In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I hope you all left your Christmas decorations up until yesterday! Yesterday was Twelfth Night, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So Christmas is now officially over. And now, having celebrated the birth of our Saviour, the Church moves- very quickly- to think about what this all means for us.
So, on this first Sunday of the New Year, we hear about a new beginning in our Gospel reading. Our Gospel passage takes us back to Advent first- reminding us of the strange figure of John the Baptist, calling on the people to repent. But surprisingly, we find ourselves encountering the adult Jesus today, as he come to experience the baptism which his cousin John offers. But what is this about? Why has Jesus come for baptism? And what does it mean for us?
Mark tells the tale: John appearing in the desert, a strange figure in his camel-hair clothes, calling 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 washes 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. This is a good story for the first Sunday of the New Year- for here is John offering people a new beginning- a baptism that washes away the sins of the past, and offers people a new start in life.
But John also hints at another new start- a new prophet who will follow him, offering not just a new start for individuals, but also a restart for creation itself. And so he proclaims:
‘Prepare a road for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!’
For one is coming who, John says,
‘is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals’.
John is preparing the way for something- someone- who brings an even more radical new beginning.
And yet, it is a strange encounter between the two of them. If John knew who Jesus really was, was he perhaps surprised when Jesus turned up, and asked to be baptised? The version of their meeting in Matthew’s Gospel suggests he was. Matthew has a dialogue between the two when Jesus asked to be baptised: we’re told that:
‘John tried to make [Jesus] 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.
For part of being human is knowing that we are not perfect. We all of us know that we do not live good lives all the time. That we have made mistakes. That we have said harsh words when we ought not to have, and kept silent when we should have spoken out. That our relationships with other are soiled by wrong things we have done. And that’s not just true on a personal level. Look at the state of the world at the start of 2018- it is not a pretty sight. Poverty, war, dishonesty, racism, sexism, abuse and discrimination of all kinds- all these, and more, remind us that human beings are flawed, to say the least. The word the Bible uses is sin- that fatal flaw which means that we are incapable of living together without hurting other people.
And yet, as John the Baptist made clear, God loves us in all our flawed humanity. Baptism is a symbol of the Gospel: the miracle that a holy God nevertheless offers a new start to imperfect sinners. 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.
Mark says that as Jesus was baptised,
‘As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove’.
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.
We encounter the Spirit of God at the very beginning of the Bible- the first verses of the Book of Genesis, a poetic description of a time before anything was created, a time before even time itself:
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.
In the beginning, says Genesis, there was nothing but angry water until the Spirit of God moved upon the waters- and then things began to happen. 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 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.
In his Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul tells us what to expect from the Spirit of God:
‘the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control’.
As St Paul says, there’s no law against these things- these are all wonderful virtues.
The Spirit is God’s gift to us, to produce the best in us, to help us be the best we can be. The Spirit 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. So although baptism is, we might say, the proper, Biblical word, still the word ‘Christening’ is a rather lovely word, 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 (even with little children in the Orthodox tradition- ). And this is probably what happened to Jesus (Mark refers to him coming up out of the water, suggesting that he was, indeed, submerged). 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 wrote:
‘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’.
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 experience 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.
Mark adds that as Jesus was baptised, he heard a 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, what God says continually to those who have been baptised. On this first Sunday of the year, hear those words for yourself- God saying to you ‘You are my own dear child- I am pleased with you!’ 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: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
A question asked after the sermon: Why wasn’t Jesus baptised as an infant?
 Matthew 3.13-15
 Galatians 5.22
 Romans 6.2-4