St Barnabas and St Michael’s 13th January 2013
Reading – Luke 3:15-22
It’s amazing what you can find out on the Internet. This week I learnt there are approximately – well how many different Christian denominations do you think there are in the world today? The best guess is that there are approximately 33,000. Of these some 22,000 are independent, 9,000 are Protestant, 1600 are cults and sects, 781 are Orthodox, 242 are Roman Catholic and 168 are Anglican. But that’s a rough estimate. The precise figure may in fact never be known. Churches come together, split or start up afresh at a dizzying pace. It only takes a charismatic leader, some willing followers and a title no-one else has used and hey presto! a new denomination is born. As this Thursday the week of Christian Unity gets underway, we might want to pause and consider what the Lord makes of all this.
Because it seems to me that we have gone a long, long way from Paul’s teaching in our first reading that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. If each denomination was simply a slightly different local expression of the same faith, that would be OK. I don’t think God ever called us to worship in exactly the same way no matter what our culture or background or language. But the divisions run much deeper than that. Even on the fundamentals Christians seem so often unable to agree, and then we wonder why we are not making the impact we all hope and pray for.
Take, for example, the question of baptism. Most, but not all, denominations practice baptism and recognise it’s important. But what that baptism represents – well, that’s quite a different issue. Some see baptism as about expressing a personal faith. Some see baptism as a means of joining the church. Some see baptism as a commitment to raise children within the promises of God. And then we wonder why folk who enquire about baptism appear to have such a little grasp of what they are asking for. If we ourselves are unsure about baptism and what it represents, we can hardly blame others if they seem to have missed the point.
So today I want to go back to the life of Jesus to remind us what baptism is really all about, and why it should make a difference to our lives, and there are three questions I am going to try and answer:
First of all, who came up with the idea of baptism and why?
Secondly, why was Jesus baptised?
Thirdly, why are we baptised today?
So first of all, who came up with the idea of baptism and why?
You can find the answer to that question in our reading this morning from Luke’s gospel. Now we didn’t hear the whole of chapter 3, but if you started at the beginning you would see that baptism started with John, the cousin of Jesus. It was why he ended up being called John the Baptist, or if you want to translate that into English, John the Dunker. You see, he knew that God would soon come to His people and he wanted to warn them that they needed to be ready.
So to fulfil an ancient prophecy found in the book of Isaiah, he went out into the desert and told people to leave their old ways of living. He told rich people to give their spare clothes to the poor. He told the tax collectors to stop collecting more money than they were supposed to. He told soldiers to be content with the wages they earned. And he challenged them that if they were really sorry, they should go down with him into the River Jordan and be baptised – which, as I’ve already hinted, is only the Greek word for being dunked. That dunking was a sign that you wanted God to wash you clean and that you were willing to lead a new kind of life where you sought to obey God’s law.
And that is how baptism came about. It was a response to the word of God. It was a public act of saying sorry. It was a commitment to change your ways, and to turn back to the Lord. Although, as we shall see in a moment, Jesus gave added meaning to the act of baptism, these three things still lie at the heart of baptism today – conviction that you are sinner, confession that you need to change, and commitment to follow the Lord more closely.
So if this is what baptism is all about, why was Jesus baptised?
After all, if you think about it, Jesus was the perfect Son of God. He never did anything wrong. He had no sins to confess. He did not need to be made clean. So why did Jesus decide to be baptised? If baptism is about seeing that you need to change, and doing something about it, it might seem at first sight quite odd that Jesus let Himself be baptised by His cousin John.
So let me suggest to you three reasons why he ended up in the river Jordan.
First of all, Jesus wanted to show he identified with ordinary people. Yes, He lived a perfect life and, yes, He never did anything wrong. But it strikes you when you read the gospels that He never went round claiming to be better than other people. After all, most people do not need to be told they are imperfect, that there have been times when they have made a real mess of things. They need to know that despite everything God is still on their side, that God hasn’t given up on them.
And that was the message Jesus was giving out by being baptised. Here was God in human form quite literally coming down to our level, to be one of us and to live among us. It’s what Luke is hinting at when he says: When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. Jesus came not to condemn us, but to stand among us and allow Himself to be counted as one of us. And when you realise that fact about His baptism, you are well on your way to understanding the depth of God’s love for you, in spite of all your faults and failings and sin.
