Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/DuKCQdlLknw.
The Baptism of our Lord
So this morning we have three passages from Isaiah, Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, that all deal with baptism.
Let’s begin by thinking about the baptism of Jesus. John has been calling people to repentance. Just before this passage is the bit Bob talked about during Advent when John referred to them as “a brood of vipers”. But Jesus is not part of that group, is he? He doesn’t need a baptism of repentance. John knows that. At least in this passage it is clear that he knows that the one who is coming, is much greater than he is. Now it is very interesting that in this version of the story by Luke, we have no reference to who is doing the baptizing. In fact the order of events is very unclear and this passage neither says that John did baptize Jesus, nor does it say that he didn’t. Maybe Luke wasn’t sure of what happened. The important thing was that Jesus was baptized. The question is, “why?” Why did sinless Jesus who had never rebelled against God choose to be baptized? Well maybe we can work it out from what happened next. Jesus was baptized and then he was praying – we see Jesus praying very often in Luke’s gospel. Jesus makes his dependence on God clear to us. As Jesus was prying heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form, like a dove and then God spoke, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. So, we have all three persons of the Trinity here together, and all visible to the witnesses, and indeed audible as well. This is important for Jesus’ ministry – this affirms who he is, and that God is with him, indeed that he has a special relationship with God. The relationship with God was already there for Jesus, but it is symbolised here for human beings to see and understand. John has just told us that when the one who is coming baptizes it will be with the Holy Spirit and with fire and here we have a demonstration of the presence of the Holy “Spirit that reassures us of the reality of God the Holy Spirit. This is a bit of an aside, but it occurred to me as I was writing this that this is why there is such a big emphasis on speaking in tongues in Charismatic churches – it is a concrete sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, who otherwise is both silent and invisible – it means that you don’t have to trust the testimony of someone as to whether they have the Holy Spirit, and indeed that is something that may not be immediately obvious to the recipient either, so to speak in tongues is reassuring to everyone concerned, just as the presence of a bodily something, like a dove, was important at Jesus’ baptism, not for him but for those around him. The other question that we need to tackle here is whether or not the Holy Spirit comes on a person, baby or adult when they are baptized, or when they are confirmed. It is clear here that the Holy Spirit is part of Jesus’ baptism. Does her appearance here mean that she was not with Jesus prior to this? I don’t think so. I am pretty sure that the Holy Spirit who was the agent of conception had been with Jesus all along. And what about those new converts in Samaria that we read about in Acts? They had been baptized in the name of Jesus but had not received the Holy Spirit so Peter and John laid hands on them and the gift of the Holy Spirit was theirs. Does this mean that we don’t get the Holy Spirit until our confirmation? Again I don’t think this is always true, but it may well be true for some people. When you read the Acts of the Apostles you will see that some people received the Holy Spirit at the moment of baptism, unlike these people, and indeed some people received the Holy Spirit before their baptism and that was the basis on which they were baptized. Human beings love rules and systems, they help us to feel in control of our world, but God is well beyond rules and it seems that the Holy Spirit comes when and where she wills. There is also teaching about a single baptism, and it is quite true that we are baptized with water, in this symbolic way, once in our lives. But the anointing of the Holy Spirit can occur many times when we need it, and indeed we may not even be aware that it has occurred.
So getting back to Jesus’ baptism why did it happen and what does it tell us? I think that it was all about Grace. The words God speaks are words of love, this son, Jesus of Nazareth is beloved and I am pleased with him. We tend to think that this marks Jesus out as special, but I think on the contrary that we are all like Jesus. Let’s just turn to the passage from Isaiah for a moment.
In the Isaiah passage there are three things that are linked to today’s gospel. Inverse four God is speaking to this people, Israel, the whole nation and he says that because they are precious in his sight, they are loved by him he will give nations in return for them. What ultimately happened, of course, was that God gave himself, in the person of Christ Jesus, for them and for us. But the language of love is just the same, “you are precious and honoured and I love you” God says. And we have become part of that covenant with Israel, or rather part of a new covenant of love. God, in the action of baptism is stating his great love for us. Baptism is a symbol of how much God loves us. And do you notice that the water and fire are present too, when we pass through the waters, God says he will be with us, and through the flames that will not consume us. Here is the water of our human baptism and the fire of Jesus’ baptism. And why are we safe? Because God has redeemed us, bought us back, paid the price for us, and because God has called us by name. This is another aspect of our baptismal rite, isn’t it? We are called by our name; we are called out to be a special people whose job is to do God’s work. We ae called from every corner of the globe – from the north, south, east and west – to be God’s sons and daughters adopted through baptism and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus echoes that instruction, doesn’t he, to go out into all the world and gather in those who would come and baptize them I the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
So this idea of baptism is absolutely central to us as Christians, baptism is essential to the church – it is what makes us who we are. We are a group of people gathered together as the recipients of God’s grace. Our sins are washed away and, because we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, we can be reconciled with God. In the water we die with Christ, and rise with Christ and, delivered from death, now we must plunge into our lives. Our baptism is a moment of being reborn, we are completely dependent on God for the unconditional love, or grace that he gives us. So every time we celebrate a baptism in one sense we begin again, but of course we carry with us all that we have learnt on the journey. And it is in our baptism that the life of the community is formed. We are all absolutely equal before God, we all enter the same way as recipients of God’s grace and we are joined together by sharing the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of the Holy Communion. We are part of the body of Christ from the youngest infant to the oldest person baptized 90 something years ago. We are also part of the church that stretches right back to those Samaritans baptized in the name of Jesus and who had the hands of the apostles laid on them to receive the Holy Spirit. We are the church past, present and future, and we have the responsibility to every other member. When we baptize a baby, we must all share in the task of helping that child to know the God who has so freely given his grace. And every time we have a baptism in church we celebrate the knowledge of what Jesus has done for each of us. We celebrate our shared faith and our shared salvation.
As we leave here this morning we should go in the certainty that we are loved by God, precious and honoured. That fire and flood and all the other problems that we face, we face in God’s strength and they will not overwhelm us, even if they end in death, because of our certain hope in the salvation offered to us and made clear in our baptism. We should go out as God’s people bound together to work for him secure in the knowledge that we are his beloved sons and daughters with whom he is well pleased.