The Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

A Sermon by Lay Reader, Eleanor Childs    

12 January 2014

Our gospel reading for this morning is the account of the baptism of Jesus. This event marks the beginning of his public ministry. He’s around 30. We know very little about his life prior to this; we assume it was quite ordinary, living at home, working in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, accepting the routines and disciplines of family life.  Now he moves out into public view for the start of his ministry, and his first action is to come and ask John the Baptist to baptize him.

Just to remind you.  John the Baptist’s role in life was to prepare the way for Jesus. John was a prophet and he gained fame as a preacher calling for national repentance. His attitude to the establishment was one of radical condemnation (you can read about it in the verses preceding this morning’s passage.) He’d observed the hypocrisy, the pride, and mistreatment of the poor and the corruption of temple worship that was prevalent. The religious leaders took pride in their pedigree as descendants of Abraham, but John denounced them as a brood of vipers and denied there was any value in them being circumcised descendants of Abraham. Their confidence was in outer signs like circumcision, but inner change was needed. A new beginning was necessary, marked by repentance (ie. a change of life,) and by faith, ie turning to God. And the sign of this new reality was baptism.

John’s baptizing was itself something quite new. Prior to this, Gentile converts to Judaism had been baptized on becoming proselytes, but John’s baptism was for Jews, for circumcised Jews who recognized their failure to live as God intended, but who now truly wanted to follow God and conform their life to his will. To be a real Jew, John’s baptism proclaimed it was necessary to undergo cleansing and forgiveness. In the verse immediately preceding our passage John says, ‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John’s baptism was with water but he pointed forward to One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, that is, Jesus.

John had a large following from across the country, as well as critics from the establishment, and Jesus comes to him to request baptism. Now John was very demanding on all who came requesting baptism. He required confession of sin and evidence of repentance. He refused to baptise some of the Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds, because he discerned they were not sincere, for their lives did not evidence any change. But he instantly recognizes that Jesus is no sinner, in need of repentance. Indeed, in his presence John himself feels unworthy.  Understandably John tries to deter Jesus, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’   Jesus replies, ‘Let it be so now.  It is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ And John consents to Jesus’ command.

So why does Jesus request baptism, when he is not sinner and therefore not in need of forgiveness? Firstly, because Jesus identified with   humanity in every step of the human journey – and baptism is the start of our journey with God. Secondly, John the Baptist’s ministry was in a time of transition from the Old Testament/Covenant, whose sign of belonging to God’s family was circumcision, to the New Testament, whose sign and seal was baptism.  And Jesus was endorsing John’s ministry. And taking it forward.  For when John baptised Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and God affirmed him as his well-beloved Son. Full Christian baptism which came a little later would be not just in water but in the Spirit. John’s baptism was a sign of cleansing and forgiveness.  Christian baptism which was soon to replace it symbolised also the receiving of the Holy Spirit to empower Christians to live a new life.  And Jesus’ baptism modelled both cleansing from sin and receiving the Spirit.

We begin our Christian life with baptism.  The rite of baptism is profoundly symbolic.  It is a sign of cleansing and forgiveness and identification with Christ. Our self-centredness, our failure, our mess-up – call it what you like (Scripture calls it ‘sin’)- is symbolically washed away in the waters of baptism and we rise out of the waters to new life in Christ, identified with him, filled with his Spirit, equipped to live a new life.  Baptism is, as we all know, a sacrament and a sacrament is an outer sign of an inner reality and both must be united for it to be valid.  The outer sign is water, the inner reality is repentance and faith, which is what John called for. You know, religious words that have been used for centuries often accumulate a lot of unhelpful associations and consequently they lose their meaning.  ‘Repentance’ is one of those words. But the word ‘repent’ means simply ‘change your mind’. In the OT the idea of repentance is often expressed by such words as ‘turn’, ‘return’, as in rebellious subjects turning back to serve their king, or an unfaithful wife returning to her husband. Repentance is a turning FROM pleasing oneself and a turning TOWARDS God – the re-orientation of one’s whole life and personality towards God and his kingdom.

