My Granny, mother and aunts would say at this time of year ‘well, it’s back to paraich and aul’ claes’. For those not familiar with Lowland Scots, this meant that it’s back to ordinary food (porridge) and work clothes:
the festivities are over and it’s back to work.
For many, this time of year is tinged with sadness, and they have been in our thoughts and prayers, and they are glad when it’s over and they can return to ‘normality’.
I used to think like that when I was working; I was glad to get back to work and get on with it, but I think I was in a minority.
This time of year is a continuation of the new beginning for the Church at the start of Advent, and this is seen in the baptism of Jesus.
In the Sacrament of Baptism we celebrate what God in Christ Jesus has done for us, as we enter upon the new life which God by the Spirit opens to us. Jesus went down to death, but out of the dark depths of sorrow and suffering he rose to life and victory. This was his Baptism. This we recall each time someone is baptized. Baptism means ‘coming through the waters’, to life and salvation in Jesus Christ.
‘An order for baptism’ in David S.M Hamilton,
Through the Waters: Baptism and the Christian Life, T&T Clark 1989
John Calvin described a sacrament as ‘and outward sign by which the Lord seals, on our consciences, the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith’.
Put it another way: a good children’s address often includes a striking visual aid; are not the sacraments God’s visual aids?
We are thinking of how in our baptism we participate in Christ. We don’t have a baptism today, so how about a renewal of the baptismal vows made on our behalf? Passing the baptismal font at the door is a reminder of our baptism and our ‘coming through the waters to life and salvation in Jesus Christ’.
Incidentally, it would be good to have authenticated information about the origin of the font at the door.
The emergence of John the Baptist was like the sudden sounding of the voice of God.
In Isaiah 42:1-9, there are two sections to this particular passage. Verses1-4 describes the servant. With the Spirit upon him, he is to bring forth justice in the world: this means a particular sympathy for the poor, vulnerable and powerless. Usually what is dim or broken will die: but the servant sees that such people are cared for. There’s a challenge for us: who are the dim lights and broken reeds we normally are content to forget or write off, in our world?
Verses 5-9 calls God’s people to righteousness. It begins with a confession of God as Creator and giver of life. Again there is the concern for the easily forgotten. We ‘do righteousness’ when we help those who need a hand. God’s promise is that even the hopeless cases can be saved. Isaiah is saying that a new age is dawning.
At the time before Jesus’ baptism, the Jews were conscious that the voice of the prophets didn’t speak anymore. They said that for four hundred years there had been no prophet. But in John the prophetic voice spoke again. What then were the characteristics of John and his message?
- He fearlessly denounced evil wherever he found it. If Herod the king transgressed, John rebuked him. If the Sadducees and Pharisees were obsessed with ritual and rules of their religion, John never hesitated to say so. If the ordinary people were living lives which were unaware of God, John would tell them so.
Wherever John saw evil—in the state, in the Church, in the common people, he fearlessly rebuked it. He was like a light which lit up the dark places. He was like a wind which swept from God through the country.
- He urgently summoned people to righteousness. John’s message was not a mere negative denouncing of evil, it was a positive setting-up of the moral standards of God.
He not only denounced people for what they had done; he summoned them to what they ought to do. He not only condemned people for what they were; he challenged them to be what they could be. He was like a voice calling people to higher things. He not only rebuked evil, he also set the good things before mankind.
It may well be said that there have been times when the Church was too occupied in telling people what not to do, and negligent in setting before them the height of the Christian ideal… isn’t this a bit familiar?
- John came from God. He came out of the desert. He came to men only after he had undergone years of lonely preparation by God. He came, not with an opinion of his own, but with a message from God. Before he spoke to men, he had communed with God for a long time.
John pointed beyond himself. John was not only a light to light up evil, a voice to rebuke sin, he was also a signpost to God. It was not himself he wished men to see: he wished to prepare for the one who was to come.
p>It was the Jewish belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and that he would be the herald of the coming King. John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist. It’s no coincidence that this is the very description of the clothes which Elijah had worn.
Matthew connects John with a prophecy from Isaiah; In ancient times in the East the roads were bad. There is an eastern proverb which said,” There are three states of misery—sickness, fasting and travel.” (Maybe the last bit is still true!). Before a traveller set out on a journey he was advised ” to pay all debts, provide for dependents, give parting gifts, return all articles under trust, take money and good-temper for the journey, then bid farewell to all.” The ordinary roads were no better than tracks. They were not surfaced at all because the soil of Palestine is hard and would have borne the traffic of mules and oxen and carts.
A journey along such a road was an adventure, and an undertaking to be avoided.
