Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Baptism of Christ - the point of waiting is...

The Baptism of Christ Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Last year Jenson Button came from seemingly out of nowhere to win the formula one world championship, and good for him. But have you noticed how quickly books came out about him, charting his career? The same was even more true of his predecessor, Lewis Hamilton. Lewis was an even greater sensation because of the way he exploded on to the scene, becoming the youngest world champion ever.

And once again people were trawling through his history, writing books and posting videos of him as a young boy. We all love to know what it is that went on in the background of people’s lives that prepared them for super-stardom. Maybe we’re wondering, ‘What did they have to go through to prepare them to be this good?’
Who knows what the psychology behind our inquisitiveness actually is? Maybe we’re just naturally curious about the earlier lives of those now famous. The trouble is, when we get to the early life of Jesus we hardly know anything. We know he was born in Bethlehem, and we know that soon after his birth he was visited by people from both ends of society:

On the one hand there were the shepherds, and on the other there was a group of Zoroastrian astrologers. We know that his parents had to take him to Egypt because of Herod’s determination to kill him. Then there’s silence for twelve years while he’s growing up in Nazareth.

Then there’s just one more incident when his extended family took him to Jerusalem and unwittingly left him there, only to find him in the Temple a couple of days later, intelligently engaging with the priests and scribes, and apparently completely unaware that his actions would cause such pain and worry to his parents. And that’s it!

After that there are eighteen years of silence and all we are told is that he increased in wisdom and in human and divine favour. That’s it. There are no juicy details out there with which to concoct stories about him. There just seem to be eighteen years of silence before he burst on to the scene at his baptism to begin three years of ministry that changed the world.

Why didn’t Luke or any of the others tell us more? Did nothing actually happen during those eighteen years? Well I think Luke has probably told us all we need to know. During those eighteen years Jesus increased in wisdom and divine favour. Those eighteen years were eighteen years of waiting and developing; a time for him that was becoming increasingly pregnant with possibilities waiting to be birthed at the proper time, as he used the waiting time to grow.

And waiting is what we need to think about when we concern ourselves with the baptism of Jesus, and with the baptisms in Samaria discussed in the new testament reading. When I read through these passages a sense of waiting was what came over to me; waiting for the right time, and more importantly, using the waiting time profitably. So with waiting as our context let’s look at the two baptisms in our two readings.

We’ll start with the new testament reading and this curious wait that seems to take place in Samaria. All along in the book of Acts we get this sense of people receiving the Holy Spirit with great power when they were baptised. Yet when we get to Samaria, it didn’t happen. You could perhaps imagine a sense of puzzlement. What was different here? Why hadn’t things happened as before?

And so the Samaritans have to wait, and they wait until Peter and John arrive, and it is only when Peter and John lay their hands on them that they receive the Holy Spirit. Why was there a delay in their case? The key is to note where this baptism took place. It was in Samaria. Remember that the Samaritans were hated by Jews. These were outcasts; non-Jews; outsiders.

And so it was necessary that Peter and John, two Jewish Spirit-filled Christians, should go there in person, because their arrival and the receiving of the Holy Spirit at their hands was a clear sign from God that there was to be one church which crossed nationalities and races; that we should all be one family in Christ, united by a common baptism in water and the Holy Spirit.

Peter and John going there showed that the same Holy Spirit that was given to the Jews was for everyone, and this episode was the very first step out from Judea as the Gospel began to be spread throughout the world. The waiting period was necessary to underline that what came from the Jews was for everyone. Godly waiting always has a reason, even if we can’t see it at the time.

The same thing is true of the baptism of Jesus, although the waiting is much shorter. It’s very interesting to note how Luke isn’t interested in the actual baptism itself. He tells us that all of the people were baptised. Then Jesus was baptised, and then while he was praying, that was when heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon him.

The Holy Spirit, according to Luke, did not descend automatically because Jesus was baptised. Instead She came as a consequence of Jesus praying. It was praying that opened heaven.

So all the way through these stories, and all the way through this season, you have a sense of waiting in expectation. The people had been filled with expectation. They were waiting to see if John was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. Jesus had lived for thirty years, quietly growing in the waiting time until, when he prayed, heaven was opened and he received the Holy Spirit and began his ministry.

And then the Samaritan Christians had to wait after their baptism until Peter and John came and prayed with them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them. All the way through there is this common motif of waiting on God, and when the time is right, God sending the Holy Spirit. And so the questions now come down to focus on us.

When I talk to people I often get this sense of people wanting something to happen in their lives. A number of you have told me about this wanting to do something, yet not knowing what it is that needs to be done. You are, in a sense, in a waiting period, wondering how long this is to go on for. The question I think I want to pose all of us is, are we praying for the Holy Spirit while we wait, to come and lead us in what we are called to do?

I expect that most, if not all of us have been baptised. Have we also prayed for the Holy Spirit to come and fill us? Now this is one of those loaded questions because sadly whenever we talk about the baptism in the Holy Spirit our thoughts are immediately drawn to American revivalism or emotional pentecostalism, and we get scared that baptism with Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit, or whatever label we want to attach, looks like that. Well it doesn’t have to.

What we see in those places are emotional responses to filling with the Holy Spirit, by emotional people. If someone happens to be the kind of person given to emotional responses, then it is quite possible that they will respond emotionally. But if someone is quietly spoken and introverted, it is not at all necessary that we should think receiving the Holy Spirit will lead them into an over-emotional state.

What’s more, the aim of receiving the Holy Spirit is not so that we should feel really good inside. The Holy Spirit comes to equip us for the work we are called to do. When Jesus was baptised with the Spirit, there’s no talk of him speaking in tongues or laughing uncontrollably, or lifting his hands in the air and dancing around in the water.

No, the giving of the Holy Spirit was to equip him for his ministry. And far from making him into some ‘happy-clappy’ Jew, the first thing the Holy Spirit did was drive him out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Remember, John the Baptist talks about being baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is less about the experience and more about the consequences.

And that’s why I believe that we, too, should be praying for and waiting on the Holy Spirit to come and fill us and equip us for whatever God is calling us to do. If we have been baptised, then we have been baptised into God’s service. Just as Jesus’s baptism was a sign of his submission to the will of God, so our baptisms are also meant to be a sign of that same submission.

Baptism with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit seem to walk hand in hand in the New Testament. They don’t always happen at the same time, and it is completely impossible to build a logical framework of what we should expect. But the lesson of these readings is that we should be prepared to wait on God, and to ask for his Holy Spirit, so that when God chooses to, we can be equipped and led in what God asks of us.

I recognise that this is a difficult subject, which is perhaps why we don’t talk about it very much. But you know that I am not some excitable over emotional character, yet I strongly believe that for a Christian to grow and develop they, we, should ask for God to send the Holy Spirit to fill us and lead us. Amen.

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