Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Jesus Baptism

by Peter Lockhart

(My last sermon with Kairos Uniting Church: Clayfield Hamilton Congregation)

It is entirely appropriate that on this last occasion that I preach here that my last words to you are about the eternal Word. The baptism of Jesus, the eternal word of God, focuses our attention on what is important for this day just as it has been through my 8 years here, Jesus. And so, this is also a sermon about beginnings, not endings, for the baptism of Jesus signalled the beginning of his ministry and so reveals God’s purposes in him.

I think I will be eternally grateful to my systematic theology teacher Gordon Watson who encouraged me to write a paper about Jesus called “Christ, the Spirit & Worship”. Although, it’s subtitle has more bearing on what I will be saying today: “The accommodation of the Spirit in Christ's obedience with reference to the relationship to doxology, as understood in John 17:19.”

Now whilst this may sound like another language to some of your ears this phrase for me heralds us into the presence of the mystery of the idea that God became a human being and the doctrine of the Trinity: the incarnation. On one level there is nothing that may appear practical about this theology yet for me it is the heart of our faith.

The concepts to which I am referring can be explored in Mark’s description of Jesus baptism.

If we were to stop and think for a moment the whole notion of Jesus baptism by John should jar against our senses. The Baptist was in the wilderness baptising people with a baptism of repentance and of forgiveness of sins. The word repentance means “turning back to God” – it as if we are facing away from God and the act of repentance is changing our position from having our backs to turned, to looking towards the one who made us.

The offence of Jesus baptism by John is that here is one who Mark has already described as the Son of God acting as if he is out of step with God – facing away.

Anyone reading this story must wonder where this story is going. How incomprehensible is it that Jesus, who is God’s Son and therefore must be facing God, needed a baptism of repentance?
The answer purely and simply must be that Jesus did not need such a baptism for himself but through his actions was symbolising the divine action that was occurring in and through his life.

Jesus presence in the world, the presence of God’s eternal Word enfleshed, involves the full identification of God with what it means to be human. God in himself is offering his own life to us by sharing in our life.

Jesus baptism of repentance is not a baptism for his sake but for ours, on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus does need to turn back to God, we do, and because as Paul later wrote, our lives are hidden in Christ’s, it his repentance not ours that opens up eternal life and right relationship with God and each other.

This is why our own baptisms as Christian people are so important: because they signify that our lives are drawn into Jesus own baptism and our lives are now shaped by being baptised people – people who in Christ and by God’s grace are turned back to God, not through our action of turning towards God but Jesus.

The mystery of Jesus baptism is further convoluted by the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. For those who understood Jesus to be the Son of God in Mark’s era the idea that Jesus did not already have the Spirit of God upon would have been strange. And, later hearers of the scripture, who had come to a Trinitarian understanding of God’s life, would think that this was even more bizarre.

Jesus the eternal Word of God had existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit and this unity of the Godhead, Father, Son and Spirit could not logically cease through the incarnation – the inviolable unity of the Trinity must have remained. So why does the Spirit appear?

Once again it is not for Jesus own sake that the Spirit is seen descending like a dove but for those who witnessed the event and ultimately for God’s purposes in salvation. The Holy Spirit shares in the life of the incarnate Word as Jesus the Christ accommodates the Spirit into his fleshly life. It is in the sharing of this life that the Spirit of God is then poured out after Jesus’ death into his disciples and then among all peoples in order that people might be drawn in Jesus and by the Spirit into sharing in God’s own life.

What is occurring in and through Jesus is no less than the re-creation of the world! This morning we heard the beginning of the creation story from Genesis and so just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at the moment of creation so too the Spirit hovered over Mary’s womb and now at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry – his baptism.

This is the heart of the Christian story – a story not about my repentance or yours, a story not about mysterious encounters with the divine, a story not about my personal relationship with Jesus or decision to follow him. It is the story of God’s decision and action in and through Jesus Christ to renew the creation. It is a story bigger than any of personal stories and experiences of God yet compassionate and aware enough to draw our personal stories into that grand narrative of God’s love for the world.

In this sense I have no words to give other than to reaffirm Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh. He is God’s gift to the world and to know God means to know Jesus and to know Jesus means to know God. In him we see God in the world and we know and have our hope fulfilled that God loves, God gives, God makes new, God forgives, God heals, ultimately that God is!

Jesus baptism and descent of the Holy Spirit point at this reality of God. It is a sign and symbol of God’s intention not simply for those witnessed that gathered and saw John baptise Jesus but for we and the whole creation.

The act of Jesus baptism is a symbol of God’s love and grace, and so also is it that which it symbolises. In the same way that Jesus baptism is a symbol of God’s love and action in the world so too is our gathering as baptised people here today.

In a world which continues to join lustily in the refrain that “God is dead” our gathering and the gathering of congregations everywhere declare Jesus repentance and celebrate in hope a promise for all creation. Everything will be made new! Our feast at the table reminds us that we are people of this new creation as we have a foretaste of the banquet of all nations at peace with Gdo and one another.

In this, the church is that which it signifies, it is the beginning of the new creation. We do not make the new creation; we cannot offer any word to the world; nor any other salvation to the world, other than one already given in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We are to be a light to the nations not because we behave or live as people turned back to God but because we live acknowledging the one who turned back to God on our behalf and in whose life we share by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our purpose in being the church is none other this to point away from ourselves and at the author of our salvation who has made us to a light among the nations, just as the Israelites were to be a light among the nations. We exist as the church not for our own ends, not to make nice social gatherings, or little Holy clubs but to remind the world that God is and God has a future for the whole creation even when all we can see is death and despair.
So my last word to you in my preaching here is I believe as it should be simply the Word: Jesus. He is the only message that the church really has because in him God has redeemed the world and has begun a new creation which by grace and through the Holy Spirit you and I already have encountered. May God bless you all with wisdom and the Spirit to continue to share and celebrate this message in your lives.