Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 13 January 2013: Year C, Baptism of Christ
Baptism… of fire?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I well remember the day I graduated from Glasgow Uni. For once, I didn’t go the Uni in jeans and a sweatshirt- I had an academic gown to wear. There was lunch in the University dining room with my parents, and a meaningful chapel service, before we went to the Victorian splendour of the Bute Hall for the graduation ceremony itself. Students somehow become just a wee bit more adult on graduation day. In the same way, the military and the police like their passing out parades for their newly-trained recruits. The end-of-term assembly or prize-giving is the same sort of thing. Such events leave us with no doubt that something important is happening. Perhaps we look back a bit and remember the times we had. But mostly it’s about looking forward, to more responsibilities, a career ahead. It is an end, and also a beginning.
The gospels tell us almost nothing about the training or education of Jesus. There is a little about his childhood in Luke, but soon we are hearing about the preaching of John the Baptist, in the passage we read today. John was a relative of Jesus, a prophet who preached that the Messiah- the one who would save God’s people- was about to appear. John called people to change their lives, to get ready for God’s saviour to appear among them. Crowds of people went down to the River Jordan to hear John’s preaching. And he would challenge them to respond by being baptised. John would immerse people in the waters of the River Jordan, to symbolise that they had died to their previous life- drowned it, if you like. They rose from the water into a new life, with their sins washed away, as water washes away dirt.
Eventually, Jesus himself appeared, and was baptised by John in the river as well- and you can see a picture of it on the front of our order of service. Jesus’ baptism marks the point when Jesus passed from being a purely private figure to becoming a public preacher. This is a day he for which he would have been preparing for years. It is Jesus’ graduation day, his passing out parade.
Matthew’s Gospel (3.13-15) relates that when Jesus comes down to the bank of the River Jordan, John was at first reluctant to baptise him. John’s baptism marked the forgiveness of sins. But when John sees Jesus he realises that this is the one of whom he had said, ‘I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals’ (Luke 3.16). Jesus is the one for whom John has been preparing the people- and yet Jesus allows himself to be baptized by John.
And just as proud parents congratulate a graduating student, so Jesus hears words of affirmation from his Father in heaven: ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you’ (Luke 3.22). It sounds as though Jesus has passed with flying colours, making his heavenly parent proud. However Jesus prepared and trained for this moment, he has done it well, and is ready, now, to take on the task which his father has set him. His baptism is his commissioning for his life’s work.
Do you think about baptism in that way? Do you even much think about our own baptism? Many of us here were baptized as infants. Our parents had themselves been baptized, and so naturally they wanted us, too, to be part of Christ’s church. But for a long time, baptism in our culture was seen simply as a rite of passage. It happened to almost everyone. It was regarded as a natural follow-on to the birth of a child a celebration of a new life, with all the implications that meant for the family. I think it is good and right that we should welcome children into the life of the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism, and that we should seek God’s blessing on them as they begin their lives. But it can be hard for us to see the baptism of a baby in quite the same light as passing-out parade, a graduation, a commissioning for your life’s work. After all, many of us don’t remember our baptism, and we had no choice in the matter.
However, some of you may have been baptized as adults. If you did, you made personal decision to seek baptism, are able to look back and remember the event. If you were baptized as an adult you had made your own decision, you were aware that that this was a special occasion, an important day in your life, a turning point more important than any passing-out parade or graduation ceremony.
Yet whether we were baptized as infants, or as adults, our baptism has precisely the same meaning. It is a meaning which we would do well to think about sometimes. A few years ago the minister of a housing scheme parish in Glasgow, a man of long experience, who was approaching retirement, told me that he found himself really thinking hard about baptism. For years he had been baptising babies, and the occasional adult, and perhaps it all had become a bit routine. Now, however, his community had asylum seekers living there, and his church was involved in various programmes to help them out- providing clothes, language programmes, advice, and so on. Many of these people were not Christians, but recently some Iranians- Muslims- had started to attend on a Sunday, for they were grateful for what the Church was doing for them, and had become interested in the Christian faith. And some of them had asked to be baptized, fully aware that when they were baptized, it would have shattering implications for them. It would cut them off from their families- for in the Iranian culture, someone who converts from Islam is no longer treated as a family member- they are outcasts. Jesus once said, ‘I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; your worst enemies will be the members of your own family’ (Matthew 10.35-36). For these Iranian converts those words were all too true. Their baptism was much more than just a traditional naming ceremony. But nevertheless, they now wanted to be identified with Christ and his Church, and to become Christians through the Sacrament of Baptism. But their baptism had huge implications- their’s was a baptism of fire!
Jesus came as a human being among us, became just like us, even to extent of being baptised for the forgiveness of sins, just like many of us. And yet he was also the Son of God, with whom God was well-pleased. And just as Christ was commissioned in God’s service at his baptism, so also we are commissioned at our baptism. Whether we can remember the event vividly, or if, like me, all you have is a stamp on the back of my birth certificate and one or two fading photographs- still, you and I, we belong to Christ. And there are ways we can recall our baptism, and all that it means. It’s said that when German Reformation leader Martin Luther was troubled by temptation, he would shout at the Devil, ‘I am baptised!’ When someone is baptized in the Church all the baptised who are present are reminded of their baptism. When we become adult members of the Church our baptism is confirmed as we renew for ourselves the baptismal vows once taken on our behalf. And above all, our life as Christians is about living as people who were once baptized. When we strive to follow Jesus Christ, when we care for the people who are the bent reeds and flickering lamps, when we seek justice and peace for our world, then we live out our baptism. And we find strength for our journey of life, because we know that we are children of God, loved by God. As the prophet said:
‘Have no fear, for I have redeemed you.I call you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through water I shall be with you;
when you pass through rivers they will not overwhelm you;
walk through fire, and you will not be scorched,
through flames, and they will not burn you.
I was baptised as a child, and it was only later that I discovered for myself the challenge of the Gospel and the depths of God’s love for me. I had to learn to live out my baptism so that my baptism became real to me. I had to use my baptism, if you like.
Sometimes people go to Uni or college, but never use what they have learned ever again. But if you go into a doctor’s or a lawyer’s or a dentist’s surgery, you might find that they have the certificate which they received at their graduation hanging up on their office. Take your car to a garage and you might find that the mechanic’s certificate is hanging up. Or in a carry-out shop, there might be a certificate that the assistant has had food preparation training. Each of those is supposed to reassure you that the person involved has received the appropriate qualifications. It should be OK for you to be treated by the dentist or doctor, advised by that lawyer, have your car fixed by that mechanic. Or even that the person making your lunch knows how to keep their hands and their kitchen clean so you don’t get poisoned. But just having graduate from the food hygiene course is not enough. You hope that they put into action what they have learned. No use having a food hygiene certificate if you haven’t washed your hands. No use having a medical qualification if you haven’t kept your knowledge up-to-date. For graduation day to have any meaning- whether for a sandwich maker or a lawyer- you need to keep doing what you learned back then!
On the wall of my study I have a certificate which certifies that the University of Glasgow has conferred on me the degree of Bachelor of Divinity- on 9 July 1991. I don’t look at very often, but I’m very proud of that scroll. The graduation ceremony was a long time ago now, student life but a fond, and slightly hazy, memory. And yet every day, in the work that I do, I use continue to make use of what I learned all those years ago. I trained for Ministry, and what I learned then continues to help me to do what I do. But that wasn’t the day I was commissioned to follow Jesus. My graduation day as a Christian was on the 6 March 1966. I was, as you can imagine, young at the time- I was less than three months old on that day, when my parents brought me for baptism. But on that day, promises were made. My parents promised to bring me up within the life of the Church- which they did. But God also promised something. God promised that I would be his child forever. God promised that I could turn to him any time and my sins would be washed away, as water takes away dirt. God connected me to Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection. God said he loved me more fully than I can ever imagine.
Years later I stood in another Church and reaffirmed my side of the deal. I became a adult member of the Church, for I had discovered for myself what it meant to follow Jesus Christ. I had discovered for myself what it meant to know the God could wash me clean and offer me new life. And I had discovered again- and continue to discover again and again, that whatever happens in my life, God’s promises remain. I have discovered what it is, not just to believe in God, but to live as if I believed in God. Because at my baptism, God certainly said he believed in me. God said to me, ‘I have called you by name, Peter: you are mine!’
One of the things that makes it easier for me to follow Jesus is knowing that like me, he was baptized, that like me he experienced human life, with all its complexities, its joys and is pains. At his baptism he was blessed by God’s Spirit, and his Father was well-pleased with him- and now he was ready to live the life God had planned for him. And at my baptism and your baptism, God blessed each of us and commissioned us- gave us the task- and the strength- to follow where Jesus leads us. But you know, unless you use it, and make it your own, your baptism isn’t much good. We hope and pray that the three children we have baptised today will make use of their baptism. We hope and pray that their parents will bring them up within the Church, so that they really get to know who Jesus is, and learn how God loves them, and take strength and courage from that. But that challenge, that invitation, is there for all of us, whether we are baptised or not. God calls each of us by name, and offers us the joy and challenge of becoming followers of Jesus Christ.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible or Revised English Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo