Text: Matthew 3.1-17
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Surely one of the worst things that could possibly happen to someone is to be arrested for a crime you haven’t committed. Bad enough that you might spend years in jail. Worse, however, to be branded a criminal, to be told you are guilty when you know you are not guilty. It’d be terrible to be criminalised by mistake. And who would choose to be treated like a criminal?Yet in a way, Jesus did something like that when he was baptised in the River Jordan by John. Before Jesus appeared on the scene, John the Baptiser helped to prepare the way for him. John called people to repent, to turn their lives around, to turn to God, to be ready for the coming Messiah. And as a sign that they were turning their lives around, John symbolically washed them clean, baptising them in the River Jordan.
It’s quite clear that the ritual John offered people, the ritual of baptism, had to do with the washing away of sins. Baptism was not for good people, for those who thought they were without sin, for those who were righteous and in the correct relationship to God. No, John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John baptised sinners, people whose hearts were full of the wrong things, those who knew that they had done wrong, and who needed God’s forgiveness. John washed them with water to represent God’s forgiveness of those who truly repent. But he was also pointing to the future, so another who was to come: Matthew says (quoting the Hebrew book of Isaiah) that John was the one ‘shouting in the desert, “Prepare a road for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!”‘. John said that he would baptise with water, as a sign of repentance; but the one to come would baptise with fire. The one to come would judge harshly: ‘The axe is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire’. John said that the one to come would be much more important: ‘He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals’. No wonder that in art, John is often depicted as pointing to Jesus.
And so it must have been a bit of a surprise, to say the least, when Jesus turned up, and asked to be baptised. For according to the Gospel accounts, John knew who this Jesus was. Today we read that John objected when Jesus asked to be baptised: John tried to make him change his mind. ‘I ought to be baptised by you’, John said, ‘And yet you have come to me!’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires. So John agreed.’
Jesus said he would submit to baptism because it was what God required. It’s incredible that he should chose to be baptised, for as John well knew, Jesus was the only person on earth who didn’t need to be baptised. Yet Jesus chose to be baptised, and in so doing he is choosing to identify himself with sinful human beings. He chooses to be like us, to live among us, to stand alongside us. He comes to where we are, he makes himself one of us. He identifies himself with us, even to the extent of allowing himself to be baptised. He is not guilty, but he takes the blame on our behalf
We need to be baptised because, like criminals, we have done wrong. And just as Jesus was baptised, so still today the sign of God’s acceptance of us and of his forgiveness of our sins is the sign of baptism. Yet all too often we take baptism for granted. For many people this powerful ritual has very little meaning. It’s sometimes treated as little more than a naming ceremony, like a ship launch for new babies, without the champagne bottle.
So on this day when we think about Jesus’ baptism, we should stop and reflect. For there are some aspects of Jesus’ baptism which can help us to understand what it means for us to be baptised.
Matthew says that as Jesus was baptised, and he came out of the water, ‘heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him’. When Jesus was baptised, it’s clear that he experienced the Spirit of God in a new, deeper, profound way.
For many people, a ritual like baptism sounds like something which separates you off into a particular religious community. It does that, of course, because by baptism we identify as Christians, become part of the Christian community. Yet I love the thought that the heaven opened when Christ was baptised- and I wonder whether that always happens at every baptism. Heaven opens and we are now far more open to God. And if we are open to God, we must also be open to all God’s children. Jesus told us to love God and to love our neighbours. So a real Christian will have no truck with any artificial divisions with others. We are to love our neighbour, no matter if they are Christian, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, or not sure. If heaven has opened to us, then we should be open to God’s Spirit at work within us, and open to everyone around us.
Matthew says Jesus experienced the Spirit when the heaven opened to him. Now, a lot of people have a hard time understanding what the Holy Spirit is all about. We first hear of the Spirit right at the beginning of the Bible- Genesis chapter 1: ‘ In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water’. Through the Spirit God created the universe.
No-one can really picture what must have been before the universe was created. Can you imagine complete nothingness? Even a Stephen Hawking would be hard-pressed to describe what it was like before the big bang. How do you describe pure nothingness? When the ancient Hebrew poet tried to create imagine what it was like before the universe was created, he imagined- water. The ancient Hebrews didn’t like water. They lived next to a great sea, but other people, foreigners like the Philistines, sailed the ships. The Hebrews were confirmed landlubbers, who would only resort to the sea if, like Jonah, they really had to. Naturally, the crew of Jonah’s ship were pagans, foreigners. The Hebrews were too frightened of being swallowed by whales.
