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It is easy to confuse the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist with our baptism of children in the Christian church.
John’s baptism was one of repentance, and marked a return to the God of Israel and commitment to the Torah. It was not a baptism of salvation, but did promise a change in a person’s direction, a change in what a person was doing with his or her life.
John’s baptism marked a promise by a person to do better. John calls his baptism a forerunner of the baptism to come, which Jesus will bestow, and is “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16)
I was surprised to find, researching this sermon, that many scholars believe that the baptism of Jesus by John, and his crucifixion by the Romans, are among the two most certain historical facts about Jesus. The baptism of Jesus was the first of five major Gospel movements in his life : Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.
John the Baptist used the Jordan River for baptism. It was running water, important to the washing away of sin in the Torah, and it was deep. Very likely John immersed Jesus in the river, a sign of utter surrender and submission to the law of God.
I have always found it significant that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove, not as a great raptor or even a threatening buzzard or other carrion bird. Not even a crow or a sea gull.
A dove, the bird released by Noah that returned with a living branch promising a return to life after the great flood.
A dove, the sacrifice of the poor at the temple, for those who could not afford a lamb. A dove, a sign of peace and gentleness.
I remember a great deal of pressure coming to bear on me in my early twenties to be baptized by immersion. Some of my friends had been re-baptized by immersion, and they were sure that immersion was the baptism of the New Testament. There is a theology of salvation that assigns to baptism by itself the fullest weight of salvation.
If you are an adult and you decide deliberately to be baptized into the Christian faith, the experience is striking. But in reality life as a Christian begins with baptism.
There is much more to discover, and much farther to go. The emphasis on total immersion and on being old enough to believe the Gospel for ourselves implies that God’s favour is attracted when our beliefs are correct, or our knowledge of God fits certain norms.
It could also say that we cannot be baptized until there are signs that God is working in our lives.
These two beliefs are incorrect and, in fact, hopeless.
Early records suggest that Christian baptism was often by immersion, but more often water was poured over the candidate. They suggest that whole families were baptized, meaning baptism was not always congruent with perceived need, accurate beliefs or even willingness.
There were very early efforts to create a catechumen or school of instruction to be sure that candidates for baptism would first of all understand their own baptism, and secondly be able to carry on the Christian faith in their own lives.
As in everything you find in school or in a book, nothing really kicks in until you begin to live it!
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance from the kind of dead end life many people live. It was also a powerful ordination for change and a new direction.
John’s baptism powerfully placed Jesus in the midst of the Israelite people, the Jews of his day. He was united by baptism with the ancient people of God, and through John he became a student of the past. By letting John the Baptist pour water over his head, or submerge him in the Jordan, which ever it was that John did, Jesus identified himself with our human need of salvation, and took up his mantle as Christ.
As Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and God spoke to him of favour, marking an entirely new dispensation on the whole human race.
Those who follow Jesus, those who are baptised into Christ, also experience the Holy Spirit descending upon them, and the hour of God’s favour.
Jesus identified with us during John’s baptism, which speaks to our current situation in the world, and we will be identified with him in our baptism. Amen.
Picture a bright young man of 19 years, studying to be a doctor, sitting in church. While he was sitting there tuning out the sermon, he noticed a swinging lantern over the altar, which swung back and forth according to the drafts. It seemed, by comparing the swings with his heartbeat, that the lantern took the same amount of time to swing back and forth no matter how far it was swinging. When he returned home, he hung two balls on string of equal length and swung one with a large sweep and the other with a small sweep and found that they kept time together. This was a new observation for science. Not that he did anything other than write his discovery down - using a pendulum to count time in a clock had to wait until the year 1657.
But the experience of discovery changed the young man's life. He stopped studying medicine and began studying mathematics and physics. His name was Galileo, and the year of the pendulum was 1581. According to Stephen Hawking, Galileo probably bears more of the responsibility for the birth of modern science than anybody who has ever lived. Albert Einstein called Galileo the father of modern science.
No doubt hundreds of people had sat in that church watching that lantern sway--back and forth, back and forth. Even Galileo had watched it Sunday after Sunday. But on this one occasion, in the middle of his boredom, he suddenly had an Aha! Moment.
We are in an entire season of Aha's. It is called Epiphany, when the light of Christ is revealed to the world. This is a time for new experiences of God, and for a fresh awareness of his presence. We are asked to run naked in God's presence, and beg God to draw us into an intimate surrender to his holiness. For some people, Epiphany is a season of dramatic encounters with faith. Will you begin to do that?
In Galileo's Aha! moment, he discovered something new and exciting about swinging objects, something that hadn't really occurred to him before, and then he experimented and wrote down his observation. He would have told you, "It was so remarkable, I had to write it down and draw some pictures of what I found."
Even more, Galileo spent a lifetime seeking one new and dramatic discovery after another. He was addicted to the Aha! It drove him.
Now some of you have trouble getting anything out of a sermon. Perhaps you expect me or Jennifer or even Billy Graham to tickle your fancy by creating a series of Aha! Moments for you, without you going out and looking for one. Week after week, in as many ways as we can, we declare - in the music, in the words of liturgy, in the closeness of our bodies and our voices - in the very air we share - that this God is real, that this deep and amazing spiritual experience is real, that you will be encountered by the living God here. Church should be an Aha! moment.
Galileo realized that he had to find his Aha! Moments. Discoveries are not creations. You find discoveries, you do not make them. Galileo's Aha! Moments were not imaginary, not artistic, not fanciful, and not controllable. His Aha! Moments were based in discovery and in a hunt for understanding. He searched for his Aha! Moments in all kinds of places.
It ought to be the same with us, we ought not to simply think we can stumble on the big moments with God by accident, or that we can conjure them up for ourselves. What we preach and teach and portend week after week at St. Thomas is a Christian life of discovery founded on the Galileo principle of diligently seeking encounters and understanding, with expectation.
Most of us do not bump from Aha! To Aha! It was the same for Galileo. He had Aha's! But he had one here, and another one there. Sometimes he worked on an Aha! Only to find it was an Oh! Hum!
Exciting and deeply moving moments with God are intersections, not highways. For example, the Magi spent a long time hugging a camel's saddle before finding Jesus. Even then, they did not go straight to the manger, nor had they even heard about the angels and the shepherds. They expected their Aha! To be in Herod's palace. Instead they found an ordinary townhouse with a poor couple barely able to afford a television, and little boy barely two years old. He may have made strange with them, who knows. And they gave him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
It is 2013. I have been talking about a deeper spirituality at St. Thomas, and about pursuing a fresh encounter with the living God. The Holy Spirit is our Bethlehem Star. God must lead the way for us to become that church we are meant to be. God has plans for us, and they will only be achieved if we saddle up the camels and get in motion. But that never means we won't be chased by chimpanzees - most of life is about struggle and muddling through. Very little of life is about the mountaintop and the top of the world, and ah, it is such a fine morning to be having coffee and doing nothing.
Yesterday, Council spent a couple of hours discussing the nature and possibilities of Fraser Valley Counselling Centre, and its affects on our parish. We began our discussions with prayer, and we know that no one undertakes a long journey on a humpty back camel without accepting some risk. We will be offering a variety of family and couples programs and workshops under the banner, as well as some personal counselling. These will be of enormous value to our church and community.
One of Council's questions, although not framed in this fashion, is this one. "Where is the star of Bethlehem leading us? Is God calling us to mount up our camels and go this way?" And so we find ourselves on a journey with Alex and Judith. As a church let us pray for Alex and Judith, and let us beg God to shed his light on our every footstep. Who would have thought? But then Galileo had watched that lantern for weeks and weeks without an Aha! Moment.
In March Council will be retreating to Charis Camp for a day of getting to know each other and to talk further about the kind of church we should be. This is all about God and his plans for us, not about us and our plans for God. God is not a commodity. Instead, we should be falling more and more into his waiting arms - following the Bethlehem Star, and expecting nothing in return. And when we finally get where we are going, we could find a townhouse, and a poor family, and an incredible promise..
I want to pursue the Bethlehem Star, and those extra special Aha! Moments when Jesus says, "Well done! Good and faithful servants!"
I have long believed that Mary was Luke's primary source for everything Christmas. He records her story, and in his Gospel, he pays attention whenever a woman speaks.
On this last Sunday in Advent, Luke wraps up the Hebrew scriptures as he begins his Gospel. Many years of following the Mosaic Law, and mounting Jewish expectations of a Messiah, are coming to an end. Here we have the final Old Testament pregnancy with an elderly mother, Elizabeth, and coming birth of John the Baptist. John is the final Old Testament prophet - appointed to announce the coming of the Anointed One, the Christ. Elizabeth sings her special song of praise with Mary, "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And so the coming of the Messianic age begins with Mary's song of salvation. "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."
These two little boys of the Christmas story had a head start. Not only were they children of promise, each with a miraculous conception and a remarkable promise - but they were both born to parents who knew the Lord. John the Baptist was raised in a devout and traditional household. His father was a priest before the Lord, and Zachariah and Elizabeth had been married a long time. John was taught everything that could be taught about God, and because of Elisabeth and Zechariah's faith, we can be sure that a heartfelt love of the Lord was modelled before him every day, at home. Elizabeth and Zechariah cannot but have spoken of God in voices of wonder and care.
We take for granted that Jesus grew up knowing his heavenly Father personally and intimately from the beginning. It never occurs to us that Mary and Joseph were specifically chosen as his parents because of their reliable faith, because they knew the scriptures, and because they themselves would speak openly and comfortably in front of their child about all that God was doing for them. They modelled their faith to a one year old, a two year old,a ten year old, and an eighteen year old. You see, Jesus grew up exactly as we grew up, discovering and exploring and becoming someone. He wasn't fully-formed when he arrived, he had to become the Saviour of the world.
Joseph was not Jesus' real father. Jesus grew up in a blended family, with half brothers and sisters, just like many families today. His parents loved the Lord, and made faith a household word. Joseph loved Mary's son, as he did all his children. Joseph is a model for all those who raise someone else's children.
When it comes to raising children, and to speaking of God to adults, remember that a love for God does not grow in a vacuum of information, or in total ignorance of the Lord. It grows as we share, as we pass on our faith.
(Romans 10:14-15) "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
My generation and a couple generations that have followed it have failed somehow to pass on faith. Somehow our children have missed our point, have failed to seek, have no idea of why we would consider the Lord Jesus to be so faithful to us, to love us, and to meet with us intimately.
Perhaps we have been too reluctant to speak personally and candidly to them about what the Lord means to us.
Perhaps we have not explained ourselves to avoid sounding pushy, or ill-informed, or unsophisticated.
Sometimes we avoid speaking about what the Lord has done for us, or given us, because we are ashamed, or because we have not wanted to see our own faith challenged.
When Douglas Fenton was here, I said to him, "For a long time we have simply assumed people knew what faith was about. We have failed to pass faith on to the next generation for decades. We don't talk informally or lovingly about God enough. It is time to reinvest in stories to congregations." Mary and Elizabeth have stories full of wonder, and poetry.
In reality, both women struggled.
We get the feeling Zachariah was just a priest, bottom of his caste, and not a power player. Elizabeth and Zachariah lived far outside Jerusalem, in the hill country, and were probably poor.
Mary and Joseph were, of course, nobodies from a nobody little town called Nazareth. They uprooted and fled to Egypt with a new baby. They called on God, but they were far from wealthy.
These couples, one charged with raising John the Baptist, and the other with raising Jesus, modelled faith and obedience to God, not only at home but everywhere. Ask what Mary and Joseph were about, and even though they might start by telling you what town they were from, and who their parents were, and maybe what they did - very soon you would realize that the love of God was soon and often on their lips. Same thing with Elizabeth and Zechariah!!
And so for their children an alert and lively faith was born in the cradle.
Faithful people are a powerful sign to the whole world. We are faithful people, and we each point ourselves and others toward the God of salvation and intimacy. By our faithful witness, in actions too - but most importantly with our lips - others find a reason to make Jesus the Lord of their lives. Amen.
John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than me is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
We have two little boys here, come for their baptism. We are promising to raise them to know the Lord, and to be raised in a home that knows the Lord.
We are promising that when they are ready, usually about 12 years of age, they will have been brought up not only being told about Jesus, but with a growing love and awareness of Jesus, and a willingness to have a bishop lay hands on them and confirm the faith that is in them. At that point, they will take on these promises for themselves, but our promises to all children who are baptized at St. Thomas will continue.
Now that is the ideal, the fantasy. We all know that in practice, parents go home, sponsors go home, babies go home, we all go home. Sometimes everyone is deeply touched during a baptism and prayers flow up to God. At other times, our memories drift off to sleep, we get caught up in other things, and we step away from seeking the Lord for ourselves and even more so for our children.
John the Baptist would warn against falling away, even if only for a time. While we may be taking a faith timeout, our children may be missing that one chance in a lifetime to make a solid connection with the God of the Bible.
Jesus is not a wimpy nice guy, but the Lord of Hosts. He is powerful, he is holy, and he wishes to baptize us with his Holy Spirit. You might say, “Wonderful! Where is he?” and I would say “you must seek him in prayer and meditation and amongst his faithful followers.” A great deal can happen in a little parish church like ours if we but let Jesus unleash the power of his Spirit upon us. That is already happening, just look around you. That is the main point of baptism, that that these two little boys might grow up to be the Spirit filled men they ought to be. I pray often that God’s Holy Spirit might blow through these walls and this church and bring a fresh awakening.
John the Baptist brings a warning against complacency. Life is filled with danger, not from the wild beasts of the field or from some deadly terrorist. Not danger from that enemy of humanity we call cancer, not danger from starvation and poverty. John the Baptist warns us of the danger of flaunting the offer of Jesus to send his Holy Spirit upon us, the offer of rescue from the dead end ways of this world, the summons to duty and service to Him. We live in an era in which the fear of God is lost, in which we assure each other that all paths lead to heaven, in which there is no accountability for faith before God’s throne in heaven. We do not commend ourselves to God, we fall on his mercy.
Raise these two little boys to fear God, and to love God. Love alone without structure is mush, and the world is far too full of religious mush. Accountability rests with parents first, then with sponsors, but also with churches. We have welcomed two helpless children into our midst in baptism - we have made promises on their behalf - now we must all follow through.
How will we pass on our faith to a new generation? Letting people think and worship entirely as they want, each one under his own green tree, does not seem to have worked very well. There are a couple of generations out there who know very little about their creator, and even less about salvation. Many of them are spiritual, but in an unschooled sort of way. Nor are people without organization able to speak and serve as a larger body. Faith is taught, and life in the Holy Spirit is caught, and often the church has been too humanist and unitarian in its approach to do either with power and conviction.
Our second problem however, is to keep from teaching a faith that is narrow and rule regulated. Catechisms and discipline can have the appearance of godliness without the power.
There is something else needed for us to be successful at passing faith to this new generation. How did our ancestors most successfully pass on their Christian faith from generation to generation? They did it through example, and through love, and through an expectation of faith. Faith is a language that is learned. Children watch and listen. They experiment and find out.
Faith among children ought to be deeply personal and age appropriate to them, and encouraged. Generations that have faithfully passed on a love of Jesus and a knowledge of him have done it first through the example of parents and families. Worshipping and honouring God at all times and in all places is something to practice, not just in church but everywhere. We must see to it that we do that. That is what these promises are about. That is what we are promising today.
Jesus took little children on his knee and blessed them. Through prayer we ask him to do the same for Lucas and Kaeden - that the Holy Spirit would hover over them and that the love of God would be always round about them. Our work of raising a generation who loves the Lord must truly connect them to Jesus - not just intellectually or through rote and discipline, but through the intimacy of the heart and soul. Amen.
Both John and Jesus had miraculous conceptions - Elizabeth
could not get pregnant, and had John in her old age. Mary, of
course, was the exact opposite. Of all the miraculous births,
Mary’s pregnancy comes early, not late. God is about to do a new
thing. And Mary’s pregnancy is a different kind of miracle.
Zechariah is clearly John’s father, but Mary is pregnant without
Joseph or any other man - Jesus will be able to say, “God is my
Luke tells us that Mary went to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah.
Her family probably sent her away to have the baby - out of sight,
safe from stoning. Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant together,
and they were related (Luke 1:36). Mary stayed about three
months, perhaps until Joseph came to marry her.
So John was a relative of Jesus, about the same age, but they did
not grow up together. John grew up in the hill country. Both came
from parents that loved the Lord. John would have grown up in
the home of priest, following the Torah faithfully and carefully, and
learning all the old testament stories. He would have known the
law inside out, and he would have known what it means to be
tempted, to fail, to repent, to come to God. John was able to
preach from the experience of grace.
I got a call from a friend who thinks he is King David. I haven’t
heard from him for four years, and suspect he is off his
medication. When he rambles on he is two things at once:
intelligent and deluded. He got arrested in Israel last I had heard
for declaring “The Lord is going to smite Israel! I am King David!”
Someone grabbed him.
The question is, “Why would they listen to John the Baptist and
not King David?”
I listened for a rambling twenty minutes yesterday because I care
about “King David,” as a person, not because he knows what he’s
saying. He talks about himself too much. And his thinking about
God is all screwed up. He knows lots about the Bible, but he uses it to make himself important.
John the Baptist was very different. He didn’t talk about himself.
He caught your attention because he talked about God, and about
you. And he spoke the truth in a way that really pulled you up
short. John knew you, and knew what was in your heart. He could
prick you where it hurt, and he could touch you where it mattered.
People listened to John the Baptist, even though it hurt a lot. John
had a healing heart, but he used strong medicine. The people
were all hiding behind masks, and John not only shattered their
masks in public, he told them “Stop wearing masks. Do right
things.” The truth can be very freeing. Acting on what the truth can
be very difficult.
A little boy visiting his grandparents was given his first slingshot.
He practised in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he
came back to Grandma's back yard, he spied her pet duck. On an
impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell
The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the
woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had
seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, Grandma
said, "Sally, let's wash the dishes."
But Sally said, "Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen
today. Didn't you, Johnny?" And she whispered to him,
“Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes.
Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing,
Grandma said, "I'm sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper."
Sally smiled and said, "That's all taken care of. Johnny wants to
do it." Again she whispered, "Remember the duck." Johnny
stayed while Sally went fishing.
For several days Johnny did both his chores and Sally's. Finally
he couldn't stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he'd killed the
duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was
standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love
you, I forgave you. I wondered how long Sally could make a slave of you.
Luke tells us exactly when John the Baptist was preaching. If you
are a historian or an archaeologist, you will be able to point to the
exact years and the exact place. That is because the Luke’s
Gospel is settled in history. It is not a novel all made up. It is not
even like one of the those historical novels you can read. It is
about real people, real places. My Dad can say, “Back in 1933,”
and so can the Bible. It can say “Back in AD 25 and AD 26, John
the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness of the Jordan River.”
We could go there and see the place. If we could travel in time,
we could find John the Baptist, and he would be there.
That is the difference between the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
It is also the difference between the Koran and the Bible. Both the
Book of Mormon and the Koran can be dated, and are written by
one person over one short span of years. The biblical record
spans a long time, and contains the witness of many voices. It
speaks about God’s work of salvation in a very personal way.
John the Baptist is a part of that greater work, not the whole
focus, just a corner brick in a larger building we call the Gospel.
Rev. John Sovereign