Introduction and Call to Worship
Isaiah tells us that God calls God’s sons and daughters by name from the ends of the earth. Today we come together in response to that call, joining in worship, prayer and praise with generations of Christians as we reflect upon our Lord’s Baptism and our call to be born again.
First Reading Isaiah 43:1-7
The prophet assures the people that they belong to God, who will accompany them through fire and water. The people are precious, honoured and loved in the sight of God, and God will gather them from all corners of the earth.
Second Reading Acts 8:14-17
The people of Samaria have accepted the word of God and been baptised in the name of Jesus. Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to lay hands on them, so that they also receive the Holy Spirit.
Gospel Luke 3:15-17. 21-22
When people mistake him for the Messiah, John confronts them, telling them that the more powerful one is coming to baptise them with the Holy Spirit and fire. After Jesus’ baptism the heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved”.
Jesus, the most perfect sacrifice, did not need to be baptised. Yet he asked his cousin John to baptise him in front of the crowds that had gathered. Why? Like many people, I seem to have had the lurgy over Christmas. And it lingered. Sore throat, coughing, headaches – delightful! And remember that old saying, starve a fever, feed a cold. Well, I certainly made sure that cold was fed over Christmas!
There can be a lot of truths in those old proverbs. Who could argue with “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness”? And whoever came up with “More Haste, Less Speed” has obviously not experienced rush hour on the M25. And what about this one: Cleanliness is next to….? Religion and cleanliness have long been connected, from Hindus bathing in the Ganges to ritual washing before prayers in mosques. In the Old Testament, the Written Law (or the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) provides a fascinating insight into how the early Jewish communities dealt with all aspects of domestic life, from what clothing could be worn, how crops should be grown, working hours, marriage, children…and of course bathing and cleanliness.
That is why, I suspect, forty days had to pass before Jesus could be presented at the Temple by Mary and Joseph: forty days during which the mother and father would have been unclean. A law probably designed to prevent infection and the spread of disease... In Judaism, the Mikva, was a full immersion in water. Clean water was precious and ritual bathing was very much part of the Temple experience.
So, on the face of it, John baptising with water wasn’t radically different to Jewish custom. Or was it?
During Advent we read from Luke 3: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah.” (Luke 3:1)
John the Baptist went out proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism was about purifying the soul rather than the bodily purity achieved through ritual bathing in the Jewish traditions. John was effectively drawing a line in the sand between the old and what was to come. Each Gospel writer takes a different perspective on the Baptism of Christ. Luke’s Gospel was written for instruction in early Christian households – house churches – and has a specific theme around salvation: what we must do to be saved. He therefore emphasises this link between God’s instructions to John, the need for repentance, and baptism. A person being baptised by John had recognised their sin and repented for it. And that leads us to the question I posed at the beginning. Why did Jesus get baptised? Read the Gospel again – even John was amazed that Jesus would want to be baptised by him. John recognised in Jesus one that had no sin. And remember, they were no strangers – they were cousins who would have known each other. Yet Jesus asked John to perform the baptism. To make sense of this it’s helpful to think about John and his role in Christ’s ministry. The music David, our organist, played just before the service was “This is the record of John”, a verse-anthem by Orlando Gibbons. It is a beautiful piece. The libretto has the priests and Levites asking John who he is: “Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” John was fulfilling the words written in the book of Isaiah: preparing the way of the Lord. We read in Matthew that one of the reasons King Herod was reluctant to take John’s life was because he was seen as a prophet. Given his appearance and solitary lifestyle it’s likely that many will have thought John to be Elijah. In Luke 1, the Angel revealed John’s destiny to his father, Zechariah: “And he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the LORD."
So John’s authority and credibility endorsed Christ’s baptism. The crowds would have witnessed John’s recognition of Christ, Messiah, and the Spirit laying upon him, and therefore known John’s words to be true. In today’s reading we see John tell those questioning him that the Messiah will baptise with fire. John’s ministry was about preparing people for Jesus, that inner purity through repentance. Jesus’ baptism was as a visual sign. John had to recognise Jesus as Messiah in order to fulfil those Old Testament prophecies. It had to be public. In all four Gospels we get that very clear message from God, the Spirit descending, that Jesus is the “Son, the Beloved”. Thus Jesus’ authority is made explicit through the baptism. I think there is a further reason for this public baptism…and it’s dark! Luke specified that John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were of the Aaronic priestly line – the ancient tribe of Levi. One of the duties of the priests in the Old Testament was to present the sacrifices before the Lord. John’s baptism of Jesus could be a priestly presentation of that Perfect Sacrifice. According to one commentator, John’s words the day after the baptism have a decidedly priestly air: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Some traditions, those that practise full immersion baptism, will see this link between dying to sin and rising in newness. By being completely immersed, one is buried in the water, rising baptised in new life. I’m not sure we should be asking Fr Damian to get out his paddling pool quite yet though. Through his baptism we also see Christ’s humanity. The late Billy Graham noted “Jesus took upon Himself your sins and my sins, and the sins of the whole human race”. Just as He didn’t have to die, so He didn’t have to be baptised — until He became the bearer of all our sins. This He did by coming to earth for us.
Jesus identified with sinners. His ministry reached thieves, prostitutes, fraudsters. His baptism symbolized the sinner’s baptism into the righteousness of Christ, dying with Him and rising free from sin and able to walk in the newness of life. In today’s readings we see at least three different perspectives on baptism. We see John baptise those repenting of their sins. We see him tell of how Jesus will baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus’ baptism we first see the Trinity. We see the Father naming the Son and then the Holy Spirit descending. We see Christ’s divinity. In our second reading today (Acts 8:14–17, a book attributed to the same author as Luke’s Gospel) we see the apostles baptise in Jesus’ name. Our own baptismal services use the phrase “baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. So what does baptism mean for us now? If you look on the Church of England’s “Christening” website – the words “christening” and “baptism” are used interchangeably. It’s about loving parents and godparents; it’s about Christian values and promises made on a child’s behalf. It’s also about hats and parties and life events… The site doesn’t actually tell you what it’s all about! For that, we must turn to those wonderful black books found at the back of the seat in front of you! If you turn to the back you’ll see the “39 Articles of Religion” – each expressing a belief of the Church of England, set out under Elizabeth I and Charles I respectively, and still our beliefs today. Article 27 – of baptism – says that baptism is a mark of difference, discerning Christians from those not christened. It is a sign of regeneration, new birth. It is an instrument that “binds the Church to us, promises the forgiveness of sins, our adoption to be sons of the Holy Ghost, and Grace increased through prayer”. This is what we are seeing in today’s Gospel. The Baptism of Christ brings together and fulfils prophecies of the Old Testament. It is about a new beginning as Christ’s ministry sets out this new covenant with us: our sins redeemed through his perfect sacrifice. Baptism is an outward sign of our inner repentance and our salvation through Christ Jesus. And this is the commitment we make as a Church community – the second Mark of Mission in the Anglican Communion – to teach, baptise and nurture new believers. Through his baptism both Christ’s divinity and humanity are revealed: the Trinity; His sacrifice. Through our baptism, Christ shares our humanity, walking with us as we become God’s children, cherished, forgiven, redeemed. Amen.
John draws a line in the sand between Jewish cleanliness rituals and baptism as repentance of sins.
Christ was sin free. Why was he baptised?
Christ demonstrates his divinity and humanity through baptism.
We share with Christ in baptism.
Our baptism is about our relationship with Christ and his Church.