Sermons from St Faith's     

On Baptism
Fr Dennis Smith, the Baptism of Christ, January12th, 2014

Most people love a baptism or, as it’s popularly known if it’s a baby, a christening. Just think of the media attention to the baptism of a royal prince last year. And an infant baptism is usually a public affair – a time for family and friends to come together to celebrate an addition to the family. Then there’s the added excitement as to whether the baby will be nice and quiet, or will howl at being in the arms of  a strange person in strange garb – and how the priest will deal with that!

And today, even in those churches that habitually baptise infants, we see a growing number of adult baptisms or, more correctly, believer baptisms – baptisms of people who have come to faith, not been baptised as infants, and want to mark their new-found faith by being baptised.

Then there is a different sort of celebration – not of the life of a baby, but of the new life in Christ that the person being baptised has found. Imagine the scene at Jesus’s baptism. There was that wild figure, John the Baptist, with long hair, a beard, unkempt, preaching a hellfire message to the crowd. And people flocked to him from all sides. Because he had caught the mood of the moment. There was a sense that something big was going to happen – although people were not quite sure what. And when people came and stood around, on the river banks, in the river shallows, they wanted to do something to show that they were ready for this coming great event – whatever it would be.

So they got baptised. They would queue up and John would plunge them into the muddy waters of the Jordan as a sign of their preparedness. Not dignified, quite chaotic, but something was definitely going on.

Then one day Jesus appeared, a youngish man, some thirty years old. At Christmas we’ve just celebrated Jesus’s birth. Between the birth and this event, some thirty years later, there’s a great gap in our knowledge – they’re often referred to as “the hidden years”. We only know that at the age of twelve Jesus had paid a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem.

What had been happening in the intervening years, the so-called hidden years? Well, we can be pretty sure that those hidden years had been a time of preparation. Jesus would have gradually come round to recognising that God was going to do something amazing in the near future, and that it somehow tied up with him. And John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin, seemed to be thinking along similar lines. So Jesus was drawn to him.

He appeared in the crowd, one of the crowd. And in due course he joined the queue to be baptised. But John hesitated when Jesus presented himself for Baptism. There was an aura about Jesus that seemed to indicate that he didn’t need to be baptised in preparation for the great event that was to happen.

But Jesus wanted to be one of the crowd. He wanted to identify with them, be one with them,. So in the end he got his way and was baptised. It was for him a deep religious experience. As he came up, out of the water, he felt a new power surging through him, the power of God. It was the Holy Spirit filling him. And possibly, within his own consciousness, he heard a voice: “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased”.

Jesus walked away from the river that day a different person. He now knew, rather than suspected, that the great coming event that people were expecting was going to be triggered off by him. He went off with his sense of destiny confirmed. And we know that in the course of the next few years the world was changed into a different place.

He went around teaching, performing miracles and finally was arrested and condemned. He died on the cross and he rose from death. The world, our world, was never the same again.

Jesus’s baptism was unique, dramatic, and at least in his own experience, and our baptisms’ are different, but there are some similarities … .

First, in our baptisms, as when we celebrate the eucharist, we are looking back to what happened all those years ago; Jesus’s life, death and rising again, and the difference that they have made and are still making. And in baptism, we are saying symbolically, “I am glad that Jesus was baptised, that he died and rose again. That has made a difference to the world. I want it to make a difference to me. I want to become part of his story”.

Secondly, in our baptisms, we are looking forward to things to come. Baptism is a point of departure, a new beginning. One of the worries and concerns some people have today is; “How can I escape my past? Is it all laid down what I shall be? Shall I go on repeating the mistakes that I have made in the past? What is to stop me from repeating them?”

The message of baptism is simple and particularly appropriate soon into the New Year:: New beginnings are always possible. We are not totally determined by our past. Our whole life is a constant stepping out of the old world into the new world that Jesus has set up. That’s very clear when an adult believer is being baptised. Here is someone saying, “I am not simply what my past has made me. God has done something to me. God has brought me to faith and I intend to go one that way”.

But that is also true when an infant is baptised. Being baptised doesn’t make a child better behaved  - although parent might sometime wish it did! But, as children grow up in a Christian home and in the family of the church, the truth of baptism will dawn upon them. They will learn that they can step out into God’s new future because of what God has done through Jesus. And, at whatever stage in our lives we are, we can tell ourselves that the message of baptism still applies to us now, all these years on.

Thirdly, baptism signifies being part of the believing community, the church. When John baptised people, they were wishing to show publicly that they wanted to belong to the new order, the new world that God was beginning to create around them.

Baptism, for us, signifies that we are not simply members of the human race, but are also part of the new world that God is still building in our world today – what we usually call the Kingdom of God.

Finally, does baptism really make a difference? Well, in a way, it doesn’t. We don’t believe that unbaptised babies are damned and baptised babies are automatically saved – although that cruel doctrine has caused a lot of heartache in the past. Our eternal destiny doesn’t depend on our being baptised. It depends on God’s love. But baptism does do something. The remembrance of our own baptism, our being present at the baptism of another, remind us powerfully that Jesus died and rose again – for me, and each and every one of us.

New beginnings are possible – always, whenever. And for that we can give thanks to God.

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