5 January 2003

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In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning we will pretty well stay with the Gospel reading and just have a look at baptisms and what, if anything, is important about the baptism of Jesus. We already heard part of the focus of that narrative twice this morning.

We heard it from Matthew’s Gospel and we also heard it from Mark’s Gospel. When Joan read the sentence at the beginning, it was read from Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel we have: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In Mark’s Gospel. that we just listened to, we hear it differently: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with You I am well pleased.”

When the Gospels were written, they didn’t have tape recorders, so Mark and Matthew weren’t hooning around after Jesus trying to capture every word. Rather what they wrote about was the truth that they witnessed, that we, too, might be able to see. That our eyes, also, may be opened, as theirs were opened.

Mark, when he wrote, realised that these words were spoken to Jesus. The voice, the heavens, were opened. No one else heard, because it is addressed personally. “You are my Beloved, with You I am well pleased.” There is, if you like, recognition and an acknowledgement between the Divine, the Creator and Jesus, the Divine in the Created. No one else need be aware of that. The words were spoken one to the other.

Matthew, when he was writing the Gospels, had already read this. He chose to change it. It could have been captured word for word, as much of the Gospels are, but he wants us to also gain the insight that he had. So he changed the words from those of a personal address to one that was available to all. This time the heavens are rent open and the Divine speaks to all and says “This is my Son the Beloved,”  - in other words we all hear, we all are aware, when the Divine voice is revealed.

And it’s helpful, I think, for us to maybe consider (well, for many), where do I hear, where do I see, where are the heavens rent open for me, so that the voice of the Divine is clear?

And the story we’ve got in between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a wonderful story to have today:  Paul, passing through the church, asks a very simple question, because the church is gaining momentum: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And they replied “No. Haven’t even heard. Nah, what is it?”

You wonder what they were doing, why were they going to church? Why were they believers? What were they believing in, if they had received nothing? Maybe they had copies of the Anglican Prayer book back then, and they realised that all you really need to do is to turn the pages and to follow the guy at the front and that counts? Possible…..

Paul said, “Well if you haven’t heard of it, what were you baptised in? What happened when you were baptised?”

“Oh that’s simple, we were baptised into John’s baptism. The baptism of repentance and the baptism of telling us to believe in the one that was to come after him.”

And on hearing that Paul says “I’ll baptise you in the name of the Lord Jesus”.

And they received the Holy Spirit. Something was needed to change, where they were at was good but it was sort of lacking something.

So let’s come to the Gospel reading of the Baptism of Jesus, because it is another telling of the Christmas story. We’ve heard the whole Nativity story over Christmas. We all received cards with pictures of Nativity scenes on, so we are very familiar with it. The bulk of that which we have seen and heard came from Luke’s gospel and if you open up Luke’s gospel and turn the pages to the first page you’ll see “In the beginning…in those days” and it begins with the narrative of the birth of Jesus.

Today we are in Mark’s gospel and if you open that to the first page what you actually get is the story that we heard this morning, the Baptism of Jesus.

Luke chooses to describe the birth; Mark begins at the Baptism Why? Because there is a strange story, a story in Genesis. It is the Spirit moving over the waters to give life to creation. The story in Mark, the Baptism of our Lord, is the same story. The elements are there:  the Divine Child, the water, all are there. New life is created in the Baptism of Jesus. It is a new telling of the Christmas story, it is a new telling of the Genesis story, they are all stories of creation; not about the beginning of time but about the next moment in my life, for we are created of tomorrow.

Genesis, Christmas, Baptism - the same story. We are the ones that have been baptised; we have taken a place in that story. The waters of baptism parallel the chaos of the uncreated and they therefore point to our being created.

Spirit moves over the waters, therefore water, one could argue, is the first creature that was created. Generously given, to serve our lives, and we bathe in water with all who bathe in water. Somehow there is a truth that water is there for everyone, it falls out of the sky.

