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Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Baptism of Christ

This Sunday, the Church celebrates the baptism of Christ.
St Luke tells us how Jesus came to John to ask for baptism.
Unlike some of the other Evangelists, he doesn’t mention John’s making a fuss and saying
“Oh, oh, it ought to be you baptising me, not the other way round!”
But he does mention the voice from heaven, saying
You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased.”

For Jews, baptism was really a matter of washing.
They had –
and still, as far as I know, have –
a way of washing in their ritual baths,
which made them no longer unclean.
But it was not, I believe, until the time of John the Baptist
that baptism was linked with repentance.
John had one or two things to say to people who wanted baptism without repenting,
baptism without tears, if you like,
calling them “a brood of vipers”,
and reminding them that just because they were children of Abraham didn’t mean they were excused from bearing “fruits worthy of repentance.”
In other words, they had to show their repentance by the change in their lives, and their baptism was to mark this fresh start.

Now for me, at least, this raises at least two questions.
Why, then, was it necessary for Jesus to be baptised, and, secondly, what about our own baptism?

Why did Jesus have to be baptised?
He, after all, was without sin, or so we are told,
so he, alone of all humanity, did not need,
and never has needed, to repent.
But when John queried him, so St Matthew tells us,
he said “Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”
In other words, let’s observe all the formalities,
don’t let anybody be able to say I wasn’t part of the religious establishment of the day.

And, of course, one other very good reason is that it was an opportunity for the Father to proclaim Jesus to the crowds thronging the Jordan.
John probably baptised hundreds of others that day, I shouldn’t wonder, with Jesus waiting his turn very patiently.
But it was only when Jesus rose up from the waters of baptism
that God sent the Holy Spirit upon him in the form of a dove, and said, out loud,
You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased.”

God proclaimed Jesus as his beloved Son.

And then what?
No triumphant upsurging against the occupying power,
no human rebellion.
Not even a triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
No, what awaited Jesus after his baptism was forty days in the desert,
and an almost unbearable temptation to discover the depths of his powers as God’s Son, whom God loves,
and to misuse them.
And it was only then, after Jesus had wrestled with, and conquered, the temptation to misuse his divine power,
that he could come back and begin to heal the sick,
raise the dead,
restore sight to the blind
and preach good news to the poor.
And gather round him a band of devoted followers, of course, and all that.

Well, so much for Jesus’ baptism;
what about ours?

For many Christians, baptism does seem to be very similar to John’s baptism, a baptism of repentance, of changed lives,
a signal to the world that now you are a Christian, and plan to live that way.
But for a great many more Christians, baptism is something that happens when you are a tiny baby, too small to remember it.
That’s usually the case for Methodists and Anglicans, so it applies to us.
I was baptised as a baby and so, very probably, were you.

Now, some folk say that being baptised as a baby is a nonsense,
how can you possibly repent when you are an infant in arms,
and how can other people make those promises for you?
I think it depends very much on whether you see baptism as primarily something you do, or primarily something God does.
The Anglican and Methodist churches call baptism a Sacrament,
and you may remember the definition of a Sacrament which is
that a Sacrament is the outward and visible sign
of an inward and spiritual grace.

The other Sacrament that Methodist churches recognise is, of course, Holy Communion.
The Catholic church recognises at least five more,
but as I can never remember all of them off-hand, I won’t start listing them now!
The point is, that a Sacrament is a place where we humans do something and trust that God also does something.
When we make our Communion, we believe that we are meeting with Jesus,
communicating, if you like, in a very special way
during the taking, breaking, blessing and sharing of the bread and wine.
And in baptism, we believe that God comes and meets with us in a very special way, filling us with the Holy Spirit.
Yes, even babies –
do you really have to be old enough to be aware that you are doing so in order to love God?
I don’t think so!
You certainly don’t have to be aware to be loved by God,
and that’s really what it’s all about.

You see, baptism, like Communion, is one of those Christian mysteries, where the more deeply you penetrate into what it means,
the more you become aware that there’s more to know.
You never really get to the bottom of it.
St Paul goes off in one direction, talking about baptism being identifying with Christ in his death.
I’m never quite sure what he is getting at, when he says in the letter to the Romans,
“Do you not know that 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.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

I may not have totally understood Paul there –
who does? –
but it’s nevertheless part of what baptism is all about.

