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The gift of Baptism. Luke 3.15-22

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus, and it is good to have Leo’s baptism in this service. 

You may have noticed that before communion, I will say that ‘All who have received the gift of baptism and who love the Lord Jesus and want to follow him are welcome to receive the bread and the wine here’.

On one occasion when I said that in the UK, a man came up to me after the service, I think he claimed to be a Buddhist, and asked me, Why did someone have to have been baptised to receive communion? Wasn’t that being exclusive?

I have no idea how I answered him then, although I’m sure I thought of some very clever things to say - half an hour later.

But it is interesting that to become a member of any organisation, you usually have to have done or do something: pay a subscription, achieve a qualification, be interviewed, go through some initiation ceremony. But the only thing that Jesus says that you need to do, to become a member of the Church of God, is to allow someone else to throw water at you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The point that I would have liked to have made to my Buddhist challenger is that baptism is a gift that God offers you, and if you are not prepared to first receive the gift of baptism, you will not be able to receive the bread and wine as they are meant to be received.

1. Baptism is a love story

It is about the revelation of the love of God.

God the Father reveals his love for his Son: after Jesus is baptised, the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

This is the first time that we are clearly shown the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father speaks, God the Son is affirmed and God the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove.

In classic early Russian icons of the baptism, you have the circle at the top representing the Father, and a ray from the Father coming down and touching the Son, and in that ray a dove is represented.

In Jesus baptism we are given a glimpse into the love that is between Father and Son and Holy Spirit

But baptism also reveals the love of the Son of God for us.

‘When all the people were baptised and when Jesus had also been baptised ..’

The people who came to John to be baptised were people who were prepared to receive the forgiveness that God, in his love for them, offered to them.
They had come to realise that they were living facing away from God.
They had come to realise that their minds were set on earthly things and not on heavenly things.
It wasn’t that they were necessarily ‘bad’ people – some of them may have been very good and virtuous – but they were living as if God did not exist, in their own strength, for their own agenda.
But as John preached, they had heard the word of God, the call of God to repent, to turn around, to turn from facing away from God to facing towards God, and to receive God’s gift of forgiveness, God’s gift of love.

They had come to John to receive the gift of God.
As they came to John, as they allowed him to wash them in the river Jordan, they came to receive the gift of God, to receive the forgiveness that God offered, to allow God to make them clean.

Jesus also came to John to be baptised.

That is strange, because Jesus had always lived facing towards God.
Even from the age of 12 he was aware of his identity as the Son of God. And we are told that Jesus was ‘without sin’.
So there was no need for Jesus to be baptised

And yet he was baptised, in love, to identify himself with us.

The baptism of Jesus is Christmas repeated – or an anticipation of the cross.
At Christmas the Son of God in love becomes one of us, he identifies himself with us in our weakness and vulnerability
On the cross the Son of God in love identifies himself with us in our sinfulness, ‘he becomes sin for us’ as Paul writes.
Paul writes how the Son of God, although equal with God, empties himself and takes the form of a slave. He is born as a human being and is obedient even to the point of death.

And at baptism the Son of God in love identifies himself with us as we come broken and filthy to receive the forgiveness and love of God.

2. Baptism is an expression of our utter dependence on the love of God

There was an incident which happened just before Jesus was arrested.

He had a final supper with his disciples, followers
At that supper, Jesus – we are told – wrapped a towel round his waist and knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet. It was the job of a slave.
When he came to Peter, Peter stalled him. ‘You should not be doing this. You should not be washing feet. I will not let you wash my feet’.
And Jesus replies to Peter, ‘Unless you let me wash your feet, you can have no part in me’.

Peter was prepared to honour Jesus, to exalt Jesus, to serve and follow Jesus – but in his pride he was not prepared to receive from Jesus.

The Christian life begins with an act in which we are completely helpless and dependent on God.
We allow another person to pour water on us, not in their name, but in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Baptism is not about us doing anything for God. When we are baptised we come to God in our utter helplessness and allow God to do everything for us.

This is my challenge to those of you, who I dearly love, but who come from a Baptist background and who say that faith has to come before baptism.

