There are moments in our lives, when an experience helps to shape and change us forever. Can you remember such an experience, the intensity of the moment, an event, a conversation, an action, which upon reflection, shifts your world on its axis and tips you onto a new path, a new way of living and behaving?
John, the preacher and Baptist is living and preaching on the edges of society. He has been found in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan, baptising by water, warning of judgement, urging repentance and spreading the good news.
John’s words and way of life are having an impact on the people and communities around him. They have found themselves listening to John, wanting to change the way they live. They are responding to his call for repentance and baptism into a new way of life; a symbolic step taken to mark the end of one way of living and the start of a new life, as individuals and as a community.
And yet John is consistently pointing forward to someone else, to God and to God’s chosen one.
John has resisted the temptation to accept the praise and admiration of the crowd, who are urging him to make the most of his own importance. John chooses instead to point to Jesus. With a humility that must have surprised the crowd, he speaks instead of the great one to come as he helps to shape their expectations.
I baptise you with water; but One who is more powerful than I who is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the what into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:16a-17)
And John emphasises this difference, where baptism by the Spirit will separate the fruitful from the chaff that oppress them. These are strong images, demanding we pay attention as he uses the imagery of fire and wind for baptism.
It makes us reflect on our own baptisms. It reminds us baptism is not a sentimental, cosy welcoming ceremony enabling us to think we belong to a nice club filled with the right people. Baptism is the start of a new life in God, living and journeying in the company of other Christians committed to the work of Jesus.
I think John was probably a prickly character. He is described as a man of fierce ethical standards and clear expectations of himself and those around him. For him and us, in his message there is no wriggle room about the task ahead of us as people of God.
John offered forgiveness and hope. He calls for a turning away of self-centredness, entitlement and greed, and turning instead with love to a transformed life treating the poor and the weak with compassion and equity.
John’s humility and truth telling give us some very clear examples as we think about how we should behave, think and live. But his truth telling got him into trouble. Like Jesus it took him to his death. In the part of Luke’s Gospel we heard today, we are told about John’s imprisonment by Herod for daring to critique Herod’s behaviour. We know it eventually killed him.
Around our world today, Christianity is one of the most beleaguered and oppressed faiths with Christians increasingly being ostracized, victimised, oppressed, tortured and killed. They are killed because of these characteristics, courage, hope, truth-telling, living life differently, and believing in a God who loves rather than hates.
Stepping out in faith needs commitment and includes sharing life within a Christian community. Isaiah reminds us to hear God’s voice through all of the messiness, fear and oppression. God says:
I have called you by name, you are mine.
In this baptism story, Luke points out Jesus is part of the crowd around John. The baptisms taking place with John are not a private, exclusive ceremony but are shared with the crowd who have come to listen to John.
In Luke, Jesus’ baptism is not described at all, but mentioned as something which didn’t need explanations as everyone listening would have known what was happening. Jesus was simply one of the crowd being baptised.
Nowadays, the rite of baptism is immersed in the context of our Christian communities. Baptism is a declaration, a statement, showing clearly to everyone around us, we now belong to the community of God and we will live by God’s will.
In Luke’s telling of the story, he names Jesus as God’s beloved son and shows within the church the recognition and understanding that all who are baptised are also claimed as the beloved daughters and sons of God.
After Jesus is baptised along with the crowd, he then withdraws to pray. The baptism may have been simple and ordinary, what happened afterwards wasn’t.
It is after Jesus prays, we see and hear the three persons of the Trinity, in one of those rare occasions in Scripture, where they appear together, joining in a quiet celebration of blessing, joy and affirmation. God rejoices in Jesus. The Holy Spirit chooses that moment to let her presence in the life of Jesus be tangibly and physically known as she becomes visible, in bodily form gently alighting quietly as a dove on Jesus. God chooses to recognise God’s son and to bless Jesus and share that joy and pleasure.
As a man baptised among the people, Jesus is responding to God’s call through John’s life and his message. Jesus continues to live, pray and work among the people. He is united with them, especially the lowly, the outcasts, and those on the margins of society.
The Holy Spirit anoints and empowers Jesus for his work through fire and wind. Jesus’ ministry is risky, life changing and life giving, as was John’s. Baptism invites us into a similar space, with all the community, with Jesus and with God. The work beckons and calls us, reminds us we are all made in the image of God, baptised with the Holy Spirit, with water, wind and fire and we need not be afraid of following God’s will.
Isaiah reminds us God says to all of us:
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.… Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you….Do not fear, for I am with you. (Isaiah 43:1a-3a, 4a)
And even though the focus of the story has been on the identity of Jesus as the anointed one, the Messiah, the Son of God, the story tells us about God too. If Jesus is the one whom God has chosen to dwell and reveal God’s self, then we know God through Jesus.
Through Jesus we know God loves the physical and material world. The God we know in and through Jesus, is the God of human history who is active in the ongoing story of the whole of creation. This God shares the messiness of history and of people, assuming the form of a human being, suffering with humanity in order to bring redemption and salvation.
Through Jesus we see the brilliance of God whose power shines in the darkness and over which the darkness has no power. We see God’s love shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
We see it is God’s love not coercion, mercy and compassion not hatred, rejection, violence and retribution inviting us to bring to life our baptismal stories in God with fire, wind, water and love, taking on the risk and living in love and hope with Christ.
We see and hear the invitation, and God’s deep pleasure in us as beloved of God, in whom God is well pleased.
The Lord be with you.