Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43:1–7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14–17 | Luke 3:15–22
"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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" (Luke 3:21-22).
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, a moment that marks not only the beginning of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, but one that also invites us to share in His ministry too. Baptism is one of the central sacraments, the sacred mysteries of the Church, passed down to us through long generations back to Jesus Christ Himself, who called His disciples to go to every nation on earth and make more disciples, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that He had commanded them… the way of life He had revealed to them to share with the world.
Many of us have been baptized longer than we can remember, but as I have shared with many of you before, I can remember my baptism well. I grew up in the Church, and have believed in God as long as I can remember. The Church I attended as a young person did not practice infant baptism, and I was 15 years old when I was baptized: standing in front of the congregation, many of them my relatives, and publicly owning my faith before being submerged in a tank full of water.
Although most of us think of baptisms as occasions for celebration, to my 15 year old self I saw my baptism as a big problem. As I’ve shared before, the feeling that stands out the most to me about that day is fear… fear of failure, fear of angering God… fear of not being good enough. In my mind, I thought if I sinned before being baptized, I still had a chance to find forgiveness… but if I sinned after being baptised… if I kept messing up after dedicating my life to God, then I would be blowing my last chance with Him. And this thought had me terrified. I had my share of struggles, sins and temptations, and though I tried my best to fight them, or at very least to hide them, and doubted that I could ever measure up in the eyes of the LORD.
That day over 20 years ago, I felt like I was facing the end. And in some ways, this was true: Baptism is a kind of end. A death to an old life bound to brokenness, sin, and despair. But more importantly baptism is about what happens after this end! It’s about New Creation, the New Life of the Living God.
The Holy Scriptures open in Genesis Chapter 1 with a powerful image of God’s creative impulse at work:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The NRSV translation uses the phrase “wind from God” here, but the word wind is the same word for breath, and also spirit. In ancient Hebrew, these meanings are not easily separated, and are best held closely together if we want to actually get the message. In the beginning we’re told God’s Spirit is moving above the dark, chaotic waters… the abyss of nothingness… the void of un-creation.
Then God speaks, and brings creation into being… a proper place for new life to flourish… filling the earth and all the cosmos with His beauty, glory, and goodness. It is an act of grace; existence itself is conceived of as a gift, springing from the powerful, creative love of God.
Hold onto this image as we now turn to our Gospel passage this morning, to St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, and the New Beginning it brings.
Luke tells us that crowds of people from around the region of the Jordan River were coming to John to be baptized, seeking God’s forgiveness. In response to John’s teachings, they knew there was something off in their connection to the LORD their God, and so they took on this tangible way to start again and find their own new beginnings. A personal and public way to have the rest of one’s life dedicated to the LORD… seeking to start again with a fresh start as God’s faithful people.
Then Jesus comes to be baptized along with them… which in the wider story seems strange for all sorts of reasons. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, even John himself is confused by this and actually tries to stop Jesus from being baptised by him. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Why would the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen Saviour sent from God need to be baptized? Why would He need to start again?
Again in the baptism of Jesus we are witnessing a gracious gift being given. Unlike the crowds who came to John, Jesus had not come to restart His own story, but to restart the story of all His people… and indeed the world. Jesus humbly allowed Himself to be baptized by human hands in a way which the Living God worked through to reveal Himself and His mission… to make known His rescuing love… and to bring God’s New Creation to life in the lives of His un-faithful people.
Echoing the imagery from Genesis Chapter 1, St. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit again moves over the waters in the form of a dove, and rests upon Jesus. Then a voice from Heaven, the same which spoke the universe into existence, proclaiming: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
According to the prophets of old, Israel was called to be God’s beloved son, a community graciously created and rescued by the LORD to share in His holy ways. Our reading today from Isaiah 43 reminds us of how the Living God reached out to Israel in love even as they struggled to stay true to Him: Isaiah 43:1-3…
“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
In line with His holy love, and promises to redeem and restore His chosen people, Jesus, God’s Son was sent to
restart the story of Israel… to relive it faithfully on their behalf with His own sinless life. In Jesus, God had come to be with them as their Saviour.
And His baptism was only the beginning of this mission: everything Christ does in Luke’s Gospel carries this work of God forward… bringing the LORD’s healing, hope, correction, forgiveness, and holy love to Israel just as the prophets had long ago foretold. Of course, the cross is where His story comes to a head… where Jesus, God’s beloved Son humbly allows Himself to be brutally betrayed, tortured, and killed in the most public and shameful way possible… dying the death of a rebel… to rescue rebels like us. To put an end to the enmity between us and the Living God.
They put His broken, bloodied body in the ground, buried in the abyss of death. But then God’s greatest gift: through death and out the other side, Jesus rose up from the grave, and lives now forever as the first resurrected, re-created human, completely alive in the power of the Holy Spirit… the same Spirit He sent to us believers first at Pentecost, and which we pray to receive as the gift of God’s New Life in baptism.
This gift of New Life in the Spirit Christ shares with us has implications… it promises not only God’s presence with us, but also His re-creative power at work within us as we trust in Him and seek His ways… changing the shape of our lives, not just privately, but publicly too.
Our reading from Acts is a great example, revealing that this gift is not just meant for a few insiders, but for all. In the early days of the Church, there were already ancient divisions between the people of Judea and Samaritans, who both traced their ancestry back to the people of Israel, but who looked at each other as heretical outsiders and enemies. At first the Apostles and all of the disciples of Jesus, the Church, had been Jewish, but through the ministry of people like St. Peter and St. John among others, God poured out His Spirit on Samaritans who had believed as well, reconciling two estranged peoples in the new community of Jesus. This would only be the beginning, for Christ’s disciples were tasked to share the Good News of Jesus with all the world… an ongoing calling for every generation, including ours today, drawing us into the mission of Jesus, which Isaiah 43 echoes:
“Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’” (Isaiah 43:5-7)
“Do not fear, for I am with you…”
That’s what my 15 year old self was missing: being baptized into Jesus… receiving the gifts of His rescuing death, and resurrection life through the Holy Spirit are not about re-creating myself, saving myself… but about trusting God my Saviour… about His New Creation work in me, and even more shocking, through me. Trusting that as we share in Christ’s life, offered to us as a gift, the Living God our Saviour is with us, at work making all things new.
More than 20 years later, I am still far from perfect. I’m aware of many of my flaws and failings, as your priest, a spouse, a parent… as a disciple of Jesus Christ. And there’s plenty more that I’m not yet aware of as well.
But as unworthy, or frightened as we may feel, our hope is found in the One who laid down His life to raise us up with Him into God’s New Creation… to rescue us in holy love, even while we were rebels… and to share in the new beginning of Christ’s good Kingdom which will have no end. Amen.