Now many of us were baptised as babies, so how can a baby do this?  Well, of course it can’t. Parents take the baptismal vows on its behalf.  When the child is old enough to understand and choose, it owns those baptismal vows for itself and confirms them or not, as the case may be.  The outward sign must correspond to an inward reality or it is of no effect.  Baptism is a sign and seal of our repentance, forgiveness and in-grafting into Christ. It is the beginning of a life committed to God.

Sometimes I think other religions understand the significance of Christian baptism better than the average Briton. In countries hostile to Christianity, they often don’t mind people discussing Christianity or even going to services, or having Christian friends but once a person asks for baptism, then persecution often begins.  For they understand the significance of baptism. It is about commitment, turning from past ways of serving other gods, to a life of obedience to Christ.  Sadly many people in post-Christian Britain have little understanding of the true meaning of baptism and superstitiously treat it like a kind of divine insurance policy just in case there is a God. What a travesty of the meaning of baptism!   Jesus modelled something different – baptism as the gateway to a committed life lived in response to God.

Now what exactly does that mean – a committed life lived in response to God? I think it will be different for each of us. I’ve discovered over the years that I can kid myself about my level of commitment to God, so it’s helpful to be specific and practical. Let’s look at 3 important areas of life: relationships, time and money.

First one: Relationships. The second great commandment after loving God is to love our neighbour as ourselves. And the parable of the good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbour is anyone who crosses our path.  Are we actively committed to helping the lonely, the troubled, the poor, the sick whom we come into contact with, or do we just look out for Number One?  Are we holding on to bitterness, anger, resentment towards anyone? The Lord’s prayer gives us a stern warning about unforgiveness. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.’ Jesus  returned to this point after giving the prayer, in order to underline it to his disciples. He said, ‘If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Unforgiveness is a deadly sin that poisons our relationships and deprives us of God’s forgiveness.

Second area: Time.  How do we spend our time?  We’ve all got an equal amount, you know.  Do we use it in activities that benefit others, that further the kingdom of God or do we fritter it away, television zapping, shopping, playing with the latest technological toy, or indulging our appetites for what’s new and pleasurable. How much time do we spend in prayer, that is in conversation with God, seeking his will and direction? As much time as we spend on our hobbies? How willing are we to commit to activities that require us to give time regularly and sacrificially to the work of the kingdom of God – such as teaching in Sunday school, helping in Crossover?  Nearly all of us are willing to do something helpful occasionally if it doesn’t inconvenience us too much or require us to make regular sacrifices.

Third area: Money.  This is another hot potato! How we spend our money.  Now if you’ve got barely enough, you may think this doesn’t concern you, but it does.   Because maybe you worry about money and not having enough, and Christ has a promise for you. He says in Matthew 7. Don’t worry about what you need, your heavenly father knows.  Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.’  Now, I haven’t been in this position myself, but I know several people who have and God has been faithful to his promise and provided for them in amazing ways.

We live in a consumer society where money is God. And it’s a rival God.  Jesus said, ‘You can’t serve God and Money. He said, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Deeply challenging words:  What occupies our thoughts most of the time? Is our treasure in Christ and his kingdom, or is it in what we can afford – our next purchase, our next luxury, our next holiday. How does what we spend on ourselves compare with what we give to further God’s work, what we give to charities which help the poor and needy?

I would suggest that these 3 areas – relationships, time and money- help us to face realistically the issue of our commitment to Christ.  In our post-modern society commitment to anything beyond the self and its fulfilment is counter-cultural.  Many people do things when it suits them, or when it benefits them, or when they enjoy them. Jesus challenges our culture and its values, for he calls his followers to die to self in order to be alive to God. The outcome of this is, paradoxically, peace, joy and fulfilment.  In fact, just what the world seeks but in the wrong places. It may seem a tall order, but he leads us gently and firmly. I don’t speak as someone who has got this all sorted.  I have on-going work to do in all these 3 areas. But this is what God calls us to. It would be very daunting if he did not also equips us for it. Jesus began his ministry at baptism in the power of the Spirit and with the wonderful experience of God’s affirming love. Those resources are available to us also through faith.  Jesus says to us, ‘Come, follow me!’