My question to you is how do you know that you have enough faith to be baptised?
How do you know that you have sufficiently repented?
What if you were baptised as a teenager, fall away, and then come back as an older adult and think ‘well maybe I wasn’t really a Christian then; maybe I didn’t properly believe. Perhaps I need to be baptised again.’
If the validity of baptism depends on us, on a decision we make, it will always rest on shaky ground. How do you know you have truly repented, that you have faith. Perhaps you were carried along by emotion or by wanting to be in with the in crowd.

But if baptism depends on what God does, then it is unshakeable.

Of course, we need faith.

Without faith in Christ you cannot be saved.
But it is faith in the Christ who kneels down and washes our feet – even the feet of Judas.
It is faith in the Christ who gives us the gift of baptism as a gift of assurance that our salvation does not depend on ourselves but completely on him.

I understand that Martin Luther, when he went through his dark periods, and doubted everything, including his own faith, would break out of his despair and say, ‘But I have been baptised’.

There is a classic prayer that is used by some reformed churches at a child’s baptism:

For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come,
he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane
and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, "It is finished!"
For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes
— for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.
"We love him, because he first loved us."

3. Baptism is a pledge of the Holy Spirit

John baptised with water
But John speaks of how Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

We often think of water as the symbol of baptism. Our banner (see above) shows water being poured on the head of the person receiving baptism.

But the dominant image of baptism here in Luke 3 is fire.
And if you look again, you will see that half the picture shows water, and half the picture shows fire. 

And when Jesus is baptised, the Holy Spirit comes.
In his case it was visible and physical: in the form of a dove.

And for us, baptism – whenever it happens – is a pledge, a promise of the Holy Spirit.

On several occasions in the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the very early Church, we are told how the Holy Spirit comes in power on certain people when they are baptised, and in particular people receive the gift of tongues.
On one occasion the Holy Spirit comes before people have been baptised and so Peter says, ‘Why shouldn’t these people receive baptism?’

But there are other occasions, when – for instance – we read in Acts of entire households who are baptised, and we hear of nothing visible or physical happening.
And what about the many baptisms that we do, of adults or babies, where nothing visible or physical seems to happen?

Does that mean that the Holy Spirit has not come?

Far from it!

Let me repeat. Baptism in my book, and in Romans 6.4 and in Colossians 2.12, is not something that we do, but that God does, that God gives to us.

Let’s get personal.

In Baptism God has given his Holy Spirit to Leo. It does not mean that his Holy Spirit was not with Leo before his baptism, but baptism is God’s guarantee, God’s pledge, stamp, that he has given his Spirit to Leo, that Leo is now part of the family of God.

And we pray that as Leo grows up, with the guidance and support of Daniel and Polina and his godparents – he will be open to the Holy Spirit, he will not quench the Holy Spirit – and that he will grow and be shaped by the Holy Spirit. And that he will put his trust, his faith in the God who has given him Jesus and who has given him this gift of baptism as an assurance that he belongs to Him.

And of course, for Leo there will be times of difficulty and trial, times of stubbornness and of rebellion against God, of repentance and renewed repentance, but our prayer and our hope for Leo is that as he goes through life, he will allow the Holy Spirit, this fire of God to fill him, and to make him fire. So that – wherever he goes – he will be like a flame of God, and others will catch fire for God, simply because they are close to him.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

“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]

Baptism is an astonishing gift that God gives us.

It is a gift of God’s love and it reveals God’s love.
It is a gift that expresses our utter dependence on God,
It is a gift in which God pledges to us his Holy Spirit.

Of course, faith in God is essential. But it is faith not in your own faith, but in the God who has given us the gift of baptism as a tangible physical sign of his love, of his forgiveness and of his Holy Spirit.

So if you have received baptism, live your baptism, live by faith in the God who loves you.
Allow the Holy Spirit to transform you.

And if you have not yet received baptism – well, I do not understand why people are not hammering on the doors of church to be baptised.
Not because it is some ritual that you need to do, not because it is a family thing, not because it will give you a pass into heaven – but because it is such a remarkable gift of God.
And it requires nothing from you apart from a willingness to humble yourself before God and to receive it.


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