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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Luke's baptism of Jesus

Texts:  Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  You will remember, in Luke’s story, that John went out from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness.  There he took the pose and demeanour of an Old Testament prophet, preaching apocalyptic sermons about the coming of God’s judgment upon a wicked and adulterous generation.  You will remember that he looked for a day in which God’s anointed would arise to accomplish God’s purposes.  “I baptise you with water,” said John, “but one is coming after me who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Luke saw John’s baptism as a kind of shadow or figure of that more terrible baptism to come.  By being baptised in water, the penitent could prepare themselves for the judgement day; having been purified of sin, he or she could face the coming deluge with a certain amount of hope.  In the baptismal practise of John, then, the primary actors are the penitent (who repents of their sins), and the prophet (who baptises).  

The baptism of Jesus is somewhat different, however.  There is no trace in the gospel accounts of a penitent Jesus, especially not in Luke.  In fact, Luke goes to great lengths in the previous chapter to establish that Jesus already enjoys God’s favour (2.40, 52), and is therefore not a sinner who is called to repent or be baptised in the sense established by John.  Neither do the gospel accounts consider the agency of John in the baptism to be of especial significance.  Luke, indeed, leaves him out altogether.  He is present at the scene by implication only.  So, if the baptism of Jesus is not a baptism of repentance, what is it?  It is two things, I think.  It is fist a unique sealing of the relationship between Jesus and the two other Trinitarian figures—Father and Spirit—a relationship characterizes by filial love, blessing and mutual empowerment.  And it is, second, a modelling of what baptism must signify for all who are baptised “into Christ”, as the liturgy has put it since the first Christian century.  Let us look at each of these meanings in turn, and then consider what their importance might be for ourselves, we who meet here tonight.

The scene of Christ’s baptism is rightly regarded as a key source for any genuinely Christian understanding of God.  For in this baptism we are given a small insight into the nature of a God who is otherwise rather mysterious.   There we find that our God is a Father, who has a Son, and that the two are related to one another through the agency of a Spirit who embodies both hope and a mission of love.  The baptism passage is rich with a symbolism which is not so readily understood these days, so allow me to spell it out a little. 

First, when we read that the Spirit descended upon the baptised Jesus in the form of a dove, we are meant to recall a story from the Hebrew Bible.  In the story of Noah, God decides to destroy the earth with a flood because human beings had become wicked beyond belief.  So God places Noah, the only righteous one to be found, with his family and many animals in a huge boat which is able to ride out the deluge.  When the sun comes out, Noah sends out a dove.  When it returns to him with an olive branch, he knows that the waters are beginning to subside and they are saved.  In Jewish tradition, then, the dove became a symbol of God’s salvation from disaster and calamity.  The appearing of a dove meant that the difficult times were nearly at an end, and that the new day would soon appear.  In the context of Jesus’ baptism, Luke therefore wants us to understand that the Spirit has come to Jesus as a sign and promise that all will be well, even though his life will be like being swept away in a deluge of water and fire.  This is a message that Jesus really needed to hear, because he was about to be swept up in the fear and hatred of both Jew and Gentile authorities!  

Furthermore, when the Spirit comes and the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, Luke’s hearers would have been reminded of that cycle of oracles in the book of the prophet Isaiah often called the Servant Songs. There God promises an Anointed One, a messiah, who will save the people from their sins, and from the oppression of their enemies, though not without pain, suffering, and terrible loss to the Servant’s own self.  When Jesus receives the Spirit and hears the voice from heaven, Luke wants us to understand that he is being given an identity and a vocation in life which stands in the tradition of the Servant from Isaiah.  The Spirit comes to empower him for his messianic mission.  The voice resounds to confirm him in his identity as a Son specially beloved by his Father, a Son encouraged to remain in that love no matter how difficult the road ahead may be.  The story of the baptism is therefore rich with images which establish both the identity of Jesus in God, and the vocation and mission to which he is called: to save the world from itself.

Which leads us to the second purpose for which Luke apparently intended the story of Jesus’ baptism, namely, that it should become a model and a paradigm for every Christian baptism.  Now, when I say that, I’m not only talking about ceremonies and rituals, although I certainly mean those things as well.  Since the second century most of the church (the ‘free’ churches are an unfortunate exception) has included prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit as an essential part of every baptismal celebration.  Here the Spirit is called upon to gift the newly baptised person with a new identity and purpose in Christ, and to enable that person to carry out their mission only in the power which the Spirit is able to give.  Most traditional baptismal liturgies rightly conceive of baptism as a ritual which symbolises far more than the moment of getting wet itself.  They understand (with Luke and Paul) that Christ’s baptism was a shorthand way of talking about the life, the death, and the resurrection he was to undergo after he was baptised.  In a similar manner, the traditional liturgies understand that every Christian baptism is a participation in Christ’s own baptism, that is, his life, his death, and his resurrection.  Every baptised Christian is therefore called to find themselves by losing themselves, to plunge themselves so totally into Christ’s messianic journey, that nothing of the old self remains at the end of it all except what belongs to Christ.  The traditional liturgies understand that baptism is life, and that to live is to live from Christ, in Christ, and for Christ, and to do so in the power of his Spirit.  With Luke and Paul, these liturgies therefore encourage us to think about salvation—the redemption of our bodies, minds and spirits—as entirely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God in Christ.  Only by joining ourselves to Christ, both ritually and ‘really,’ can we ever pretend to a sure and certain hope that is free from illusion and wishful thinking.

We so we come full circle.  I began by pointing out the difference between John’s baptism and the baptism of Christ.  The first emphasises the will for repentance in the soul of the baptised, while the second emphasises the mercy and love of God.  Of course, both are necessary for Christian baptism.  But the second is infinitely more important.  Without a consciousness that one will be saved because of God’s unconditional love alone, penitence could easily take on the aura of a good work which can performed in order to secure God’s favour.  Even baptism itself can take on that flavour sometimes, and I think that this is especially the case in churches where the traditional liturgical forms have been abandoned.  Such churches forget that we are saved from our despairs and our fears only because God has called us by name and promised to persevere in mercy towards us even through the very worst that life can dish out for us.  Such churches often revert to the baptism of John, which tried to immunise the penitent from judgement through an act of the human will.  

It is not the human will that will save us, though.  Which one of us can honestly say that we might save ourselves from ourselves by an act of our wills?  I couldn’t even stick to a diet, let alone a programme of spiritual formation!  No, you, like me and everyone else, ultimately depend upon the mercy and love of God to which this baptism of Jesus bears witness.  In baptism he sought to submit himself, utterly, to the destiny and vocation he could never have generated on his own.  Only by a similar submission to God, only by allowing Christ to live out his baptismal life in us and for us, do any of us have even the twinkle of a hope.  Only by believing that God loves us, and will never abandon us to the futility of our own intelligence or will, do any of stand a chance of surviving the deluge which is life itself, or, indeed, the apocalyptic deluge to come.  I thank Christ that it is so! 

This sermon was preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church on the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in January 2004.

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