1st Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord.
Luke 3:15-7, 21,22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Baptism of Jesus
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Sermon There was a little boy named Phillip. Two special events had taken place in his life and both had impressed him very much. First, he had recently been baptized, and second, he was the proud brother of a baby boy named Steven. One Sunday his father asked if he wanted to go to church. Phillip’s answer was an enthusiastic, "Yes. And let's take Steven and get him advertised, too!" Phillip wasn't too far off the mark. Because baptism is never really a private affair. The inner changes, the inner workings of the spirit leading an individual to Christ are personal and private. BUT, the public gift and reception of that faith can never be a private thing, for it is a time of advertising faith and grace.
No-one is baptized into a vacuum. That is why children (and adults) are baptized into a family, a group of like-minded well-wishers, a congregation. They are there to see that the baptized person is cared for. They are there as witnesses to the wonderful work of God in that person’s life.
When Jesus was baptized, there was a crowd of those who had just been baptized themselves with John’s baptism of repentance, and then Jesus joined in. He identified with them. He had no need to repent, but he established baptism as the beginning of our journey, he joined in with us as he had come to join in with us in our humanity. The people saw that he was one of them.
Those witnesses that day saw the baptism of Christ, or as young Phillip said, they saw him advertised, they saw him advertise that he caught the vision of the simple grass-roots religious movement that had started with John, he was there alongside of the people.
Today when we witness a baptism, when we see it advertised that God is claiming someone in baptism, we are witnesses to four things, a death, a birth, an adoption, and a fight.
If someone is unsure of whether they were baptised, if they have lost their baptismal certificate, we can say, yes, I was there the day that you died, the day that the old sinful person was drowned, and God gave you his own nature. As St. Paul says in his beautiful letter to the Romans, chapter six: For don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
I have told you about the South American baptismal tradition where the father of a child makes a small open coffin just big enough for the child, the mother goes and draws water and places it in this coffin on the altar, and the child is immersed in water in a symbolic coffin. People wail as if they are mourning. Confronting symbols, but powerful reminders of the death of our old sinful self with Christ in baptism.
But of course after this the child is brought up out of the water, and people celebrate. Hymns of joy are sung, and the child is handed from person to person around the whole church. They are greeted as a new life with Christ. Again, a powerful symbol, this time of the life giving waters of baptism. The people have witnessed a birth. In some mission fields in the world, people who were baptised had their tribal names, but at their baptism were given their Christian name. They were given a completely new name, as a completely new person, they were born anew.
But in most developed countries in the world, most of the large, mainstream churches practice infant baptism, and seeing the baptism of a child gives us a wonderful symbol of the way that God works. The child who was anti-God in its nature by birth, who was turned away from God by original sin, is given the Holy Spirit, and God adopts the child as his own. The witnesses to the baptism see an adoption taking place, and although the heavens do not obviously open, each one of us heard in our baptism the same words that were spoken to our Lord : You are my Son, You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”
So we see a birth, a death and an adoption, but we also see a fight break out.
We know that whenever we see a child or an adult receive the waters of baptism, a struggle will begin in their life. It is the same struggle that we live with every day, it is the struggle of the evil one and our own human nature against the Holy Spirit of God in us. The unholy trinity, as Luther called it, the devil, the world and our sinful self, drives us to sin, to stray, to forget that we are baptized, to turn our backs on God.
This fight is between the Holy Trinity and the unholy trinity, with our souls as the spoils of war.
Look at what happened to Christ, as soon as he was baptized, we are told that the Holy Spirit drove him out into the desert where he was tempted by Satan.
If anyone talks to you about spiritual warfare, you can tell them that spiritual warfare goes on every day in the simple business of living. It might not be spectacular, but it is ongoing and it is difficult.
The image of Jesus having his winnowing fork in his hand, ready to remove the wheat from the chaff is a good, one, because unlike the machines that separate these things so quickly for us now, in Jesus time, this process took a while.
This fight that goes on in us and for us goes on every day, but so does our baptism. It is not just an event that took place years ago and is forgotten, it has an ongoing effect for us.
The death which our sinful nature died in baptism was not a once off, but it is a daily death, as we drown it over and over in the waters of our baptism. Baptism is not in the past. We don’t say “I was baptised”, but rather “I am baptised.” “I am a baptised child of God”
As well as all the other things that our baptism is for us, it is still one of repentance, like the baptism of John. Every day we can come back to our baptism, repent of our sins and receive anew all those things which we received on that day. This is called sanctification, or making holy, and it goes on for our whole lives. Christ, we were told, would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Well the Holy Spirit we receive in our baptism, and fire, well fire is a symbol of refining, used for working with precious metals, to burn away all the dross, all the impurities. This fire works on us for a lifetime. We are slowly made cleaner as we grow in our life with God. We don’t have to be afraid that it doesn’t happen straight away. It is happening as we walk with God, as we learn about him.
When we begin each church service on a Sunday morning, we do so with the words that were first spoken over each of us at our baptism: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I make the sign of the cross, which was also made over us at our baptism. Now that is advertising, and what a great name to advertise.