Jan 7, 2017
I guess the take home message, or the thing for each of us to think about is this. You are a beloved child of God. What makes you one of God’s people is not your family background, or your moral rectitude, it is God’s love, which you receive by faith. One of the signs of receiving this love is Baptism. In Jesus' baptism the church has traditionally seen the depth of this love. He did not need to be baptised an yet he is!
To be a Christian you do not have to obey a complex set of rules, be of a particular race or class, be a Mother Theresa, a William Wilberforce or a Francis of Assisi, you do not have to be a man or a woman. All you have to be is someone who acknowledges that you are deeply loved by God, and so turns back to God in faith. We call this repentance. So repent, turn back to God and believe the good news: The Kingdom of God, Jesus and his love has drawn near.
Questions for thought or
Why do you think Jesus was baptised? What do you understand by repentance? To what extent has God's love claimed you? If you have been claimed or you are hearing God's claim of love on your life, how do you respond?
****************** Sermon Text *********************
Repent and believe the
Whatever way you think about baptism and the baptism of Jesus there is inherent in it a very important principal that should not be overlooked - it acknowledges that God's help is needed from outside ourselves to wash us clean or to forgive us of our sin.
For the last 2000 years or so there's been a debate about what the Baptism of Jesus means. We can probably even see this debate beginning in Matthew's gospel. John is preaching that all should repent of their sin and be baptised. Along comes Jesus, if he is sinless, if he is the Son of God then he does not need to be baptised with John's baptism of repentance. He has nothing to turn away from. Yet he is baptised by John. John however baptises him very unwillingly. As we just heard "John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. " (Matthew 3:14–15, NRSV)
So why was Jesus baptised? The traditional answer to that question, the one which the majority of the church has given down through the ages, and it is also the one that I hold is the one that Jesus gives to John in the reading we just heard. "To fulfill all righteousness" Jesus is baptised with John's baptism on our behalf. Jesus in a sense repents, turns to God for us. I don't want to be misunderstood here, I believe that repentance, turning to God and away from sin is a necessary part of faith. If you believe that God demands that you should love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and that you should love your neighbour as yourselves, and if you believe that we should love one another as Christ has loved us, then our beliefs should cause us to turn from our selfish ways, to repent. Just as we will leave a building if we believe it is on fire, we will love our neighbour if that's what we believe we must do. Our beliefs affect our actions. Faith and repentance are two side of the same coin.
The trouble is though that our repentance like our faith is imperfect. We never really love God with our whole heart, some people get closer than others, but we all hold some things back for ourselves. We also fail to love our neighbour as ourselves and I'm sure we all fall a long way short of loving others as Christ has loved us. This of course is the point in what the church has believed about Jesus' baptism. We can not repent fully, we can not fully turn to God and to our neighbour, and away from ourselves, but Jesus as truly human and as truly God can.
There is a further difficulty, that is that no matter how hard we repent, or try to turn to God and to our neighbour there are some things that we have all done that we can never undo. To be a little bit personal for a moment we have children and although they are usually very well behaved in church, they are not perfect AND I have a temper. I remember once when Eli was very little, I had just become upset about something, and Eli was not in his bed. I went down to his room and bellowed "Get back into bed!!!!!" I used a voice that I had not used since I was a frustrated first year teacher desperately wrestling with an out of control class of year 9s. I knew that I had done the wrong thing as soon as the tears began to roll down his crumpling face. But it was not until Heather said to me that I had over reacted that I returned to the room, held my sobbing child in my arms, told him that I loved him & I was sorry that I had over reacted. I also told him that he had to stay in bed & needed to sleep of course. In one sense I had righted the wrong, I had taken away the words. In another sense I had not, the angry words had been said and can never be unsaid. If in years to come Eli has any memory of the event I wonder what he will remember, the embrace and the kind words or loud voice and disproportionate anger? No matter how repentant and sorry I am I can not undo the words. More than that because I believe in Jesus who was truly God and truly human, who identifies with every human being, I believe that when I hurt my son I also hurt God.
To use an example which has nothing to do with me, the same is true of a marriage where there is adultery, there can be repentance, and even reconciliation, but the adultery can never be undone. It is beyond the adulterer or the angry father to bring healing to those who have been hurt, only they, God and the offended party can forgive and restore the relationship, no matter how hard we repent. The church then has believed & I believe that the life and ministry of Jesus, including not just his death and resurrection but also his new life is about Jesus repenting on our behalf. Jesus is the one who fulfils all righteousness where we have fallen short.
