Week of Sunday January 10 - Baptism of Jesus
Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His 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.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 25son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 26son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 27son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 29son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 30son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 31son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David,32son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon,33son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 34son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 35son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 36son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 37son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 38son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.
Why are you here?
Are you here to get saved? It's too late…. you already are saved. It's out of your hands. God has done it. Even Professor Dawkins is saved, as much as that may irritate him. We've gone down lots of side alleys about Hell in the history of the church, but we are beginning to understand: in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them… it's all been done. ( 2 Cor 5:19) We're saved.
So why are we here?
When I try to answer that question for myself, I think I started out at church because I was looking for ecstasy. I didn't call it that, but it's what I was looking for.
I was looking for that moment when everything is just right— so right that we forget who we are: the word ecstasy means "to stand outside oneself." In ecstasy we are taken out of ourselves. We escape our limitations. We experience something of the world as it could be: in fact, we experience the world as it really is; in some measure we see it with God's eyes! We become, in a small way, divine. Our finiteness and our death are no longer part of the equation for us because everything is as it should be. We are immersed in… just being. We see the world as it is.
There is an amazing statement by Paul when he's in jail and doesn't know if he will live or die: For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. (1 Philippians 1:21-24) That's ecstasy!! Who wouldn't like to be able to feel like that about the future!?
How do you get ecstasy?
We can't make it happen. We can take drugs which make us feel good because they begin to shut down the pain of life— that's what alcohol does. That's why the same people keep turning up in hospital with drug induced psychoses: for a little while the drugs remove us from the pain of our present situation. But that's not ecstasy. That's shutting ourselves down… not opening ourselves up to who we could be!
We can take drugs which alter our consciousness in other ways. I guess that's what LSD was about. But that's like giving an L plate driver a high capacity racing motor cycle— they have no discernment about what they are unleashing upon themselves— or others. It is unleashing the brain into territory which it does not have the capacity to deal with. Some religious practices assume that the spirit world beyond our immediate experience is all benign, and drug users sometimes think it's just chemistry and there is no "other."
The traditional prohibitions against divinisation and calling up the dead were not just about Judaism and Christianity trying stake out their religious territory and to maintain control. They were a recognition that it's a dangerous world, and that some places are not healthy for human beings. You can have a really bad trip!
So the monks and the nuns and the hermits pray and meditate. The immerse themselves— there's that word again— in spiritual disciplines so that they may have the maturity to live in ecstasy when it happens. But they would never say that they cause it to happen. They place themselves in the way— in the path— of ecstasy, perhaps. They open themselves to what God may choose to give them.
The heart of all those spiritual disciplines is very simple. The theologian Timothy (Kallistos) Ware said,
If a [person] asks ‘How can I become god?’ the answer, is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth’, read the Gospels, follow the commandments... deification is not a solitary but a ‘social’ process. We have said that deification means ‘following the commandments’; and these commandments were briefly described by Christ as love of God and love of neighbour.”
Did you hear that? "If a person asks 'How can I become god?' — small g. ..." This thing we call ecstasy, this desire to be more than ourselves, to be outside of ourselves, to be at peace… the Eastern Orthodox theologians call it divinisation. Maximus the Confessor calls it "the deification of the human nature." (Wikipedia) It's about becoming godly. Our Methodist heritage has a tradition called entire sanctification "(also known as perfect love; heart purity; the baptism of the Holy Spirit; the fullness of the blessing…" Wikipedia)
Ecstasy, in the end, properly perceived, is about becoming like God. We are meant to be the sort of people about whom, afterwards, someone might say, "It was like being with Jesus!" We are still human, still limited, still temptable, still knowing fear, but changed.
What we are talking about, according to John Wesley, is "a state of holiness in which believers are made free from original sin— [can you believe that!?] — and where this is a total love of God and others wrought by the infilling of the Holy Spirit."
Well, I don't know what Andrew's on about, but that last statement makes it clear: he sure isn't there yet! And me— I will… I never could be… that. I'm not good enough.
I agree with the first bit. I'm certainly not there yet. And I completely disagree with the second bit. We are able to be this. In our reading today it says Jesus was baptised with all the people. And we saw that Jesus is son of God because he is descended from Adam who is son of God. He is human, adam— made from dirt— just like us… like you!
He is Jesus Son of God in the other sense with which we are more comfortable because he let himself be baptised. He was baptised in water, and he let himself be fully immersed in living the spiritual life. He gave his life to loving his neighbours as he loved himself— that is the key difference between Jesus son of Adam, and Andrew son of Adam. We are both human, but I have not let myself be immersed in a life for others. I am still learning. Let me pay you a serious compliment: some of you here today are much closer to this than you might think!
And we can do it. The church fathers say things like "He became like us so we might become like him." They are serious. Remember that part where the angel says to Mary, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a child and you shall name him Jesus." The angel could have said, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a child and you shall call her Raelene… or Valerie… or Coral!— she will be great, a daughter of the Most High." We are like him. We are daughters and sons of the most high.
Jesus was baptised like us. He opened himself to spirit. We can be like him, immerse ourselves in the spiritual life, and become open to that ecstasy where we are taken outside of our closed selves and become who we were meant to be.
I think we should always have the right to say to the preacher, "Do you really believe this? Just between you and me— I won't tell the Moderator— do you really believe this."
And if you were to ask me, the answer is yes. The language is poetic. And the language is grasping towards nuance and insights of which we only get small glimpses. But it's talking about a reality. The theology is there: his being baptised in spirit; that is, being immersed in living for the kingdom of God, is the invitation for us to follow, and to be changed into something else. And I see that in people, even in myself: we are changed from self-centred, lost beings into people who are outside of themselves, free of themselves to be something greater.
Paul says in another place, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." There are times when all I have been able to see is like a dark pit inside me, a nothing-no-hope-what-is-the-point-of it-all place. But increasingly I see a candle in the dark. Small, flickering, distant, but real. In fact, it reminds me of the time I went walking in the dusk one night on the farm and went too far, so that I was coming a long way home in the dark. My dad turned on the barn light, the one that sat high above the shed so you could walk between the sheds at night. It was one light over a mile away, and yet it was blinding so that I couldn't look at it full on! It cast shadows over everything.
I still see that light. I see that we are something far greater than we ever expected. There is a sermon by CS Lewis where he says
"Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." - Clive Staples Lewis
In the end, I am here at church no longer seeking my personal ecstasy. I am here because I glimpse that there is something great given to us. We are called to be much greater than we commonly believe. And, in church, we are given the opportunity to seize that for ourselves, and also, to bring it to others. Do this. Be fully baptised in spirit. It is God's gift and desire for you.
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!