Question: how many of you here today have actually read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I don’t mean ‘how many of you have watched the movies?’ – I mean actually read the book – all three volumes of it?
The first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings I was about fourteen; a lot of people were talking about it at the time, and I decided to try it out. I went to the local library to look for it, but the first volume, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, was out, so I just borrowed the second volume, ‘The Two Towers’. Now, there was a very short summary of the plot of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ at the beginning of this second volume, but even with that help, it was very difficult to get into the flow of the story, and in fact I think I gave up after about fifty pages. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ all the way through, and then the story made sense to me, because I started at the beginning.
I want to suggest to you that a lot of people who are interested in the Christian faith get into trouble for this very same reason – they don’t start at the beginning. Where do they start? Well, the most obvious thing that Christians do these days seems to be ‘going to church’, so people who are interested in learning about Christianity start coming to church. After a while people notice them, and they get added to a parish list and get a set of envelopes. Someone finds out that they’re good at a particular job that needs doing around the church, and before you know it they’re on a list of volunteers. They get involved in all the activities, but deep down inside there’s this nagging doubt, “Where’s God? I wasn’t really looking for more social activities, or more work to do – I was looking for God? How can I find him?”
The problem is that they haven’t started at the beginning, and so their Christian story isn’t making any sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to church, but churchgoing is meant to take us right back to the heart of the Gospel, to the central truths that give us a good start in the Christian life. And we find these truths in our gospel reading for today which tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. What does Jesus’ baptism have to say to us about our own baptism and how we start out in the Christian life?
Let’s think about baptism for a minute and what John the Baptist was doing here by baptizing people. In the ancient world a number of religions baptized people. Jews did it to Gentiles who wanted to become Jews; they baptized them all as a sign of the washing away of ritual uncleanness before God, and then the men were circumcised, which was the covenant sign God had given to Abraham. But before John the Baptist came, no one had suggested that people who were born as Jews needed to be baptized; they were seen as being clean enough already! But now John came, preaching that the Kingdom of God was near; people were excited about that, and thousands of them flocked to hear him. If they wanted to sign up for the new kingdom, he told them to repent – to turn away from their old way of life – and to be baptized as a sign of this. Baptism was an obvious sign for repentance; sin has often been seen as making us dirty in some way, and repentance and forgiveness are a sort of cleansing.
But now Jesus comes to the river to be baptized, and according to Matthew’s version of this story, John is a bit confused about this. “I need to be baptized by you”, he says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Baptism is about repenting from sin, but Jesus has nothing he needs to repent of, so why does he need to be baptized? Makes perfect sense to me! But in fact Jesus disagrees: “Let it be so now”, he says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”(Matthew 3:15).
But in fact baptism is about more than washing from sin. There are whole layers of meaning in the act of baptism in the New Testament, and the baptism of Jesus has a lot to teach us about this. Let’s take a closer look.
One thing we see in the baptism of Jesus is an assurance to him that he is God’s Son. We read in verse 11 that when Jesus was baptized ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’.
What a wonderful thing for a son to hear from his father! I suspect that there are many adult children today who are walking around with a big empty space inside, because they just aren’t sure whether or not their parents are pleased with them. In some cases those parents have been dead for years, but it doesn’t matter: that big, empty space is still there. But here we have God the Father, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he had healed anyone, or told any parables, or done anything out of the ordinary at all, saying, “You are my beloved son, and I’m very pleased with you”.
Baptism speaks to us about becoming God’s children. And just as Jesus received the affirmation of his sonship before he had done anything spectacular to earn it, so too God declares that we are his children as a free gift - what Christians call an act of pure grace - which we don’t have to earn.
Here’s the way it works. In that act of grace, Jesus gave his life for you and me and everyone else, so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought back into God’s family. That’s God’s great rescue operation for the world. That great rescue operation is applied to your life and mine in the act of baptism. Through our baptism, God’s forgiveness and adoption are offered to us, like a hand of rescue reaching out to a drowning person. We respond to that free gift by faith, which means trust. “Ah!” you say; “There is something I can do!” Yes, there is - but let’s be clear about what it is. If you’re drowning and a person reaches out their hand to save you, you don’t save yourself by clasping their hand; you simply take advantage of their strength and skill. Faith is our hand reaching up to take the hand of God and receive the gift he gives us in our baptism. Or if you like, in your baptism God says to us “You are my son or daughter” and in faith we reply “Yes: I am God’s son or daughter”.
So ‘starting at the very beginning’ is all about grace, which means God’s love for us that we don’t have to deserve. Most of us here were baptized as children, when we’d done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Some of us here were baptized as adults, after we’d done lots of things not to deserve it! Whenever we were baptized, in our baptism we were made the children of God, and when we came to Jesus in faith and welcomed him into our hearts we accepted that for ourselves; we began to enjoy the special relationship with the Father that he’s given us.
So the first thing we notice about the baptism of Jesus is that it was God’s assurance to him that he was indeed God’s beloved Son. The second thing is that it was the beginning of a new life for him. Up until that time, he’d lived quietly in Nazareth with his family. But now, at the age of thirty, he came to the Jordan and was baptized by John. From that point on, he left his old way of life and plunged into three years of public ministry, in which he announced that God’s kingdom was coming, and showed by his actions what God’s kingdom was all about.
When we look at the different pictures that are used for baptism in the New Testament, they all include the idea of a new beginning. We’re told that being baptized is like being born again; it’s like dying and rising again with Jesus; it’s like being adopted into a family. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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” (Matthew 28:19-20). To be baptized, Jesus tells us here, is to begin a new life as his disciple.
So you’re not only a child of God, adopted into his family by a gift of his grace; you’re also a disciple of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus have taken a long hard look at the world around them and concluded that, even though it’s full of voices wanting to give us advice, no other voice seems to get it exactly right. Disciples of Jesus realize that in the life and teaching of Jesus they can see God more clearly than they can see him anywhere else in all of creation. And so they come to Jesus day by day, with a prayer something like this: “Lord, will you help me to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it?”
Baptism is the beginning of this life of discipleship. The true Christian idea of infant baptism is that Christian parents who are themselves following Jesus want their children to follow him too, so they have them baptized because they believe it’s never too early to start learning to follow Jesus. Adults who are baptized are putting their faith in Jesus, leaving the old way of life behind and starting a new life as followers of Jesus.
So when we were baptized we were set down at the beginning of a new way of life. And as we try to learn this new way of life we aren’t left to our own resources either. Let’s look at the third thing Jesus’ baptism teaches us about ‘starting at the very beginning’. In his baptism Jesus had a special experience of God’s presence and power as the Holy Spirit came down on him. In today’s gospel we read, ‘And just as (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10).
It’s a striking phrase, isn’t it? ‘He saw the heavens torn apart’. If you had been a Jewish person hearing these words in the first century just after Mark wrote them, you’d immediately have been reminded of Isaiah chapter 64. In chapter 63 the prophet was talking about how the people felt abandoned by God because of all their sins; they were going through the suffering of exile from their land and longed for a sense of God’s presence with them. Then in chapter 64 he goes on to say to God:
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv.1-3).
This is what we need, isn’t it? We need the sense that we aren’t alone, that God is with us, walking with us through the difficult times in our lives, giving us the strength we need to do the things he asks of us. “Show me a sign, God?” we ask; “Please let me know that you’re near! Tear open the heavens and come down!” And now in Jesus’ baptism God answers that prayer: ‘He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ (v.10)
This experience of the Holy Spirit shines through the pages of the New Testament. Nowadays if you’ve had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit you’re looked on as being an unusual person, but in the Book of Acts it was the other way around. In our epistle for today we read of Paul meeting some people in Ephesus who claimed to be disciples of Jesus. But reading between the lines, we can see that Paul noticed right away there was something different about them, and after a few minutes he put his finger on it. “Tell me”, he said,
‘“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied - altogether there were about twelve of them (Acts 19:2-7).
Sadly, I think many people today would be just as mystified as these Ephesian disciples; we may have heard that there is a Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t play a very big part in our daily Christian experience. Yes, the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us in our baptism, but many of us have never turned to Jesus in faith and asked him to fill us with the Holy Spirit. This is a gift we grow in, you see. When we are baptized God lights the pilot light of his Holy Spirit in us, but you can’t heat a house with the pilot light; you need to turn up the thermostat so that the whole furnace lights up. And so it is with the Holy Spirit: we’re told in the New Testament to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly be in tune with God’s presence and experience God’s power for the tasks he’s called us to do.
Let’s go around this one last time. The baptism of Jesus tells us about our baptism – about what it means and what it says about us. In the world today there are many voices wanting to tell you who you are, and what you should be doing. But the most important truth about you is what God says about you, and in your baptism God says to you, “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you”. In your baptism God tells you that the most important thing you have to do in your life is to learn to follow Jesus. And God puts the Holy Spirit into you to give you a sense of his presence and power.
This is where we have to start if we are to understand the Christian life. These are the things we need to be sure about before we go on to the next stage in our Christian journey. We are God’s children, we are called to follow Jesus, and we are offered the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us do it. These are the basic things, the things we start with, and we don’t have to earn any of them. They all come to us as a free gift: a gift of God’s grace.