Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 14 January 2024.
• First Reading: Genesis 1: 1-5 (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – formless and empty: Let there be Light)
• Epistle: Acts 19: 1-7 (Paul in Ephesus – they had received baptism after John (repentance) – then baptized in the name of Jesus)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 4-11 (Jesus baptized by John)
It was Christmas Eve, 1964 or 65, and I had just started crewing for people at a sailing club in London, which used the River Thames. The wind was astern and a gust from an unexpected direction must have caught us and the boat began to roll, uncontrollably. Soon, it was on its side and I was in the water.
The Thames at this location is not exactly known for its healing qualities, but is the recipient of the rather mixed blessings of some water outfalls – from power stations which warm it up and from some sewage works which give it a rather different quality.
I was soon fished out and we decided not to continue the race, which we could have done. But no, this was not a baptism – at least not as we know it. Maybe a sailor’s baptism but that was it.
The River Jordan during Jesus’ time was probably rather more salubrious, and His cousin John the Baptist had been preaching some pretty fiery sermons and offering a baptism of repentance.
It was a ceremonial personal washing in token of a decision to turn away from the vices and moral and spiritual turpitude of the times in favour of lives more dedicated to the things and the purposes of God.
In effect, he had taken the ceremonial washings of plates and cups and so on and he had applied them to personal life and priorities. And yes, many came and responded to his teaching and they then made a personal declaration of their intent.
Then Jesus turned up. Now a man who had been circumcised and later, initiated into the active life of Israel at His bar-Mizpah and had been earning a living as a carpenter/builder. Definitely used to the ways of the world and of the business of earning a living.
A man who had known His own emotions and His own intellectual inquiries, and who in His spirit was also at one with God His Father, in prayer and study and meditation.
But now there was something else to be done before He started on His ministry of preaching and teaching the Kingdom of God.
Now He would make Himself one with the teaching of John, and would make Himself one with his call to repentance and personal moral and spiritual renewal. Although without fault or sin, Jesus was going to start off with John in his teaching and his baptism of repentance.
Jesus would make Himself one with all those who sought the Kingdom of God, and who sought to change their lives accordingly.
In one sense Jesus was identifying Himself with all of humanity in its sins and rebellion against God.
But He was also drawing close to those who wanted to make themselves one with the plans and purposes of God. And this was a theme that runs right through the New Testament and certainly through the gospels.
It was not just a matter of attending a moral and spiritual rally, and then going away saying ‘Yes, that was wonderful’ but without personal commitment. