Anglican Church of Canada
Baptism of Christ January 11, 2015
Acts 19:1-7 / Mark 1:4-11
We begin the Epiphany season down by the river. We pick up where we left off just before Christmas, with John the Baptist – and now a new figure appears on the scene. Jesus comes to be baptised by John, joins the crowd, gets in line. He steps into the water like everyone else. The heavens open, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice comes from heaven: you are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.
No wonder this is a key story for the Epiphany season, when we reflect on the shining forth of Christ in this world. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is the key Epiphany story, much more important than the three kings. In Russian, for example, it seems the word for the Feast of the Epiphany is quite simply “Baptism”.
Hearing this story, it strikes me how different this account is from our own experience of baptism – for most of us, anyway. Think of your own baptism, for a moment. Well, that’s just it, isn’t it: most of us don’t remember our own baptism. We can only imagine. Perhaps it was in a church we know well; or perhaps a place we have not revisited since our childhood. A simple wooden font, perhaps; the dim church air, the scent of wood polish and a century of prayer. A priest in cassock and surplice, the trickle of water from a silver shell. It all seems such a long way from the glaring sun and the sweating crowd beside the Jordan, the wading into the cool brown water. It scarcely feels like the same thing at all.
I’m guessing that when you were baptised no one saw a dove descending from heaven, there was no booming voice that parted the clouds. After all, none of us is the only begotten Son of God. Why should we be called the Beloved? Are we to believe that the same Spirit rested on us? It just doesn’t feel like the same thing at all.
It is strange about the role that the Spirit plays in the Gospels. Sure, we confess with the creed that Father and Son and Spirit are One, mutually and eternally intertwined in the Trinity. But when it comes to the accounts of the earthly life of Jesus in the New Testament, we only catch glimpses of the Spirit. It is as though the Spirit hovers over the life of Jesus, only touching down at a few key moments:
• a couple of weeks back, we read of the Annunciation: that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit as the Son of God;
• today we hear again of the Spirit descending in his baptism;
• a few weeks from now we will end the Epiphany season with the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus is revealed in heavenly glory;
• and then there is the resurrection, when by the power of the Spirit Christ is raised from the dead.
Looked at in this way, we see that the baptism is one of the few key events in Jesus’s life: the moment when the Spirit rests upon him, when he is affirmed as God’s beloved son, when he is equipped or anointed or commissioned for his ministry.
Jesus himself seems to confirm that this is what his baptism was about – at least in Luke’s account. You remember what happens next. First he is driven (by the Spirit!) into the wilderness to be tempted. Then he returns, according to Luke, to his hometown, enters the synagogue, opens the scroll of the Scriptures to the prophet Isaiah, and begins his ministry with what words? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor . . . release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And so, as the Bible does so wonderfully, the tapestry of promises and echos and images is woven so tightly and intricately, weaving together Jesus’s life with the ancient longings and hopes of his people.
But, this is not just about Jesus, this feast of the Baptism of our Lord. It is also about us, about our baptism and our lives as Christians. This intricate tapestry of texts, this weaving together of the promises of Isaiah and the life of Jesus, is not something we should just admire from the outside, like a picture hanging in a gallery. We are part of it too. Not only Isaiah and Jesus, but we too are woven into this same pattern of symbol and promise.
I spoke earlier about how different our experience of baptism seems from Jesus and John at the Jordan. But as different as the setting and the feeling may be, at its core it is the same story. Our baptism is not a different kind of baptism. It is not, for example, all about forgiveness of sins. It is that too, but that is not really what it is all about, as the rather strange little story from the book of Acts that was our second reading makes clear. Our baptism is not an empty ceremony or “merely symbolic”. It is certainly not about having the kid done to please the grandparents! It is about sharing in the baptism of Jesus, so that this story becomes our story.
When you were baptised, there may not have been a voice from heaven, at least not one that anyone heard out loud. But nonetheless the words that were spoken that day by the Jordan are spoken also for you, through your baptism and again and again in your life of faith: “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.
Yes, we may want to say, but I’m not Jesus, he really was the Son of God. Well, yes, he was born the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But it was by the same Spirit that we have become the children of God in baptism. As St. Paul says: we have received the Spirit of adoption, and so we too call God Abba, Father. We are adopted children. But as adopted children, we are really sons and daughters of God. Like a good parent, God does not distinguish between his children, but loves each of us equally and individually. So it’s not just about Jesus. These words are spoken for you, too, and for me: “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.
And just like with Jesus, in our baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon each one of us, too. This is not just a figure of speech, not just a theological abstraction. It is a sober fact: God laid his Spirit upon us in baptism; God dwells within us as the Spirit.
This is hard for us to credit fully. And to be honest, we generally don’t experience it very often. We know ourselves too well, or we think we do, anyway, know our limitations, know how unspiritual we are, that it’s hard to believe we carry God’s Spirit within us as a gift received in baptism. But it is a matter of core faith, that we do. I wish the Nicene Creed were a bit more specific on this question.
As the Spirit is ours, so too the ministry and work of Jesus is ours as well. The Spirit came upon Jesus in order to equip him to do this work. But it’s not just a family business: “God and Son, Salvation since the Βeginning of Time.” God’s stock has gone public; and in baptism we have become shareholders. And so the promises and commission of Isaiah are ours as well. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – that is, you and me – because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor . . . release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Now how is that supposed to work? I’m not Jesus, I can’t do that, I don’t know nothing about cleansing lepers! Well God knows that, God doesn’t expect us to be Jesus. God expects each of us to be the individual he created and called. We are empowered by the same Spirit, but we share our own particular gifts, to do our part as God’s chosen servants.
It is one of the great scandals of Christian life that our baptism is so unreal to us. We don’t remember it, most of us; we may not even often think of it. We know we are loved by God – we say so, hopefully every Sunday, when we gather here. But that knowledge can sometimes feel a bit abstract. How we long for that clear and powerful voice from heaven, “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.
We know (theoretically, at least) that we have received the gift of the Spirit. Yet even in Jesus’s life the Spirit came clearly into view only occasionally. How can we be more attentive to those moments in our own lives?
We know we are called to the ministry of Christ, if for no other reason than you have heard countless sermons about it. And yet we can often feel so helpless: the needs and the lostless of this world are so big, and we feel so powerless and insignificant. What we can do is try to trust more to the Spirit moving in our hearts, pay attention to compassion, and let the rest follow from that.
And we can remember our baptism. Martin Luther speaks of the Christian life as a daily crawling back into our baptism. I love that image, it has been helpful to me over the years. Each morning, as we prepare to face the challenges of the day, and each evening, as we return sometimes a bit beaten up by what life has thrown at us, we crawl back into our baptism, to the refreshment and assurance and love of those waters. Remember that you are baptised. Speak those words to yourself again, those words that were spoken by that mighty inaudible voice at your baptism, spoken once and for all over your life and your being, say them to yourself again and again and listen to them: “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.