Genesis 1.1-5, Mark 1.4-11
Today is the Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. I want us to consider Jesus’ baptism, but also our own baptism. Baptism is a big topic. Both Jesus’ baptism and ours are rich in symbolic meaning. I can only touch on some aspects of baptism this morning. I hope you might want to make your own journey of discovery and uncover more layers for yourself.
We were enjoying a post Christmas break in Devon when news broke about the ship carrying Syrian refugees being abandoned by their crew in the Mediterranean and then towed to safety by the Italians. A ship crammed with needy, desperate people. I found myself wondering what it would it be like for us if instead of watching at a distance via the TV in our comfortable room we were suddenly air lifted into the midst of all those people; we were there on the boat with them, sharing their dangerous journey. What would that be like? Or suppose the refugees’ leaky, worn boat becomes a metaphor for our planet at present, ever more fragile as we burn more fossil fuel and destroy our ancient rainforests, accelerating global warming. What would it be like for us to find ourselves in a village in Bangladesh flooded as sea levels rise because of global warming?
On the whole we human beings are programmed quite sensibly to live within our comfort zones; so we would be unlikely to choose to do either of the above.
But as we turn our attention to Jesus’ baptism we discover that this is exactly what God does. Let’s picture the scene; we know from Mark’s account which has just been read to us that there were many people around – they had come from Jerusalem and the whole of Judaea. These were not individual baptisms as we do them in church, but an invitation to all those listening to enter the water when they were ready as a sign that they wanted to be washed of all wrongdoing and so be ready for God doing something. Paintings of Jesus baptism usually focus on the moment when he hears God speaking to him so he is seen just with John the Baptist and perhaps an angel or two. There would however have been lots of other people in the river with him at that moment. He would have gone down into the water with everyone else, going under the water and then coming up again and climbing out of the river with everyone else. It’s a clear picture of Jesus identifying with his people, with us; jumping into our leaky boat if you like, becoming one of us. There may be another subtle indication of this immersion in our life in what happens immediately after his baptism – Mark says that the spirit drove (GNB translation ‘made’ doesn’t convey the force of the Greek ekballo lit ‘threw out’) Jesus into the wilderness. Are there perhaps echoes of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall? After an ecstatic experience of intense union with God as his beloved son, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, experiencing that separation or alienation/lostness that is a feature of being human.
So, one of the layers of meaning in Jesus baptism is that he is joining us, he is one of us.
Another is in what is happening when Jesus comes up out of the water. And the clue to this lies in our reading from Genesis. There we heard that at the very beginning before anything was created, when there was just a watery chaos, the Spirit was moving over the water. As it did so the process of creation began. Life began. Here at Jesus’ baptism there is water again and the spirit too. Mark uses quite a violent word to describe the spirit coming upon Jesus. He says, literally, the heavens were ‘torn apart’, as the spirit descended on Jesus. Almost as though heaven is breaking into earth. A new creation is beginning with Jesus’ arrival. Earth will not be the same again.
So, two layers of meaning – baptism signifying Jesus’ identification with us and then the start of a new world order. Heaven is touching earth.
What about our baptism, Christian baptism?
It’s different from John’s baptism. John only offered baptism as a sign of repentance and being washed from what was wrong in our lives. We know it’s different from an incident in the book of Acts (Acts 19.1-7). Paul was in Ephesus where he meets some believers and asks them whether they had received the Holy Spirit. They say they have never heard of the Holy Spirit, so Paul asks them what kind of baptism they have received. The baptism of John, they reply. So Paul places his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit (note that they are not baptized again – baptism only happens once). They then speak in tongues and prophesy.
So, Christian baptism involves the Holy Spirit; and this is very clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. John says that the one coming after him will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. We then see what that meant for Jesus himself – the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and – this is the crucial part – Jesus hears a voice telling him that he is God’s beloved son and that he is pleased with him. This identity as God’s beloved son or daughter is what we inherit through baptism. It is what has been won for us through Jesus’ identification with us at his baptism and though all that follows in his life, death and resurrection. Through baptism we are re created as God’s beloved son or daughter and he tells us he is ‘well-pleased’ (I love this South London way of expressing it!) with us. Everything in our Christian life stems from this relationship. It is our bedrock. Like any relationship it has its ups and downs and it develops over time. Our awareness of God’s delight in us and in others can take time to develop. it will be challenged. We may find ourselves living quite often from a very different place in ourselves. but essentially the work of the Holy Spirit is to do with establishing that new relationship and living from it. It’s about being first of all, being in a relationship.
From that stems the other major aspect of baptism – we have a call to live out that relationship in the particular circumstances of our lives. when Paul places his hands on the believers in Ephesus they speak in tongues and then they declare God’s message (they ‘prophesy’). They speak into the specific context in which they ar eliving – not a sort of abstract quoting from the bible addressed to no one in particular. They are good news and they speak good news and it will relate to what is going on around them.
We may not be airlifted on to one of those boats carrying refuges, nor find ourselves in a flooded village in Bangladesh; none of us, I guess, witnessed in person the terrible events in Paris this week. However, our sharing in Christ’s baptism means that we are drawn into his identification with the suffering of humanity and the fragile earth on which our life depends. We are part of it. And we don’t despair. And we don’t despair when we face challenges in our own lives. We are hope bearers. We know that new creation is possible. We know this because we ourselves are being re created; through baptism we have a new and growing identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.
Invitation As you leave church this morning splash some water from the font on to your forehead as reminder of baptism and take a slip of paper containing God’s promise to you. Carry this out into whatever lies ahead of you this week.