. It’s not based upon the right kind of wording or a particular liturgy from the hymnal. It also doesn’t depend on who does the baptizing, even someone who doesn’t believe can do the baptizing and it would still be effective and beneficial for eternal life. Why?
It is beneficial because it is based solely upon the promises of God. This is what God says is true, with this water and with His Word and promise this wonderful thing is accomplished. Not based upon whether I am worthy or not to receive that blessing, which of course I am not. It isn’t really based upon whether or not I can understand at the time what is going on. (That is why Lutherans baptize infants and why the faith life of the parents and sponsors is so important, to teach that child what that promise means that God has given to them.) Baptism is not something I do, in any sense of that word; baptism is something solely that God does for us from His own strength and power.
When we make the sign of the cross, it is upon God’s promise that we remind ourselves and rely upon. If you were baptized in a church it may have been this way, but even if it wasn’t the result is still the same. May times in baptism the sign of the cross is made upon the forehead and upon the heart naming them as one who has been planted into the death and life of Jesus Christ. As you recognize what the promises have come to mean for you, you can make the sign of the cross upon yourself as a reminder of your baptism, as a reminder of into whom you have been planted.
Especially, when you are troubled by your sin and confess your sins, you can make the sign of the cross to remind yourself of God’s promise that you are forgiven in Him.
Especially, when you receive His Body and Blood at the Lord’s table, you can make the sign of the cross to remind yourself of who you are meeting and the price for this blessing you are receiving.
Especially, when the storms of life come and you are whipped back and forth like a ping pong ball, make the sign of the cross, not as a magical talisman that will somehow ward away evil, but as a reminder of a promise made to you long ago, whether you live or whether your die you are the Lord’s.
Baptism does all this for you, because of God’s promise, where you are planted matters.