The fire and the dove- a sermon on the Baptism of Christ

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43.1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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.

John the BaptistEventually, 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.

Usually we associate baptism with water- which is why our Old Testament reading is appropriate today, as it speaks of coming through water. But John uses another image- he says Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. that’s a prophecy fulfilled at Pentecost- the day, fifty days after Easter, the disciples suddenly felt the power of the Holy Spirit on them. Luke the Gospel writer tells the story in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles:

When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. (Acts 2.1-4)

Fire is a symbol of God and God’s power throughout the Bible. Moses hears the voice of God from a burning bush, and God descends in fire upon Mount Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments. Fire represented the presence of God, but also stood for purging- God is sometimes described as coming like a refiner’s fire, bringing purification, destroying what is unjust and wrong. When we are baptised in Jesus’ name, something of the holy fire of God comes upon us. For we who are Christians have all of us some experience of God’s Spirit within us- we are all of us lit up by the fire of the Spirit.

Baptism-of-Christ-xx-Francesco-AlbanAnd 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.

But here we encounter another symbol in this Gospel reading. When the disciples encountered the Spirit of God at Pentecost, she felt like fire to them- they could almost see the tongues of fire on each other’s heads. But when Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, Luke speaks of the Spirit coming upon him like a dove. There’s no parallel for this image in the Old Testament, but Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention it in their accounts of Jesus’ baptism. And so, for Christians, the dove has become a rather lovely image of the Spirit. It may be that it has its roots in the first chapter of the Bible, where Genesis describes the chaos before creation: a ‘raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water’. Why not a dove- like the one which flew across the waters to Noah’s ark to bring news that the flood was coming to an end? We may be baptised with fire, and it is good to be fired up by the Spirit. But the dove reminds us that the Spirit can also bring calm to our souls. God’s presence is not always fiery. Often it is when we find calm in the storm and the darkness that we are most aware of God’s presence, God’s spirit, within us.

DoveJesus is commissioned for his work, which will bring a baptism of fire to the world, with the dove of the Spirit- surely a sing that he is gifted an inner spirit of peace which will strengthen him as he does his father’s work.

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. We’ve been commissioned by God, and given God’s Spirit to help us.

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.  (Isaiah 43.1b-3a)

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.

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 certificate. 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. By fire and water and the Spirit, I was claimed by and for God.

Years later I stood in another Church and reaffirmed my side of the deal. I became an 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.

In our baptism, God has brought us through the waters to a new life in Christ. He offers us a baptism of fire- for we all need fire in our belly to be good disciples of Jesus. And he also offers us a spirit of peace- for the Spirit of God which brought creation out of chaos also offers us deep peace in our turbulent lives. In baptism, 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, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo