We all face times when things are dark.
- loss, financial, health, relationships, work, personal pressures
For some of us 2009 was very difficult; for some of us 2010 will be difficult
But as people who put our trust in Jesus Christ we always have hope.
Luke 3 is set in a time when it was dark for the people of Israel
Political darkness: Roman occupation
Moral darkness: Herod the Tetrarch. He had married his brother’s wife, and – even more seriously – when John the Baptist rebuked him for this and for other things – he imprisoned John. Now I don’t know if things at the top go wrong because things at the bottom have gone wrong, or if things at the bottom go wrong when things at the top go wrong, but I do know that it is a serious situation when things at the top go wrong.
And it was dark.
But into this darkness there came a ray of light: Jesus Christ.
Luke simply says: ‘Now when all the people were baptised and when Jesus had also been baptised’ (v21). It does not tell us why Jesus was baptised, but simply the fact that he was baptised. And it tells us what happens as a consequence of his baptism and his prayer.
And three things happen.
1. Heaven is opened (v21)
It is an immense statement.
It implies that the heavens were closed. The door between heaven and earth was shut. Men and women cried out to God, but nothing happened.
But now, as Jesus comes, as he is baptised, and as he prays, heaven is opened. Jesus opens the door between heaven and earth.
Jesus opens many things in Luke’s gospel.
He opens the mouths of people so that they can declare the praises of God (Luke 1:64)
He opens the eyes of people so that they can see him (Luke 24:31)
He opens the word of God so that people can understand what God is saying (Luke 24:32,45)
He opens the door to God: ‘Knock and it will be opened to you’ (Luke 11:9)
And because of Jesus, even when things are very dark, there is hope. Heaven has been opened.
Maggie, from St Peter’s, was telling me about her brother Paul. He lost his son in an accident and his daughter through sickness. He was then diagnosed with motor neurons disease. He died last week.
One wonders how people cope. One wonders how his widow copes.
But he (and she, for that matter) was a Christian, and last September in his church he gave his testimony – and declared that, in spite of everything, in spite of the fact that his prayers for healing had not been answered, he still put his trust in God.
Or I think of a woman in one of the previous churches where we have been. She became her Christian. Her baby daughter was then involved in an accident that was going to scar her for life; and then out of the blue her husband walked out on her. I went to see her – I thought what is she going to say?: ‘I became a Christian – and look what God has done to me’. But instead she said, ‘I am so grateful that I have become a Christian. If I did not know God, I do not know how I could have coped’.
Because of Jesus, even when things get dark, heaven is opened. There is hope. There is the hope that God change things here. But there is also the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. There is the hope that he is doing a work in us that is far far greater than we can ever imagine.
2. The Holy Spirit comes
In Luke 3:22, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form.
This is the Holy Spirit spoken of by John: ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’.
The Holy Spirit is often likened to a fire.
When the Holy Spirit comes on the first Christians, the Holy Spirit comes as ‘tongues of flame’
And Paul urges us not to ‘quench’ the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19): not to put out the Spirit’s fire.
Fire is used to describe the words of God, the actions of God, the judgement of God and the presence of God.
• Long ago, at the beginning of the bible, God speaks to Moses out of a bush which burns but is not consumed
• Elijah, one of God’s messengers, had a competition with some prophets of a false God. They both built an altar and placed a sacrifice on the altar. The false prophets prayed to the false God. Nothing happened. Elijah prayed to the God of the people of Israel. Fire fell from heaven and burnt up the sacrifice.
• The New Testament talks about the day of judgement as being like a day of fire – when we and our works will be tested with fire (1 Corinthians 3:13ff; 1 Peter 1:7)
• The risen Jesus is described in Revelation as having ‘eyes like a flame of fire’ (Revelation 2:18)
Of course this passage points to Jesus as the one on whom the Holy Spirit comes, who is the fire of God. He is the word of God, the judgement of God, the presence of God.
How we respond to him shows how we respond to God. You may not like it. You may think it is unfair. But that is the test. You can’t go into an exam, turn over the paper, read the question and say, ‘I don’t like it. I’m going to set my own question’. I suppose you can, but you will fail. You do not judge the examiner. The examiner judges you.
God has shown us what he is like. And how we respond to the visible Jesus shows how we respond to the invisible God. That is why we judge ourselves. That is why Jesus is the fire of God.
If we say yes to him, if we allow him to baptise us with the same Holy Spirit, to immerse us in the Holy Spirit, to allow him to work in us, he will begin to change us and to make us like him. He will begin, as we allow him, to burn up all that is rubbish, self-centred, cruel and twisted and unloving in us, all that is sinful and opposed to God, so we too can begin to become this fire of God.
The bible says of the angels: ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire’
There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]
3. The Father speaks
Just as an aside, we see here the work of the Trinity. The Son is baptised and prays; the Spirit comes down and the Father speaks.
We cannot separate the three persons of the Trinity. The Son is the Son of God because of the Father. The Father is father because of the Son. The Spirit is Spirit because he is the Spirit of the Son and the Father.
And we are given a glimpse into the heart of the Trinity. What God the Father says here is amazingly personal and intimate: ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased’. This may be a voice that is heard by others, but it is a voice that is for Jesus.
Jesus has been baptised with the people. He has humbled himself. He has been obedient to God his Father. It is the beginning. It is going to get much harder. He is about to be led into the wilderness, and to begin his public ministry – which will end with his crucifixion.
And so God says to him, in our hearing, ‘You are my beloved Son – and I’m pleased with you’.
But those words that the Father speaks to Jesus are also spoken for us.
Because it is as we receive Jesus that we become Sons and Daughters of God. We become adopted children in the family of God. ‘To all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God’ (John 1:11). The Holy Spirit enables us to call out to God, ‘Abba Father’. The Spirit assures us that we are children of God.
Of course there has to be baptism: and by that I do not simply mean that we need to have been done as a baby or as an adult. Rather I mean that we need to live that baptism daily: identifying ourselves with Jesus; living as people who have died to ourselves, to our failures and achievements, our hopes and fears, our boasts and our shames, our ambitions and disappointments – and living as people who are alive to him, to his hopes and achievements and boasts and ambitions.
And that living as dead people – to this world and to ourselves – can be painful.
Paul writes in Romans 8:16, ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’. But he goes on to say: ‘Now if we are children we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ - if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
None of us know what this year holds in store for us. I pray it will be a year of great happiness, but for some it might be a year of pain and deep sadness. It may be a year when like Jesus after his baptism, we are led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It may be a dark year.
But even if it is, it doesn’t matter because:
Heaven has been opened – we can know God
The Holy Spirit has come – and God can work in us, through both the good and the bad.
Father God has spoken and speaks. He loves you, and he delights in you.
There is hope.