Lectionary Sermon for 13 January 2013: The Baptism of Christ based on Luke 3: 15 – 22

Roger Fenn, who I believe started the Fenn School, in Concord in the United States, used to enjoy telling the story of how, as a young boy, he had been present at the baptism of some relative, and thinking it inspiring, he decided to baptize himself. Baptisms in those days, as with many traditional churches today, were “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Young Roger was fairly confident he remembered what was said and done in the ceremony, so he went home, sat himself on the edge of the horse trough, pinched his nose, said “Roger Fenn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and Over She Goes” — and dropped backwards into the trough!

For outsiders to Christianity, baptism must appear something of an irrelevant curiosity. Even the form of baptism offered by the various forms of the Church is by no means agreed. Sometimes it is seen as a naming ceremony, and sometimes more a ritual to mark entry to Church membership. Some Christians take for granted the idea of total immersion, whereas those from other denominations seem to prefer a highly formalised symbolic ritual as for example we see with the touching or sprinkling of water to the head as part of infant baptism. Sometimes the baptism takes place in the sea or in a river, but for many of those who we might like to think of belonging to the older more established Churches baptism is a much more refined and gentle process.

Although, at least as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned, it now generally means a symbolic way of marking entry into membership of the Christian church, historically that wasn’t always the case. Remember in Jesus’ day there was no Christian Church to join when John the Baptist was calling for repentance and offering baptism as a form of sanctification.

The early Jews practiced baptism, but that was for gentiles, the non Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism and who needed to be cleansed of the beliefs they were renouncing. This incidentally is why John the Baptist would never have been accepted in formal Jewish circles in his day. By offering baptism to those who came to hear him in the desert, he was saying by implication they had strayed so far from the faith they needed as preparation for the Messiah, they should no longer see themselves as Jews and they needed baptism back into the true faith.

From what most Churches teach about Jesus, it may even seem strange that Jesus wanted to be baptised. After all, if he were indeed the Messiah, John would hardly be likely to think of Jesus as needing repentance and a return to the true faith. The other gospels certainly seem to record John as initially being unwilling to give him baptism but those of you who followed the Luke reading carefully might have noted that Luke does not even specifically refer to John performing the baptism even if from the other gospels it seems likely he intended this to be understood.

We cannot even be certain as to why Jesus chose to be baptised – particularly by John who many might say was Jesus’ inferior.

Perhaps this was partly Jesus’ way of showing his humanity and humility. Just as Luke points to Jesus growing in wisdom and maturity as a young man, perhaps the act of seeking baptism was a way of Jesus acknowledging that he was arriving at the banks of that river in need to take that significant step of public declaration of his intended mission. That Jesus was putting himself at the same level as the nobodies gathered to listen to John the Baptist gives us another dimension and reminds us that if Jesus himself can start his history-altering ministry with this act of humility we should look at ourselves again to see if our discipleship shows the same marks of humility.

But here is another thought….. What if Jesus had received his baptism, then returned home satisfied that now he had been put right with his faith, that now his relationship with God had the seal of religious approval, and therefore he might now retire with honour, would he still deserve our loyalty? Hoisting the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely would surely have made no sense. It was the first step of a journey to be embarked upon, rather than a destination, that Jesus was declaring in his chosen act of baptism.

But if that is true of Jesus, surely the same should be said of the purpose of our own baptism. I am guessing that many here have had an infant baptism ceremony in their past, and many here who are now adult, have no doubt been present to recite the congregational promise to support the child and their family as they grew in their faith. A simple question … how has it worked out since? Are the marks of our Baptism now evident to others in our lives and mission, not just in church but in our day to day world? And as to that promise to stand by the family as they helped the baptised one grow in wisdom and faith ….What did we actually do to follow through on that promise?

I would like to suggest that it is not a given, that all who would be Christian understand that it is the living not the title that counts. I seem to remember Tolstoy once observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration:
Everyone thinks of changing humanity, nobody thinks of changing himself (or herself)”.

Recently I was invited to one of the nicest Baptism services I have ever attended, and this was with the Epsom Calvary Tamil congregation. It was dignified, thoughtful and impressive – followed by a celebration banquet … and what’s more I suggest it would have left John the Baptist and his baptism ceremony looking uncouth and amateur by comparison. But never forget that the Baptism itself is only the setting for the promises made. We can indeed work very hard to ensure that the setting is as memorable and helpful as possible, but the real test of the ceremony will probably take days, months, years and even decades to play out, because the test is not based on how we stage the ceremony, but is found rather in the fulfilment of the promises.

Certainly in the case of reporting Jesus’ baptism there was great drama with Luke describing the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognising Jesus as the Son of God – yet this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living. For me if I had the choice I confess I prefer the catered banquet in the Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.

But let’s face the issue squarely, baptism only makes sense if we and our supporters emerge from the baptism to be committed and be open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Again unless the baptism signals the change why would we want the ceremony in the first place?

I think that for me looking back I can say one unexpected benefit of entering into the contract of baptism is that through the new adopted way of life I get glimpses of wonder in the new possibilities it captures.

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey to which I haven’t always been true.

Now contemplating retirement for the second time, and looking back, there have been those watershed highlights. In some ways I am sorry that congregations often seem to save their nicest words of appreciation for leaders, because perhaps the greatest learning Shirley and I have experienced is that the highlights are usually the result of team effort. Rebuilding and refurbishing churches, running large functions, meeting for community meals, dances and concerts … all of these are not projects attributed to a single leader. When projects work, look about you ….in the pews are the real workers for the parish. And just as well. If it were up to me to cater for the many visitors to the parsonage – or to our lunches, I can assure you indigestion or worse would be the consequence. Of course the last five years attempting to learn ministry on the job…for me there have been many highlights….. Yet also a life with its share of failures and frustration. Words said unwisely – or words left unsaid until too late. Harmful political decisions left unchallenged…. A dying person not visited in time, sick and lonely people not always visited … many, many missed opportunities.

In retrospect, strangely enough it isn’t the failures or successes that define the life – and if it comes to that I suspect many of us have failures as well as successes. What does make the journey worthwhile is the certain knowledge that there has been a feeling of shared destiny which, in truth, can probably find its origins in those initial decisions – baptism, confirmation and what Kierkegaard once called “the eternal Yes”. True perhaps the end goal seems as far away as ever, but the warmth of friendship and the support of a host of people who share the goals and frustration of ministry have added immeasurably to the joy of this stage of the journey.

Rex Hunt in his sermon on this particular topic of the Baptism of Jesus refers to the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, where the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah to describe the significance of this baptism event , when he appears before his home synagogue gathering.
Surprisingly Rex says, it is not a word or call of mission, sending him into the future. It is about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this person called by name.

Not a calling so much to ‘do’.
But a calling to ‘be’… that liberates for life.

Baptism then is calling each of us by name. Whether or not we hear and respond to that voice is what makes the difference between the missed opportunity or a life changing experience.

I am also indebted to Rex for drawing our attentions to Julie McGuinness’ Celtic poem ‘Reflections on life’s road’ (Quoted in Bradley 2000: 243-44) Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T

This poem also captures the spirit of this ‘calling to be’: Listen to it now:

Some people travel in straight lines:
Sit in metal boxes, eyes ahead,
Always mindful of their target,
Moving in obedience to coloured lights
and white lines,
Mission accomplished at journey’s end.

Some people travel round in circles:
Trudging in drudgery, eyes looking down,
Knowing only too well their daily,
unchanging round,
Moving in response to clock and to habit,
Journey never finished yet never begun.

I want to travel in patterns of God’s making:
Walking in wonder, gazing all around,
Knowing my destiny, though not my destination,
Moving to the rhythm of the surging of (the) spirit,
A journey which when life ends,
in Christ has just begun. (Quoted in Bradley 2000: 243-44)

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7 Responses to Lectionary Sermon for 13 January 2013: The Baptism of Christ based on Luke 3: 15 – 22

  1. dave says:

    “At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points.”

    If that had been the point of the essay I would have had no comment. A religious rite typically serves as a reminder for the believers of the tenets to follow and of the religious community involved in that endeavor.

    The consideration of the Jesus baptism as the inspiration for this contemporary rite is on shaky ground. The First Century had the Jews in active rebellion against their Roman oppressors. Some of the Jews leaders chose to cater to their foreign rulers rather than to their communities. Jesus apparently chose to participate in the baptism ritual with John as part of his activities maintaining the connection with his fellow Jews. Religious baths were part of the local culture, even noted at Qumran. This was a challenging time for the Jews, such as the Roman Saul (later to become Paul the apostle) rounding up the insurgent Jews, with the unrest eventually leading to the death of James (the brother of Jesus) and the first Jewish Roman War with its destruction of Jerusalem.

    “Remember in Jesus’ day there was no Christian Church to join when John the Baptist was calling for repentance and offering baptism as a form of sanctification.”

    I was baptized as an infant into the Catholic Church. The baptism of infants makes no practical sense to me (especially in the context of starting a journey; the birth itself was that!), other than as a method of making sure the infant is later indoctrinated. Baptism of adults seems the more appropriate timing for such a rite in that the rite can serve as the ‘start of a journey’ based on the person knowingly making that commitment (unlike an infant). The Tolstoy quote suggests the same.

    The idea of a shared destiny, as a religious community works together, is encouraging. The essay is suggesting Baptism can be used to make this point, while also hinting at some of the apparent trappings as a religion seeks ways to convince its followers of its foundation. Attempts at drawing on historical stories and/or myths will work usually with only those already indoctrinated.

    • peddiebill says:

      I too have struggled with the meaning of infant baptism. Whether we like it or not many obviously accept infant baptism although I suspect sincere Christians would want to call this nurturing and encouraging children to come to the point where they can confirm their faith for themselves. I accept that someone else might see this as brainwashing or indoctrination.In terms of ritual you would probably accept that many clearly accept baptism as part of their own religious identity and tradition. A number I have spoken to on this topic refer to readings about Jesus getting baptised ( and one which refers to early Christians getting their whole household baptised) as the basis for the tradition. This is not to say that this reasoning is entirely justifiable. Given that degree of support (and given that I have set myself the task of coming up with a weekly commentary/sermon on the lectionary readings) I have to start with where I think people are in their thinking rather than where I would like them to be. You are, for example, quite correct in noticing that I am hinting at the difference between the trappings and the firmer and more justifiable foundations of faith. As always, my principal aim is to encourage thought, but unfortunately although I get a good number of readers each week I rarely get readers who are prepared to let me know how they react. For this reason ( and I guess because you always manage to bring something new to the conversation) I particularly like your input.

  2. Dave Mourn says:

    Dave’s response, which ties Jesus’ baptism into another historical and social aspect of 1st century Palestine, is helpful, though I would like to take this a step further than Jesus’ show of solidarity with the massive peasant class and their fervent non-collaborative identity. Even with Bill’s essential teaching on baptism being the humble start of a journey and a shared destiny, I think it is essential to go one step further in sketching the most radical aspects of Kingdom definition Jesus outlined for that journey and destination.

    I don’t want to offer thoughts here and have them read as preachy, or matter-of-fact, but rather a perspective or articulation which hopefully has merit in stimulating fronts of understanding the journey we are all on.

    Aligning with NT Wright, it fits well to see Jesus as the true Israel, the truely human one, so to have Jesus’ baptism align him with the oppressed majority runs the risk of not doing justice to the fact he was initiating something much more, very rare and new. The Kingdom movement Jesus ushers in turns the upside-down world, right-side up. Humility is a foundational dynamic but certainly note that does not imply being a door mat no matter what one’s social or political situation. To just skim any gospel, and it’s in most every Pauline letter and epistle for that matter, followers of Jesus usher in the Kingdom where evil is confronted firmly in love with forgiveness offered without limit. Kingdom citizens seek being the servant of others even where society might grant “master” status, sees need and acts in compassion, and loves self-sacrificially without condition… even enemies. Accumulation of wealth is contradictory while providing for the marginalized and foreigner a top priority. Jesus does align with the non-collaborative poor in his baptism, but more than that he puts the image of God upon what it means to be human in the midst of human diversity and difference.

    In respect to the disasterous path Israel was on, Jesus seemed willing to let Rome do what pagan empire powers do, but the Kingdom journey in the midst of that was decidedly not a revolution of violence but one of transformation and restoration. Most of Israel, be they the peasant class or Jewish elite, highly anticiapated the long awaited Messiah to lead them in a military rebellion. John the Baptist may not have known the shape of salvation Jesus as the Messiah was working toward, going to turn the world, but Jesus’ baptism might best be seen as a baptism of Israel, and Israel being the blessing to all nations as she was always intended to be. Jesus’ baptism, with its implied repentance and turning around, might best be seen as Israel’s baptism with the new life of the Kingdom age rising up out of the waters and receiving the Spirit. Though relatively few in Israel accepted such a baptism and lived into the Kindom identifiers I sketched above, neither has the majority of Christian traditions since. Could it be our rites of baptism have lopped off some of the most essential (and difficult) distinctives of being baptised in the name (essence) of Jesus?

    • peddiebill says:

      Thoughtful and helpful. I am intrigued by the last statement about the rites of baptism possibly lopping off the key distinctives of what it means to be baptised. I wonder if – as with much of ritualised religion – the problem is that the rites themselve become the focus of attention. The grander and more impressive the occasion becomes, the less reason there is to ask ourselves what it all means. As you say, the evidence is that the majority of Christians seem unaffected by what you call the kindom identifiers – and presumably therefore gloss over the more direct intentions of baptism.

    • dave says:

      to Dave Mourn:

      “Israel being the blessing to all nations as she was always intended to be.”

      So Israel is God’s chosen nation?
      Your earlier part of the comment implied this Kingdom you mention is about following the teaching of Jesus, not this Kingdom is the nation of Israel.