The second thing to be said about the Baptism of Jesus is that the church has always believed that Christian baptism is quite different to the baptism of John. In all four Gospels John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Just before our reading today John says in verse 10 ""I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. " (Matthew 3:11, NRSV)
In other words the emphasis in Christian baptism is not upon repentance but upon the way God connects with us. It is about the way the Spirit of God is given to us. Again in all four gospel the Bible describes Jesus receiving the Holy Spirit immediately following his baptism. In the history of the church there has been a debate about when it is best to baptize. Some argue it should be upon confession of faith as adults or young people, and others that it should be as infants, in either case however, most of the church has affirmed that Baptism is primarily about what God does and not about what we do. God claims us and declares us to be clean. Jesus did not need to baptised but he is and receives the Spirit as a human being that we might also receive the Spirit as human beings. So in our baptism as adults or as infants God is saying to us as he said to Jesus - You are my beloved Son, you are my beloved child, you are my beloved daughter.
This then is what I believe, and what the church has believed about Jesus' baptism and Christian baptism. But from early on there have been other views. One is, that Jesus was truly human, but only that, until the point of his Baptism, at that point God claimed him as his Son and he also became truly divine, or truly God. I won't say much more on this because it really implies more or less the same things about Christian baptism that the mainstream church view implies.
A third view which has become more popular since the 19th century is that Jesus before and after his baptism was simply, a human being, a sinner just like us. He may have been the best of us who ever lived a great example, but he was still a sinner just like us. He was baptised because he needed to repent. If so Christian baptism is pretty much the same as John's Baptism, it is our ethical response to the call of God to live lives of love and devotion to God and others. I don't accept this view of baptism and I'll say a little more of that in a moment, but I want to point out what all three views of baptism have in common. They all say that God forgives and that we need forgiveness.
They all say that we all fall short of the ideal of loving God and our neighbour, and they all say that God will forgive us of this and wash us clean. They all also imply, or directly demand repentance, a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward God. Whether we are baptised as a child, claimed by God, and then turn to him in adulthood as the Spirit leads, or upon confession of faith as an adult we are baptised, the same is true, baptism, calls for and demands a turning to God and our neighbour and a turning away from ourselves!
The difficulty I have with the view of baptism which says that it is primarily about repentance or even confession of faith is that it raises a difficult question. How do we know we have enough faith or that we have repented enough. Even if we believe God does not expect perfection. If we can accept that God can accept us and will forgive us even though our repentance can never be complete and our faith can never be pure, how do we know when we have enough faith or that we've repented enough for God to forgive us? How do we tell if our faith or repentance is genuine?
To use the example I used before. If I had not gone back to Eli and expressed my apology to him over my loss of temper, would God still forgive me? Or what if I similarly lose my temper again, and take it out on him again, will God still forgive me? Was my repentance genuine? How can I ever know that my faith and repentance is enough?
On the other hand if baptism is about what God does and not what I do as I believe. then my forgiveness, and my baptism do not depend on my repentance, or the genuineness or degree of my faith, but upon Christ and his good life for my sake including his baptism. Therefore I can be confident that I am forgiven and claimed by God. For God has claimed what it is to be human in Jesus, and in Jesus God has declared all who come with even imperfect faith and imperfect repentance as beloved Children, Sons and Daughters of God. So whoever you are, an Elder and religious leader like Nicodemus, someone sinful partly because of circumstances, like the prostitutes, a wealthy person like Lydia, or Joseph of Arimathea, a deliberate, greedy, collaborator, like the tax collectors Matthew and Zacchaeus, ordinary fisherman like James, or Peter, even if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, small and imperfect faith which leads to imperfect repentance, then I believe, that you are a Son, you are a daughter, you are a child of God. For you - Children of God have already been claimed by God. Claimed by God in Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, claimed in baptism in the waters of the Jordan, claimed in Spirit descending like a dove, claimed in his ministry of teaching and healing, you have been claimed in his table fellowship, you have been claimed in death, even death on a bloody Roman cross, and you have been claimed in the new life of the resurrection on Easter day. This is what I believe. In Jesus the Kingdom of God has come near, repent then and believe the Good News. Amen