There were a few surfaced and artificially made roads. Such roads were originally built by the king and for the use of the king. They were called “the king’s highway.” They were kept in repair only as the king needed them for any journey that he might make. Before the king was due to arrive in any area, a message was sent out to the people to get the king’s roads in order for the king’s journey. John was preparing the way for the king. He points not at himself, but at God. His aim is not to focus men’s eyes on his own cleverness but on the majesty of God. Men recognised John as a prophet, even after years when no prophetic voice had spoken, because he was a light to light up evil things, a voice to summon people to righteousness, a signpost to point men and womem to God.
And then we come to John’s promise.
As we have said, John pointed beyond, to what was to come. At that time he was enjoying a vast reputation, and he was wielding a most powerful influence.
Yet he said that he was not fit to carry the sandals of the one who was to come—and to carry sandals was the duty of a slave. John’s whole attitude was one of self-effacement. His only importance was, as he saw it, as a signpost pointing to the one who was to come.
He said that the one who was to come would baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
All through their history the Jews had looked for the time when the Spirit would come.
What then is the gift and work of this Spirit of God?
- The promise of the Spirit is the promise of life. The Spirit of God breathes God’s life into a man or woman. When the Spirit of God enters us, the tired, lack-lustre, weary defeatedness of life is gone, and a surge of new life enters us. (We would hope that being at Church would allow us to experience this renewal – do we go out of here feeling refreshed and renewed?).
- The Spirit of God is the Spirit of power. When the Spirit of God enters, that person is enabled to do the undoable, and to face the unfaceable, and to bear the unbearable. We only need to look back on our own lives and the lives of others to see that this is what happens, and we are able to deal with previously unimaginable problems and crises.
- The Spirit of God is connected with the work of creation. The Spirit exposed to us the orderly laws of nature, (think of lunar and solar eclipses) the details of which can be well explained by scientists. This does not negate the work of the Spirit of God, but in fact it glorifies the work of the Spirit of God as more detail is revealed by scientific research. It usually raises more questions than answers, and we’ll never know it all.
- The Spirit of God can re-create us. When the Spirit of God enters into us, our disordered lives are moulded by the Spirit into the harmony and peace of God.
The Spirit enables men to recognise God’s truth when they see it. When the Spirit enters our hearts, our eyes are opened. The prejudices which blinded us are taken away, and we are able to look differently on our fellow human beings and their situation (think of the Christian and humanitarian aid organisations).
These are the gifts of the Spirit and, as John saw it, these are the gifts brought to us by the one who was to come.
When Jesus came to John to be baptised, John was startled and unwilling to baptise him. It was John’s conviction that it was he who needed what Jesus could give, not Jesus who needed what John could give.
Ever since men and women began to think about the gospel story, they have found the baptism of Jesus difficult to understand. In John’s baptism there was a summons to repentance, and an offer of the way to the forgiveness of sins. But, if Jesus is who we believe him to be, he had no need of repentance, or need forgiveness from God. John’s baptism was for sinners conscious of their sin, and therefore it does not seem to apply to Jesus at all.
So, from the earliest times, people were puzzled by the fact that Jesus submitted to being baptised. But there were good reasons why he did.
- For thirty years Jesus had waited in Nazareth, faithfully performing the duties of the home and of the carpenter’s shop. All the time he knew that a world was waiting for him. All the time he grew increasingly conscious of his task. The success of any undertaking is determined by choosing the right time. Jesus waited for the moment to come. And when John emerged Jesus knew that the time had arrived; He was in the right place at the right time.
- Why should that be so? There was one very simple and very vital reason. It is the fact that never in all history before had any Jew submitted to being baptised. The Jews used baptism, but only for converts who came into Judaism from some other faith. No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, could ever need baptism.
Baptism was for sinners and no Jew ever saw himself as a sinner shut out from God. Now for the first time in their national history the Jews realised their own sin and their own need of God. Never before had there been such a unique national movement of penitence and of search for God.
This was the very moment for which Jesus had been waiting. This was his opportunity, and in his baptism he identified himself with the men and women he came to save.
The voice which Jesus heard at the baptism is of supreme importance. It said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That sentence is composed of two quotations; “This is my beloved son” is a quotation from Psalm 2, and every Jew accepted that Psalm as a description of the Messiah. “With whom I am well pleased” is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which is a description of the Suffering Servant.
So in the baptism there came to Jesus two certainties –
the certainty that he was indeed the Chosen One of God, and the certainty that the way in front of him was the way of the Cross. In that moment he knew that he was chosen to be King, but also knew that his throne must be a Cross. In that moment he knew that he was destined to be a conqueror, but that his conquest must have as its only weapon the power of suffering love.
In that moment there was set before Jesus both his task and the only way to fulfill it.
Let us pray:
Dear Father, when we pass the baptismal font at the door, let it be a reminder of our baptism and our ‘coming through the waters to life and salvation in Jesus Christ’.