      There is no way I can imagine any religion actually claiming their religion is based on a single country, a government entity that includes all the power conflicts among different groups of citizens and interests.

      What is this Israel that is a blessing? After the Roman Jewish Wars, many Jews left the area while the Palestinians have remained. Is the current state of Israel based on the people of that region or is Israel based on the people that have resettled the area having migrated with other parts of the world?

      The Jews do not have place Jesus as such a critical historical person as Christians. The comment appears to mix Christians with Israel. Is your Israel somehow a Christian state? Does God truly endorse a nation?

      Jesus as the leader of the Jews and their Messiah during their rebellion against the Romans would have had the historical nation of Israel as the context when preaching about a Kingdom for the Jews, as the replacement for the Roman Kingdom in Palestine of his time. The comment implies Jesus was describing a Kingdom as a new religion, which is of course what the Roman Paul was describing to counter the anti-Roman context among the Jews – an alternate interpretation to whatever Jesus had actually been preaching.

      • Dave Mourn says:

        Dave, thanks for articulating your concerns, though I think we are in the very same place but understand and use terms with different contexts and applied meaning.

        I want to apologize for the awkwardness of my earlier reply. I rushed, should have proofread to edit out jumbled thoughts in progress and synthesized my response more coherently.

        I refer to “Israel” being the blessing to all nations in reference to the Hebrew people, the people of the OT into which God spoke and established relationship. I refer to Israel as does the OT in a multitude of places as God’s chosen people, God’s covenant people, and who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures, our foundational understandings of the Grand Story of our Scriptures. Five times in the Pentateuch the promise is made to “Israel” that they will be a blessing to all nations/peoples. I apologize for the confusion of terms and I should probably be using the term “Hebrew people”. God did choose to restore and redeem his broken creation through “Israel” and it does happen in Jesus, the true Israel. Right to the end of Jesus’ ministry it was clear his relationship with “Israel” as a chosen people was filled with a loving hope they would live into their long covenant relationship and continue on that long journey of relationship by recognizing their Messiah and the definition of the Kingdom age he taught. By the use of “Kingdom” in these contexts I never imply an earthly one, rather as the primary category of Jesus’ discourse as a Kingdom for this world but not from this world. This Kingdom turns our upside down world right side up for at its very heart are followers of Christ who die to self, and love that which God loves… the whole of humanity, the whole of creation. A political kingdom is nowhere implied though of course earthly kingdoms are impacted. I hope it is clear how difficult it is for me to make this view of Israel and Kingdom into one which incorporates some kind of violent resurrection of any nation state or restoration of anyone’s borders.

        I too am thinking particularly of Paul’s use of “Israel” in Romans where “Israel” in context can mean the nation, and in another place the covenant people. N.T. Wright presents a remarkable exegesis of Romans 9-11 and brings firm clarity (rightly so in my view) to this matter in his book “Climax of the Covenant,” a critically important understanding in the dialogue with Christians who push for political and military support of Israel today. That push forsakes the Kingdom teachings of Christ in a multitude of ways, and thus our identity in Christ is forsaken as well.

        So my use of “Israel” refers to the past, and only into the present and future inso far as Israel, like any nation or people, can be influenced by the Christian life and Holy Spirit toward a faith in Christ and the Kingdom way he lived, taught, and died.

        I am very influenced by N.T. Wright. One of his latest books, “How God Became King,” aimed at a less scholarly level, is also a good example where the terms I use here have their context, though the whole of his work lays an incredible foundation. If you are not familiar with his methodology I think you would like him as he is a brilliant historian, a gift he uses extensively in his theological studies.

        I hope these remarks help clarify… Dave

  3. dave says:

    Thank you Dave for taking the time for the explanation. I need that reminder of each person having their own perspective and interpretation.
    You are certainly correct we have very different contexts. I am fascinated by the context of both the OT and NT. Events in the OT can take on different interpretations when reading how those events were recorded in other writings of that time but in other cultures. Events in the NT similarly take on new meanings when compared to writings in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and in other recently discovered scriptures not part of the NT.

    I have the unfortunate tendency to miss that transition between the OT being about the Jews (and their Kingdom having both the religious and political context) and the NT being for the Christians (and their religious kingdom). Matthew chapter 1 relates the bloodline from Abraham to Jesus and yet after Paul’s New Testament God’s chosen people are no longer the Hebrew people.

    I have the other unfortunate tendency to be put off immediately by claims of any contemporary group being ‘God’s chosen people’ because that claim implies God pre-approves whatever they are doing (regardless of whether compassion and respect is involved to any extent in their behavior). Some group might follow what most would consider angelic behavior but that makes the group an example for others to follow; it would not make them ‘the chosen’ group to beware.

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