Sunday 9 January 2022: The Baptism of Christ
Renewing the face of the earth?
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
Context: a large, diverse and informed congregation in a town setting
Aim: to keep faith with the Christological intentions of this text and to suggest the need for another cleansing of our derailed world
So many tantalising questions are raised by Luke’s account around Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry that I need to enlist your help. I want to share out four key questions for you to consider as the sermon proceeds (I owe this idea to the homiletician Fred Craddock). Most of us multi-task or drift off during the sermon, even if it’s only to plan lunch or the rest of our day. So, here we go. Those with Christian names beginning with the letter A-F, consider what Jesus might be thinking as he begins his public ministry. Those from G to M, consider the variety of ways water is used in the Bible to purify, deliver, threaten, bless and destroy. Those from N-S ask what the affirming voice from heaven says about Jesus and our discipleship. Finally, those from T-Z help to end the sermon by deciding your immediate practical response to the text. I won’t be asking for feedback, but your engagement will enable the preaching to speak more directly to your condition.
At the age of 30, the time set in Judaism for adults to make life-changing decisions, Jesus left home, abandoned his family and the family business and associated himself with a radical preacher, John. John was consumed by a sense of imminent judgement that only national repentance and moral re-construction might avert. To those who responded, he administered a baptism used for converts to Judaism. In doing so, he was declaring that the nation had forfeited their special relationship to God and was as unclean, sinful and alien as any Gentile. Imagine a national leader questioning your loyalty, your right of citizenship and your religious integrity.
Sin is the virus that knows no boundaries. It infests and dehumanises all structures and people. We spend so much energy on personal morality that societal corrosion has free rein. John was offering the final ritual means for those who wanted to signify their readiness to undergo a radical moral transformation. John’s baptism became the sacrament of the New Age, the means by which the people of God were, and are, called out and prepared for their place in the coming Kingdom.
It seems surprising that Jesus offered himself for baptism, at least on the lines we know it. But that he should present himself for a convert’s baptism, identify himself with the treachery of his people and assume the condemnation of God is astonishing. In his baptism, Jesus becomes, in Karl Barth’s words: ‘the one great Sinner who repents’. He identifies with his people, but more even than that, he who lived in complete fidelity with God absorbed human sin, shame and guilt and offered himself as a perfect offering on behalf of his wayward people.
There’s no direct personal relationship between John and Jesus in Luke’s account. Luke is so keen to remove John from the baptism scene that he’s located him in prison even before he’s administered the baptism! Luke isn’t interested in the baptism of Jesus itself and merely notes that it has taken place. He’s most likely attempting to reduce the embarrassment felt in the early Church over Jesus’ baptism by someone inferior to himself. And he wants to clear the stage for the new dispensation brought by Jesus.
JESUS: GOD’S SON AND SERVANT
Now, suddenly after his baptism, ‘the heaven was opened,’ the messenger of God was heard proclaiming to the world the Epiphany theme: God’s Son and Christ. The Holy Spirit reappears, descending on Jesus in a way that hints that his impending ministry will be a new act of creation. John was the prophet of the end time; Jesus is the pioneer of a new aeon. He doesn’t need wind and fire to separate and consume his wayward people. Instead, he will inaugurate a new rule by pouring out his Spirit on all who want a new start.
REFORM AND REPENTANCE
A call for radical national renewal is seldom heard until time is running out. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was set up when the integrity of the state was under threat. But many sense the widespread, cumulative threat to our future life on earth. The world order is collapsing, western democracy is under strain. Truth, trust, integrity and respect are losing ground. Will it be possible for us to replenish the reservoir of moral and spiritual energy that is disappearing without a concerted call for reform, repentance and renewal? I hope the preaching you made your own will draw you deeper into the world’s Lord and Saviour and fill you with his Spirit.
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