Interesting to be driving the car this week with the readings in my mind and a voice comes out of the radio and says “If your house number begins with a 2, 7 or 9 you can turn your sprinklers on today.”  And I thought, gosh, there is an institutionalising of water, of that which is free, there is a seeking to control it! I then thought, what about refugees who don’t have house numbers? Does that mean that they are not even allowed access to this gift on certain days? And I wondered, as people queued up to get petrol because it had gone down 2c, why we spend all our time worrying about petroleum and yet when we need water, we can turn the tap on or off.

Water is quite fundamental to life and it is amazingly symbolic in all life and in our life. So what is baptism about? And the other great question is, why did Jesus need to be baptised? Why? There is a great quote from a priest in Nicaragua, his sermon for today is posted on the Net, and he has this to say about baptism: “We need forgiveness for the way we have treated baptism as a way of washing our hands of others, a setting out on a project of saving our own necks and of avoiding the responsibility for everyone else, dismissing them, dismissing them all as the great unwashed. The Church thus becomes the community of the self-satisfied that stands around sniffing to see if there is a trace of the odour of humanity left to wash away from the armpits of others. We’ve treated baptism as a cosmetic, like roll-on or spray can deodorant, instead of as a commitment. We apply it to infants as if changing their diapers, when we are actually changing their names and nationalities and politics.”

There is so much said in that quote, that asks us to go back to baptism, to our baptism, my baptism and to the Church and what it has done and does do with baptism. Most of us were probably baptised at a time when the understanding was that it was a washing away of sin. Once one becomes of an age when one can think, it is fantastically difficult to see that. There is no way that I can stand at the Font with a young child and think about the washing away of sin, no matter how entrenched in the doctrine of the Church that is. Sure, there is a sense of cleansing, of renewing, going on. And there is always a sense, sometimes more than others, of entering into the chaos, the waters of chaos.

The overall baptism is about preparation and I like that idea and I like the idea that we baptise because, if you are going out for the night, you have a shower first, you bathe. If you’re going to church even, you bathe, and get ready. If you are going to bed to make love, you bathe, you get ready, It is a preparation for something, it’s a preparation, it’s not it, its getting ready for something. Perhaps that’s why it’s so important that Jesus was baptised.

Now we can stay with some of that doctrine of the washing away of sin, but then we run into a problem, because we also have a doctrine of Jesus being without sin, hence we’ve got Immaculate Conception, Virgins and all of that stacked up, so that we’ve got sinlessness - and now we’ve got a baptism. And I do think there is value there as well, because what it shows and what Jesus shows, is that it is not something that one does for oneself.

Jesus was not baptised so that Jesus could be one of the baptised, he was baptised as part of the baptism of the whole of humanity. He needed to be baptised in order to be part of humanity that is co-creating with God. We need to be baptised - or to acknowledge that which is revealed when the heavens are rent open - in order that we might find ourselves one with all people, and it is not something that we need to be proud of that we have done for ourselves that sets us apart. Rather it is our joining in with the process of creation unfolding, like the spirit that moves in the book of Genesis over the chaos out of which all was born.

We enter those same waters, we mimic that same Spirit, we give our head into the chaos that we might rise out of it along with Jesus to find the spirit descend on us like a dove and a voice from heaven and to recognise that we, too, are Divine Children, called to participate in the unfolding of creation.

Jesus knew his oneness with humanity. He didn’t stand alone. He came down and he bent into the mud. It’s at the front of Mark’s Gospel because that really is the beginning of the good news; it’s the story of Christmas and the story of Creation. We too have been baptised. As we read the Acts of the Apostles, What is our response when Paul asks of us, did we receive the Spirit? Did it change our lives or has that begun, has that begun?

We can easily think that the job was done at that point: I’m a member of the church, all is well.

Or, as we begin a New Year, remember that our baptism asks of us to be renewed so that we might renew the whole of creation and fulfil our call to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God; to bring light where there is darkness, to give sight to the blind, to open the ears of the deaf, to speak for peace, to herald alongside the angels “Do not be afraid”.

There is a lot in our baptism. The baptism of Jesus is so important because is allows us to see that our baptism is so important.

The Lord be with you.