Getting immersed in things
Baptism of Jesus - Mark 1:4-11
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ …
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
(This is the sermon draft for January 11. You can also listen to the podcast here, if you don't mind a couple of keyboard clatters as I add a few words!)
In all the mess of the world, God's Chosen One has come to be with us. That's what Son of God means. In Jesus' time a son who had his father's blessing also had all the authority of the father. If you were talking to the son, you were talking to the father.
So what the story of Jesus' baptism is saying, first of all, is that in this person Jesus, and in the way he lives, we are seeing something of the essence of that reality we call God.
In this text today, Jesus gets baptised. He lives like us, and will die like us. Big Hint Here… we can live like him because he is like us.
A life which confesses its sin; that means, a life that owns up to how far it is away from God's desired way of living…
…and a life which turns around and sets its heart on living life God's way; that's what "repent, and trust in the good news" means…
…that life is a life which can be lived by a human being, by you and me. It can be done.
So the second thing Jesus' baptism is saying is that we can follow him into a life that lives God's way. He is like us, an ordinary man who sets his heart and mind to live God's way. If he can do it, we can do it.
Because… there is a third thing. When we repent and believe; that is, when we decide to trust him and turn our lives around to live his way, he baptises us with the Holy Spirit. We begin to be immersed in a new reality that doesn't need proving, and which has a certain power about it.
In our time we live in an environment that doesn't quite know what to do with this phrase "baptise in the Holy Spirit." What does it mean? How can we even know God, let alone feel drenched, dyed, immersed in the Spirit of God. The air I grew up in gave me a small dose of "God does not exist," with every breath I took.
Who needs God? God seems a most unlikely being. So much prayer is unanswered… So much that we once thought was God, now seems to be easily explained by science and technology and psychology… So much horror and gratuitous violence, and so much triumph of evil is abroad in the world: our own Christian theology indeed, suggests to us that human culture is founded on violence and murder and exploitation.
This is not rocket science. It was plain to me growing up, even though I could not put it in theological terms. Just like it was plain to my father's generation which survived Changi and Auschwitz and was burned by the bomb. There is something unlikely about God. We need to be baptised in Spirit. We need the evidence of the Spirit. We need that experience John 16 talks about, something that "guides us into the truth… so that our joy may be complete."
When I was growing up, our Pentecostal relatives told us they had found this evidence. They had discovered the baptism in the Spirit. They pointed to The Acts of the Apostles and the story of Pentecost, and all the stories of conversion in Acts where people spoke in tongues. That was what we needed.
Been there, done that, and that's not it. What Luke was doing in Acts was showing us the pattern of the presence of God, and what God's presence does for us. A presence
- which broke down the barriers to communication between people
- which broke down the divisions between people, even age old hatreds
- and which empowered people to speak the good news.
He saw that was often accompanied by the experience of tongues.
But what I too often found in Australian Pentecostalism was… almost performance art. I found the gospel compromised by the need to manufacture experience, and too often, simply keeping the church full with a good band.
There is a devastating paper by the theologian James Alison which looks at the possible parallels between worship and violence, where he analyses the structure of the Nuremberg Rallies. This should be required reading for any of us who lead worship, and any of us who wish worship could be a bit more entertaining.
The key thing, though, which I never realised in my search for some experience of the reality of God, is that the Gospel of Mark uses the phrase "baptise in the Holy Spirit" decades before Luke writes The Acts of the Apostles!
We don't have to understand baptism in the Spirit, or being immersed in God, in the same way our Pentecostal sisters and brothers sometimes pretend.
Do you see what I am saying?
Mark didn't know about the Pentecost story, or else, if he did, he didn't think that story was important to understand what "baptise in the Holy Spirit" means!
Listen to the Uniting Church theologian Bill Loader as he speaks about Jesus' baptism as told by Mark:
If we did not know Luke’s writings and his report in Acts of the day of Pentecost, we would expect that this immersing in the Spirit is about to take place [now, straight after Jesus' baptism]. Doubtless this is Mark’s meaning. Jesus is about to baptise in the Spirit; he is about to commence his ministry which is the good news of God. (Loader)
Baptism in the Spirit… happens when Jesus goes and heals the sick, when he feeds the hungry, and when he loves the outcasts and the rejected. Baptism in the Spirit is what is happening as Jesus walks across Galilee and Judea in the Gospel of Mark and tells people about the good news of the coming kingdom. When he does that, God becomes real to people. He "taught them as one having authority…" it says. (Mark 1:22)
But how does that help us and our desire to know God, how does that help us know the inexpressible something at the back of all things, which so much of the world we live in, says does not exist?
Jesus says, "Repent and believe"; that is, turn around and trust my way of living. Follow me. He was serious. In Chapter 8 we will hear him say, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Here is the thing which Mark discovered, and which the church discovered: even a small amount of trust and following begins to change us. It opens us up. It immerses us in a new reality, a new understanding of life. It gives us a new vision of what is real, what matters, what counts, of what is important.
I can't explain God to you, or to anyone. There are things I can say, true, but in the end, the knowing comes from trusting and doing. The immersion comes from getting into the work of the Kingdom of God.
And for all the years of my life I've spent reading and researching− it has been years− the real growth comes when I do the work of Kingdom; when I live it. That's what makes the reality of the Kingdom of God plain.
I commend it to you. Trust− live Kingdom, love others, be kind and compassionate, treat all people as neighbours− like Jesus did. No matter how imperfect we are at this, it changes us. It immerses us in the new reality of the Kingdom of God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!