Another part of it is, indeed, about repentance and turning to Christ.
For those of us who were baptised as infants,
someone else made promises on our behalf about being Jesus’ person, and we didn’t take responsibility for them until we were old enough to know what we were doing,
when we were, I hope, confirmed.
We confirmed that we were taking responsibility for those promises for ourselves,
we became full members of the Church and, above all,
we received, once again, the Holy Spirit through the laying-on of hands.

And so it goes on.
But it’s all very well me droning on about baptism and what it really means, but what is it saying to us this morning?
For some of us, our baptism was more than six decades ago, after all!
For some of us, it may have been a lot more recent, but you may well not remember it, even so!

Well, first and most importantly is that baptism is important for Christians,
as important as the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
So if for any reason you never have been baptised,
and you know that you want to be Jesus’ person,
do go and talk to Andy or someone.
The same applies if you haven't yet been confirmed, but feel you are ready to become a full member of the Church and ready to take responsibility for those promises they made on your behalf.
There's a new course starting very soon, and I'm sure you'd be most welcome to take part, even if you then decided it wasn't for you just yet.
Have a word with Andy about it.
That wasn't meant to be an advertisement, by the way; just thought I'd mention it – it'll doubtless be mentioned again in the notices!

But for the rest of us, for whom our confirmation is nothing more than a memory, and baptism not even that, so what?
What does it mean for us today?

I think that, like so much that is to do with God,
baptism is an ongoing thing, not just a once-for-all thing.
Yes, we are baptised once;
St Paul reminds us that there is one baptism,
just as there is one faith, and one Lord.
But when Martin Luther was quite an old man,
and the devil started whispering in his ear that he was a rotten human being and God would cast him out, et cetera, et cetera, you know how he does,
Luther threw his inkpot at the spot where he felt the voice was coming from, and said: “Nonsense!
I have been baptised, and I stand on that baptism!”
Even though that baptism had been when Luther was a newborn baby,
he still knew that its effects would protect him from the assaults of the evil one.
As, indeed, it does for us.
There are times when life seems to go very pear-shaped, aren’t there?
Times when it feels that God has forgotten us, that we are stumbling on alone, in the dark,
totally unable to see where we are going.
Whether that is true for us as individuals, or as a church, these times are very hard to deal with and to understand.
All we know is, they happen to all of us from time to time, and we simply can’t see the reason from this end.

Of course, we know intellectually
that God hasn’t in the least bit forgotten us.
Some folk say these times of darkness are when God is testing us,
but I’m not sure it’s even that.
It’s some part of the pattern that we don’t understand,
can’t see what is happening,
and tend to try to rationalise.
I do believe that one day we’ll know what it was all about,
and see how it fitted in.

But when I am going through one of these dark patches, it is to this lovely passage in Isaiah that was our first reading that I most often turn:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

It’s a lovely passage to learn by heart, to say to yourself in those dark watches of the night when you are lying awake, worrying.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.”

In some way we know that our baptism was part of that.
As I said earlier, it’s what they call a mystery;
we’ll never know the whole truth of how it works, only that it does!
Jesus came for baptism to John, and from his baptism he was sent into the wilderness to wrestle with one of his bad times –
the other, as we know, was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified.
And if Jesus can have bad times, then it’s all right for us to, I reckon!
In the Isaiah passage I just quoted, it's when, not if!
When you pass through the waters,
when you walk through the fire.
The bad times will happen, they happen to everybody.
But we will not be swept away, we will not be burnt, God will be with us.
Life doesn’t have to be perfect, and nor do we, before we can remind ourselves that God loves us.

Of course, that love isn’t just warm fuzzies;
it’s about going out there and doing something.
Christian love is something you do,
not something you feel.
But in the dark watches of the night, we need our warm fuzzies.
And I think God knows that,
which is why there are those lovely passages in Scripture about how much he loves us, about how he protects us and cares for us.

Let’s sing that lovely hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”
to affirm that love.
It’s number 416.

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