The Great Voice (Baptism of Jesus)

The text of the message I preached at American River Uniting Church (South Australia) on Sunday 11th January 2015.

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Do you remember the events of the day of your baptism with water? I don’t remember mine, although I know it took place on Sunday 23rd July 1972 at Mt Waverley Presbyterian Church. I was eleven weeks old at the time and whilst I am assured by my parents that I was awake for most of the performance I obviously wasn’t paying too much attention. Nonetheless, my parents were paying attention and I have photos to prove it, (those photos are not here with me sadly), and I am confident that God was also paying attention.

When Jesus was baptised with water he was paying attention. We believe that Jesus was around 30 years old at the time of his baptism and whilst he had been considered a full adult in terms of Jewish Law since the age of 13, at 30 Jesus was now a social adult ready to move out of his father’s apprenticeship and open his own shop and then marry and start his own family. We can be fairly certain that Jesus’ parents were not there on the day of his baptism by John, although we hope that they were present at his Bar-Mitzvah seventeen years earlier. But as with my baptism so with that of Jesus we do know that God was paying attention because we are told that a voice from Heaven spoke a blessing over the Son.

John’s baptism was with water and for repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is the basis of the sacrament of baptism that the Uniting Church offers and the baptismal vows made by the candidate or his or her sponsors indicate this. In the Uniting Church, and others which offer baptism to children, the additional liturgy of Confirmation is added so that the child once grown can “confirm” the promises made on his or her behalf. I was 12 when I did this; my dad had been 16 when he did it in accordance with Presbyterian tradition.

John, while baptising any who came with repentance, prophesied that someone would come after him and this one would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  I wonder how many of you remember the day of your Holy Spirit baptism.  I remember mine, but more of that later. The Uniting Church has not made a sacrament out of a distinct baptism in the Holy Spirit, but we certainly believe it to be a Biblical event as evidenced by our reading from Acts 19 and other texts.

One of the fundamental statements of belief declared by the Uniting Church is that all baptised Christians are ministers and that it is baptism which is the sacrament that sets apart a man or a woman as a minister, not ordination. Mark wrote that when Jesus arrived at the Jordan he did so from the place where he had grown up. Again we believe he was 30 years old and perhaps he has just turned 30 and begun to be about “his father’s business” in his own right in a way quite different to the expectation that he would have taken on Joseph’s shop. An anonymous young man who has left home at the age when young men leave home, and who has come to begin his own life. We are not told in Mark’s account that John identifies this particular young man as the one who was to come; that is the story that Matthew tells. But Mark does say that when Jesus was baptised by John a dove descended and the voice from heaven endorsed Jesus as one who his father loves and is pleased about. This was a personal message to Jesus, and a similar personal message is spoken over all who are baptised as believers in this same Jesus. This son or daughter is mine, is loved, and is pleasing to God. Then, as was Jesus into the wilderness, so is that person sent into the world as an ambassador of the message. In the case of Jesus the endorsing voice from Heaven was clearly heard by others making the love of God for Jesus known to them. Since we know that God loves Jesus, we can be confident in the truth of Jesus’ revealed in his teaching and in his dying. We have everlasting hope because God loves us.

It is the message which is the key here. Let’s look at the other readings.

In the first verses of Genesis we are taken back to the first Sunday when God separated light from dark by speaking light. The sky and the land already existed and the spirit of God brooded over the waters.

From the Acts we read of when Paul prayed for the Ephesian disciples who had received the baptism of John, and how they received baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus and began to prophesy. These men had never heard about the Holy Spirit but when this aspect of God was proclaimed by the apostle the proclamation was taken up immediately by these same men.

The writer of our Psalm declares that The LORD is glorious and strong, and that the LORD is worthy of worship. The voice of the LORD accomplishes wonders: the voice of the LORD is thunderous, powerful, majestic, breaks cedars, manipulates nations to God’s will, strikes like lightning, shakes the desert, twists oaks and strips the forest. The LORD gives strength to God’s people and blesses them with peace.

