Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 8th January 2017. It is a reworking of an earlier sermon.
Do you remember the events of the day of your baptism with water? I don’t remember mine, although I know that 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 wasn’t actually paying too much attention. When Jesus was baptised with water he was paying attention. We believe that Jesus was around 30 years of age at the time and whilst he had been considered an adult in terms of Jewish Law since the age of 13, at 30 he 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. As with all later Christian baptisms so with that of Jesus the Jew we know that God was paying attention because we are told that a voice from Heaven spoke a blessing over the Son and that the Spirit appeared in bodily form. God was present in all God’s forms and God made that presence known in multiple ways.
John’s baptism with water was for repentance and the forgiveness of personal sin. 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 underwent this ceremony with David, Bishop Shand of Gippsland at St James’ Anglican Church in Pakenham, and my baptism by a priest as an infant was therefore “confirmed” by the bishop according one of the earliest practices of Christianity.
John, while baptising any who came with a repentant spirit, prophesied in Matthew 3:11 that someone would come after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. I wonder, do you remember the day of your Holy Spirit baptism? I do remember mine, but more of that later.
The Uniting Church has not made a sacrament out of a distinct baptism in the Holy Spirit: this is because Jesus did not expressly command it. But we certainly believe a distinct baptism in this form to have been a Biblical event and we recognise that the infilling of the Holy Spirit has been considered necessary for every Christian since the earliest days, as evident in Acts 10:44-46a. In Acts 10:38 we read of Peter speaking of the recently-baptised Jesus ministering in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit. The apostles of Jesus Christ believed that being filled with the Holy Spirit was vital: vital in that it is of the utmost importance, and vital in that it brings vitality to faith. The testimony of scripture is that life in Christ is life in the Spirit; you cannot have one without the other.
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. From Matthew 3:13 we understand that when Jesus arrived at the Jordan he did so from Galilee. Again, we believe that Jesus was 30 years old at this point, perhaps he has just turned 30 and was ready to be about “his father’s business” in a way quite different to the expectation that he would have taken on Joseph’s clients. Jesus was 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. Matthew tells us that John the Baptiser identified this particular young man as the one who was prophesied to come, and he tells us; that when Jesus was baptised by John the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and that a voice from heaven endorsed Jesus as one whom his father loves and is pleased about.
There are two aspects of note here. The second aspect is the nature of the “Voice from Heaven”. I understand this voice to be a personal message to Jesus which is repeated over all who are subsequently baptised as believers into this same Jesus. “This son [or daughter] is mine”, says the God The Father, “and he [or she] is pleasing to me” says God The LORD. What follows from this declaration is affirmed by the Uniting Church in its theology, and by the activity of Jesus, that all baptised Christians are servants of God and are called by God to be ministers of God’s mission. We Christians have everlasting hope because God loves us and is pleased with us, and we Christians have an everlasting mission in sharing that good news with others as evangelists in this life and worshippers in the next.
I said that there are two aspects to Matthew’s story of the results of Jesus’ baptism and in a typical style of mine that you will grow to love, I told you about the second aspect first. So, here’s the first one: the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form. Note that Matthew does not actually say that a dove appeared, but that the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove. The Holy Spirit is not a dove, but when the Spirit came the Spirit came in a form which resembled a dove. So, doves in and of themselves are not the point, the bodily appearance of the Holy Spirit at an event in the life of Jesus is the point.
All of today’s passages speaks of the presence of God. God the Father speaks from Heaven with the Voice of the LORD as Psalm 29 would have it, and our gospel reading points to the bodily presence of God the Spirit resting upon the body of the Son of God, who we know from the Christmas story is himself Emmanuel and “God (bodily) with us”. The Spirit who would come in one thousand days’ time in rushing-fire-like form upon a room full of expectant women and men came this day in dove-like form upon one man obedient to God’s invitation.
The writer of Psalm 29 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. It is no wonder that this passage is used every year for the Sunday upon which we recall the Baptism of Jesus and not once every three years as most lectionary passages are. We learn from this song of Hebrew celebration that worship is our right response to the voice of God.
In the story of Jesus, we see that with worship comes obedience to God’s leading. Each of the three synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism reports that Jesus went immediately into the wilderness where he spent time alone with God and time alone without God. When temptation was thrown at him Jesus responded with worship and obedience, and when the time of preparation was finished Luke says that Jesus was again visited by the Holy Spirit, following which he commenced his ministry of proclamation, healing and exorcism in obedience to God’s commissioning.
When God speaks with power and majesty the created order is bodily changed. The voice of God brought light to the formless world as the first act of Creation, reported in only the third verse of the Bible. We have been reminded by Psalm 29 that the voice of the LORD sends the created order into a flurry whenever God speaks. In the baptism of Jesus, both the baptism that Jesus received at the hands of John and the baptism that Jesus confers through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the creative voice of God is released to speak and act through people. Filled with the Spirit Jesus preached in local synagogues, in town squares, beside roads and lakes, and upon mountainsides and fishing boats. The manifest presence of the Holy Spirit brought far more than “tongues” to the Church, although it certainly brought no less than that because in the proclamation of the Spirit is the full wisdom of God in human voice. 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.
At his baptism the Spirit was bodily present with Jesus: so too was the Spirit bodily present with the newborn Church at Pentecost. Unlike the wind which is invisible and intangible and only its effects can be seen, the Spirit of God has been known to be visible and tangible in the Past. The scriptures offer no reason why this cannot be the case today. This is why the ministry we are called to is more than talk and proclamation. We are most certainly called to announce the kingdom, to declare (or withhold) God’s forgiveness in the world, to speak against injustice and petition those in authority to see free the oppressed and the enslaved. But we must also work as Jesus did, healing the sick and rehabilitating them to society, raising the dead and rehabilitating them to the living, and exorcising the demons and restoring the freed ones to fellowship with the believers.
I was 13 when I was baptised with the Holy Spirit at the Wayville Showgrounds in Adelaide at the “Jubilee ‘86” Tabor convention. The speaker that night was Reinhard Bonnke and Paul Yonggi Cho as he was then named was also present at the convention. 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 Korean or German or Afrikaans 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, and my ministry in prayer and advocacy for justice came later. 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 and ministry. 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. 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 in word and deed, and like Jesus the Emmanuel and the Spirit coming in bodily form this involves getting close to people in the places where they actually are.
Let us always be doing that.