But there’s more. Because secondly, Jesus wanted to show how willing He was to do what His Heavenly Father told Him to do. Although He had been with the Father from the beginning of time, although He occupied a position of all splendour and majesty, He was prepared to lay everything aside to come and save us. Why? Because this was the only way we could be saved. It was the Father’s plan to rescue us, and even though in the end it would cost Jesus His very life upon the cross, Jesus was willing to carry it out.
You might even say that as Jesus was being held under the water for a few brief moments, His action in some way pointed forward to the time when for three days Jesus would be given over to death for our sake. You may remember from our recent sermon series that in Romans 6 Paul quite clearly links our baptism with the death of Jesus, and maybe some of you might look that passage up later. But for now, the point I want to make is that Jesus’ baptism reminds us of the lengths He was prepared to go to save us, out of love for His Heavenly Father. It’s little wonder, that as Luke reports: a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
So Jesus was baptised in order to show His love for us, and to show His love for His Heavenly Father. But how does His baptism affect us? Well, the third reason why Jesus was baptised was to point us to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
You see, while John’s baptism carried a powerful message about wanting to live a new life, the water in the river Jordan couldn’t actually change anything. While you might want to change your ways, while you might want to stop being greedy or violent or selfish, the act of being dunked couldn’t touch the desires of your heart. You were still essentially the same person.
John knew that. That’s why when he talked about the coming of Jesus, he said how He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And just in case anyone was in any doubt Jesus was the person John was talking about, Luke takes care to record how when Jesus was being baptised the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.
You see, Jesus didn’t come just to give us a wonderful example of love. Jesus came to change us from the inside out. If you are willing to believe and trust in Him, then He will come and live in your heart, to help you become more like Him, to give you the strength to change you ways, to strengthen you to do what God wants you to do.
And I hope it goes without saying, but at the end of the day receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is far more important than any religious ceremony, or any form of church service, or any kind of ritual. As a church we get so hung up on using the right words, or making sure everything conforms to the right liturgy, and I guess those things are important. But nothing is more important than knowing Jesus personally and having His Holy Spirit living in your heart. You see, Jesus didn’t come to give us religion. He came to give us a living faith. That is the bottom line of Christianity. And yet I look at some of the religious practices of our churches, and wonder if they have grasped this most essential of all points.
So if this is the case, why are we baptised today?
The short answer is because Jesus commanded us to be baptised. Right at the end of his earthly ministry Jesus gave his followers these instructions: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
But I want you to notice where this command to baptise fits in. First of all, it comes after the making of disciples. This tells us that baptism is a public proclamation that this person has now become a follower of Jesus. Just like the crowds who heard John’s preaching, she has been convicted by the word of God, she has confessed her need to change, and she has committed herself to following the Lord more closely.
But baptism is not the end of the story. Because after baptism comes the bit about learning to obey everything Jesus has commanded you. As I think I’ve already made clear, this doesn’t mean learning to become all religious. It’s about learning what Jesus wants of your life, by reading the Bible, by praying, by meeting together for worship. It’s about learning to listen to the Holy Spirit leading and guiding you day by day. And it’s about learning to trust in the eternal love of God who promises to be with us to the very end of the age.
So let’s sum up where we have got to this morning:
Who came up with the idea of baptism and why? The answer, as we have seen, is John the Baptist. It was a response to the word of God. It was a public act of saying sorry. It was a commitment to change your ways, and to turn back to the Lord.
Why was Jesus baptised? To show how much He loves us. To show much He loves His Heavenly Father. To point us to the life-changing gift of the Holy Spirit.
Why are we baptised today? To show that we have become followers of Jesus. To show you are willing to learn what Jesus wants of your life. To trust in God’s eternal love for you.
So the question is, are you willing to take the plunge? Maybe there’s someone here today who has never been baptised, never thought how much Jesus loves them. I’d love you to come forward today at the end of the service and tell me you’ll like to make a commitment. Maybe you were baptised as a child but have never had a chance to declare your faith for yourself. Talk to me about what it means to be confirmed. We have Bishop John coming to St Michael’s in September and it would be great for him to confirm you.
And for all of us, at the start of a New Year, reflect on what it means to say “Yes” to Jesus. Because baptism, as I’ve already said, is only the beginning. Now let’s go out there and tell others of a God who loves us, of Jesus who gave Himself for us all, of the Holy Spirit who changes lives today, so that others too may come in faith to be baptised and hear God speaking to them those wonderful words: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”