Each and all of these passages are about the voice of God. God speaks light into existence. God speaks with power and majesty and the created order is changed. God speaks personal assurance to Jesus. God speaks through newly baptised Christians. In the baptism of Jesus, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, the creative voice of God is released to speak through people. This is far more than just “tongues”, although it certainly is no less than that. The language of God is mind-blowing, desert shaking, tree shredding, and darkness scattering stuff. When the language of God is heard doves descend, nations dance, and the community of God cries “glory!” The language of God demands ascription of greatness and glory to God by all other voices because the language of God draws attention to God in all of God’s Godness.

This is what the baptism of the Holy Spirit is about, the fresh revelation of the fullness of God from the mouths of Christians. How can we limit God’s gift to the rapid-fire work of “tongues” in prayers of worship and intercession? The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a breakout of proclamation, proclamation of the glorious majesty of God and the ground shaking and nation defining work of God in human history. As Christians we believe that it is God who drives the volcanoes that literally shake the earth but we also believe that it is God who moves nations and governments to God’s own purposes. The gift of the Holy Spirit’s coming is the capacity and opportunity to proclaim these things, and again everyone who is baptised with the Holy Spirit is released into the capacity and resource to proclaim the glory of God. Again, the Uniting Church attests that this power and responsibility is not limited to the ordained clergy or the accredited lay preachers, not to the theologically literate graduates or the elderly who have been Christian for decades. The youngest, least educated Christian child can speak of what he or she knows about God if he or she is willing to allow God to speak through his or her little mouth.

I was 13 when I was baptised with the Holy Spirit at the Wayville Showgrounds at the “Jubilee ‘86” Tabor convention. The speaker that night was Reinhard Bonnke. I was nothing special, just a child with his parents in a big service of worship. I remember going weak at the knees and having trouble standing up, I was standing on a chair so that I could see over the crowd and my dad was holding me up next to him. I didn’t begin speaking in tongues then, indeed I still don’t “speak” in tongues (although I do pray in tongues) but I did cry out “hallelujah” a few times. My experience wasn’t about the miracle of a new language; it was about the capacity to praise God and to worship Christ as Lord in a new, deeper way. Hallelujah is all that is needed, literally “praise be to Yahweh”, what more could be said? Would it have been more meaningful had I said it in Cantonese or Dutch or in a “tongue”? It was a defining moment for me, perhaps a step or a jump into the next phase of Christian life for me rather than a natural progression between stages, but in the scheme of things it wasn’t that big a show. I didn’t start healing people with a touch or prophesying all at once. But I learned how to worship and I got a bigger picture of God. Indeed the first thing I did as a newly-baptised-in-the-Holy-Spirit Christian was ascribe greatness to God and give the glory due God’s name with passionate and repeated shouts of “Praise to Yahweh” while my dad stood beside me with his arm around me to stop me falling over.

So when the Holy Spirit comes upon a person what we must listen for is the voice of God. Not tongues, not barking or laughing, not even falling over; listen for worship and the ascription of praise and honour to God. Whatever the language, whatever the posture, whatever the volume, is the response to this apparent act of baptism the recipient’s cry of praise to God? The authentic answer can only be yes.

What follows for those of us who have been baptised with the Holy Spirit is to get on with the work of proclamation. Spend as long as you need at the front of the church or in the place where your baptism took place in the actual moment, but then get on with it. Following his baptism Mark says that Jesus left the Jordan and went into the wilderness, and when he returned to society it was to Galilee, his home, and the recruiting of the twelve, not to the place of John. Following his encounter with the Ephesian men Luke says that Paul went on into Ephesus and began to teach in the synagogue and then in the house of Tyrranus, he didn’t stay in the outskirts basking in the afterglow of the “moment”. Following the speaking of light into existence the writers of Genesis say that God orchestrated the evening and morning and then continued the act of creation on the second day by separating the waters into one place to form land in another. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is an empowering to continue the work of proclaiming God’s glory, it’s not a cue to go back to church the next morning and sit on the steps below the altar rail to reminisce on how awesome last night’s service was and how heavy the anointing had been.

The genuine sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit is that the recipient proclaims the glory of God. Let us always be doing that.