The Baptism of Christ
Sermon for Sunday January 8th, 2011
So a new Vicar goes to a church and chooses for his first sermon the text, Jesus’ words from John chapter 3 vs 7 ‘Do not be amazed that I say to you – you must be born again’. Well at the end of church the wardens and vestry were all very happy – it was they thought a very fine sermon and there were lots of smiles at the door
The following week, the new Vicar chose the same text – You must be born again. Well Vestry were a bit perplexed, but again it was a very fine sermon which they really appreciated and there were lots of ‘nice sermon Vicar’ as folk left the church.
The following week the Vicar’s text was . . . John 3:7 ‘You must be born again’ – well this time the Vestry were more than a little perplexed and called the Vicar to see them afterwards. ‘We really appreciate your preaching but Why do you keep preaching this same text?’ The Vicar looked them in the eye and said, ‘Because You must be born again!’
Well that salutary tale illustrates a couple of things for us this morning at the beginning of a new year. Firstly I think it is a Very good illustration of how the point of sermons is missed. A sermon may well be very well crafted, theologically correct and impeccably delivered – and yet still not heard. The Gospel reading and the sermon that follow are God’s Word to us and we need to be alert and ready to respond. I think it worth reflecting on the question. How often do I respond to what we hear? This is a question for us however old or young we are in Christian faith, for as we shall see, the Christian life is a life lived in response to God’s Speech to us
Well, the Vicar in the story could see a Spiritual need, a Great Spiritual need in his new congregation – they appreciated fine sermons but actually they were spiritually dead – they needed to be born from above, born again. It is a reminder to all of us that like the church in Sardis which the risen Christ Addresses, we can have the name of being alive but actually be dead – that it is not what others think of us a church that counts – the only Judge is the Risen and ascended one. And I think that this is a Very big challenge for us as a church which is outwardly successful – Christ looks and speaks to the hidden reality of the Heart of a church, what John calls the angel of the church and we need always to be Listening. ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’ we hear at the end of every lesson.
But secondly the story illustrates something which I myself will do. Just as the Vicar kept saying ‘You must be born again’ – so I will repeatedly emphasise the significance of our Baptism. In a very real sense every sermon Must be a working out of the implications of our Baptism. So if from time to time you are thinking ‘Why does he keep going on about Baptism?’ then the answer is that it is fundamental to our faith as Christians. It is the beginning, the Source. Everything else flows from our Baptism - for our Baptism is not the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance, of turning around to face and believe in the one who was coming after him. No, our baptism is a baptism into the name of the Lord, Jesus. Into his Very life.
Just before Christmas I was working with those folk who are getting confirmed or seeking to renew their baptism vows and in one session we explored Baptism and what it meant to be baptized in the name of Jesus. And one person said, and I think this a very sensible suggestion that because I was baptizing someone in the name of Jesus, I was doing it on behalf of Jesus. Because that is precisely how we understand those words, but this is not how our forebears in faith understood it. The Name of someone was understood to be synonymous with who they were – to mention the name of a person made them very truly present – One important reason amongst many why Gossip and the suchlike is frowned upon for to talk about someone was seen as being in someway making them present. I wonder if you’ve ever noticed how in Scripture plots about people and the like have a habit of being uncovered, as if the person was present – which of course they were for they had been named.
So to baptize in the name of Jesus is literally to be put into Jesus. St Paul puts this in Romans chapter 6 where he says we are baptized into the death of Christ – we have been buried with him by baptism into his death – so that just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we to might walk in newness of life. It is the most succinct teaching on Baptism in the whole of Scripture and utterly breathtaking. Thus I might speak on it again and again for how can we ever get into the depths of the implication of this that in our baptism we have been included in the death of Jesus and thus also his resurrection and that that has present implications for us.
We always teach on the baptism of Christ at the beginning of the year – it is Christ’s Own beginning – he enters the work his father has for Him at his baptism – you are my Son, my beloved. He enters into something Very New. We might very well say that at His Baptism Jesus himself is Born from Above – The Holy Spirit Descends upon him – and he is the one who himself ‘will baptize with the Holy Spirit – He gives the Life that is in Him to those who are baptized in his name.
We read from the beginning of Genesis at this time not because it is the start of a new year, but to remind us of the original Creation, for the Resurrection of Jesus ushers in the New Creation and we are baptized into this new life.
It is I think a commonplace to understand Christian faith as being about second chances – about forgiveness – and a new start. And in a sense this is right. It is about a new start, new beginnings, but not merely having a go at the same old life we had before. Some folk say something along the lines of Christians aren’t any different to anyone else, we’re just forgiven! Well that really isn’t doing the reality of what is happening justice. Yes, there is great power humanly speaking in forgiveness – when we forgive we not merely set others free, we are ourselves set free – but anyone who has tried to genuinely forgive will know that it seems all but impossible. People stand amazed when say for example the family of someone who is murdered stands up and publicly forgives the murderer – there is something other worldly about it. ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
In other words we need something outside of ourselves to truly live out this Christian life, because the Christian life is not first and foremost Our Life, it is His Life in us. And His life is a moment by moment response to the Voice of his Father in heaven
At His baptism Jesus receives the Holy Spirit – immediately we see him living in response to it as the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to learn as it were the discipline of a life responding to god, that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
This is the profound meaning of our Baptism – a life lived in ever closer response to the Word of God
In the beginning God said – the Creation of which we are part knows this all to well – as St Paul says, all creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God – those who like the creation respond to His Word
I’ll finish with a few words about the Psalms – we don’t use them in our worship and I think that perhaps needs to be addressed – they are as many folk have pointed out both the words of people and the words of God – if you need to learn how to pray then the Psalms are great teachers - Our Psalm set today is Psalm 29
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
A beautiful vision of Creation living in response to the word of God – when I hear this I think of a dance – it is as if Creation is Dancing in Joy, ecstatic rapture in response to the Voice of God. In our Baptism – we are ushered onto that same dance floor – to be born again from above and to learn the Life that is the eternal Dance of God – a Dance of response to His Voice, to His Word, to His Life made present to us in Jesus, the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.