And so for the writers of the Bible, the sea symbolised infinity, eternity, chaos. In the beginning there was no earth, nothing was formed. All was covered by a ‘raging ocean’ which was ‘engulfed in total darkness’- the stuff of a Hebrew nightmare. It needed something, someone, to bring order to the chaos, light from the darkness, land from the depths of the frightening sea. That something- someone, was the Spirit of God, moving over the water. The wind of the Spirit blows and light appears, the sky becomes a separate entity, land appears from the raging ocean. As the seafarer’s hymn, Eternal Father, strong to save, puts it:
O Holy Spirit, who didst brood
Upon the waters dark and rude,
And bid their angry tumult cease,
And give for, for wild confusion, peace.
(CH4 260: William Whiting, 1825-78)
In the beginning, says Genesis, there was nothing but angry water until the Spirit of God moved upon the waters. When we talk about the Spirit, this is who we are dealing with: the Creator Spirit, the Spirit who brings light from darkness, order from chaos, life from death.
And that, I think, is what the Holy Spirit still does. We all have dark days- but God’s Spirit offers us light. To a life in chaos, God’s Spirit can bring calm, and the beginnings of order. And wherever life triumphs over death, God’s Spirit is at work. When people are kind, instead, of nasty, when people are lights in the darkness- those are sure signs that the Spirit of God is at work. When at a dark time, people come together so share the burden, God’s Spirit is at work.
Sometimes people do the most extraordinary things claiming the spirit is upon them. What are claimed to be manifestations of the Spirit can produce distress, or cause division within a church. So how do we know what is genuinely created by God’s spirit? Fortunately, the Bible gives us a guide, for in this Letter to the Galations, Saint Paul once wrote that ‘the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control’ (Galatians 5.22). As St Paul says, there’s no law against these things. The Spirit produces the best in people, helps us be the best we can be, creates virtues and not vices in our lives, makes us better people, because, as it did at Jesus’ baptism, it helps us live as if heaven was opened to us- it brings us closer to God. The Spirit helps us, in a world of violence and division, to work for peace and understanding with all God’s children. For all talk of the Holy Spirit is simply a way of speaking if the presence of God in the world, and in human lives.
If you are baptised, you have been given the gift of the Spirit- to help you live as a follower of Christ ought to live. Thanks to the Spirit, now you have it within you to love your neighbour. You have it within you to be an encourager and not a complainer. You have it within you to bring light and life wherever you go. You have within you the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. But you’ve got to let the Spirit flow. For the Spirit is God’s gift to you, but it’s a gift for sharing. It’s not a gift to be kept in a fancy box to be brought out for special occasions. It is, as the ad men say, a gift that keeps on giving- a gift that you have to use, for the good of others.
One last thought. Quite often people use the word ‘Christening’ for a baptism, and we theologians sometimes get a bit sniffy when they do. The word the Bible uses is ‘baptism’, which means to wash, or even be submerged in water- which is exactly what happens at a baptism. But the word ‘Christening’ is rather lovely, for it reminds us that, in baptism, we are joined to Christ in a very special way.
In some Christian traditions the candidate at baptism is pushed right under the water, as if they are drowned but come back to life. And this is probably what happened to Jesus (Matthew refers to him coming up out of the water). Water is essential for life, but it can also kill (as the old Hebrews knew). Being submerged in water is a powerful reminder that in baptism, we enter a new life, but in doing so we die to our old self. St Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome, connected the death and resurrection of Jesus to baptism, when he said, ‘all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death… Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life’. (Romans 6.2-4). When we are baptised we participate, in a way, in Christ’s death and resurrection. All of which reminds us that Christians should be willing allow some things to die within us, so that new life might result.
When Jesus chose to be baptised, he chose a path that would lead to death, a road that would take him to the cross. And yet out of that death came new life, the unimaginable experience of resurrection, renewal, an eternal life unimaginably better than this one. When we are baptised, we are also putting our old life to death, so that we can experiece the resurrection life, a life which comes from knowing God, and knowing that God loves you. And that makes up for everything, even the worst things that life can throw at us.
Jesus heard the voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my own dear Son- I am pleased with you’. I think that’s what God says every time someone is baptised. We may not hear the sound of the words, but it’s true. If we are baptised, we are sons and daughters of God. God is pleased with us- God has blessed us. God has blessed us with life and light and love, for we are all God’s children now. And we all should also thank God for our baptism, for by our baptism we have become sons and daughters of God.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo