Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord , 7 January 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 7th January 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

TWO UNUSUAL BAPTISMS

 (1 Samuel 19:1-18; Psalm 59; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11)

Baptisms can be memorable occasions. Few of us will remember our own baptisms, but we may remember the baptisms of our children or grandchildren, or other family members or friends. We may remember a particular baptism because something happened: a really noisy baby, or something unexpected, or perhaps because it took place at a swimming pool or beach, as sometimes happens nowadays.

Our New Testament readings today tell us about two baptisms which were certainly unusual, both of them baptisms connected in different ways with John the Baptist. And as we think about them, it might be worthwhile to keep in mind some questions which baptism brings into focus. Questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • To whom do I belong?
  • To whom am I connected?
  • Where am I heading?

About these questions baptism certainly has something to say.

The first baptism we read about in today’s Gospel: it is the baptism of Jesus by John, which we remember on this First Sunday after Epiphany. John had been faithfully preparing the way of the Lord: calling people to repentance, inviting them to be baptized to express that desire to live a new life as God’s forgiven people. And he had been telling them of the Great One sent from God who was shortly to be revealed. People must be ready for him, living that new life to which John was calling them. And this Great One would baptize with the Holy Spirit. His baptism would not be just an outward sign, but an inward reality, as God’s Spirit was poured out in a new way onto God’s people.

The day came when Jesus came seeking to be baptized by John. As the other Gospels make clear, John was rather taken aback: why would Jesus need to be baptized? But Jesus was clear that this was what God wanted, and John baptized him.

As he was coming out of the water, two unexpected things happened. The Holy Spirit came upon him from God in a new way. What did that mean? He had the fullness of God’s power with him. But the Holy Spirit’s purpose is not just to make us feel good and even strong. His purpose is to help us to go faithfully along the path God wants us to follow, to enable us to serve God faithfully and to deal with the temptations that we face in this world.

This outpouring of the Spirit on Jesus points us to the answer to one of those questions linked with baptism. Baptism asks us: where am I heading? And the answer in Jesus’ case was clear: he was heading along the path of obedience. In fact, if we read the next couple of verses in Mark’s Gospel, we can see that the next thing to happen to Jesus was his temptation in the wilderness, where the devil invited him to take a path different from the path of obedience. Jesus consistently rejected the call of the tempter who suggested that there was an easier way. Led by the Spirit, Jesus was determined to go God’s way, whatever the cost.

The other thing that happened as Jesus came up out of the water was that he heard the voice of God, which answered another question: Who am I?

To Jesus, God his Father said: “You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.” Here was not just a son of God: he was truly God’s Son in a unique way. I rather like this modern translation of those words from heaven: “You are my wonderful son: you make me very glad.” Yes, Jesus had a unique relationship with God his Father. And he would continue to make his Father very glad. And if in one sense he didn’t need to be baptized seeking forgiveness of sins, his baptism became a sort of commissioning for service, as indeed our baptism was.

Our reading from Acts takes us to the great city of Ephesus in Western Turkey. The apostle Paul has arrived and met some disciples: but what sort of disciples are they? He asks them some questions and discovers that they certainly have gaps in their understanding. They did not receive the Holy Spirit when they became disciples: in fact, they don’t seem to know much at all about the Holy Spirit. They have been baptized, but it doesn’t seem to be baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus. They have actually received John’s baptism.

We know that followers of John moved around the empire telling people about John and his message, and encouraging them to repent and be baptized. It seems that these disciples had received this baptism. From what we know of John’s message, they presumably understood John’s call to repent and be baptized, seeking God’s forgiveness, and they probably knew that God was going to send a great teacher and leader. Whether they knew even the name of Jesus is not clear.

They are however disciples. Literally they are learners, students. They need to develop in their understanding. They need to keep growing.

And Paul fills in the gaps for them. He explains that Jesus is the one to whom John was pointing people. Jesus, the Messiah, is the promised Teacher and Leader and Saviour.

These disciples now understand in a new way. They are ready to believe in Jesus. They are ready to follow Jesus. And Paul sees that they are ready to be baptized. Of course they don’t know everything. Yes, there are still gaps in their understanding. But a disciple is a learner, not a graduate.  Disciples are on the path: they haven’t arrived. We know that there is still more for us to understand: we haven’t arrived yet, we need to keep going and keep growing and keep following.

And so these disciples are baptized: not this time with John’s baptism, but baptism in the name of Jesus. They are clear now that they are not just followers of John, significant though he is in the plan of God: they are followers of Jesus Christ, their King and their Saviour.

And then something very unexpected happens. The Holy Spirit comes upon them: not just quietly, as we might have experienced his work, but dramatically. These very new disciples of Jesus spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Now if that happened during a baptism I was conducting – even if I was baptizing an adult – I would be surprised, and perhaps taken aback. I might not be so surprised if I was attending a baptism in a Pentecostal church, which is where speaking in tongues and prophesying happens more often nowadays.

Why did it happen to these disciples in Ephesus? I don’t think that Luke, the writer of Acts, wants us to believe that this is what should normally happen when someone is baptized. This pouring out of the Holy Spirit made clear in these unusual circumstances that God was indeed at work in the lives of these people, and that these people, despite their unusual circumstances. were indeed to be acknowledged as genuine followers of Christ, as children of God, as true members of Christ’s family the church.

Baptisms will take different forms in different circumstances and places: different liturgies and words, at churches or pools and beaches, involving different amounts of water, baptism of all ages or adults only, quiet or perhaps accompanied by speaking in tongues.

But baptism with water in the name of Jesus, in the name of the Trinity – baptism which expresses repentance and faith and openness to God’s forgiveness, baptism expressing that readiness to live as Christ’s follower and a member of God’s church – that is true baptism, opening up to God’s eternal blessings and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

So as we think about these two unusual baptisms, we remind ourselves that we too are baptized disciples of Christ. As this new year begins, we continue along the path of discipleship: with things to learn, opportunities to grow, God’s call to obey, a church family to keep connected with, people to love and serve, and a Saviour to keep following.

This may or may not be a year bringing big changes for us. But we keep going, keep following.

Let’s remember the true answers to those questions linked with our baptism. Who am I? I am a follower of Christ. To whom do I belong? I am a child of God, loved and forgiven by him through Christ. To whom am I connected? I belong to God’s family and am a member of his church, and we are all called to truly love one another. And where am I heading? I seek to walk the path of discipleship, of loving and obedience service, following my Saviour and King, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Paul Weaver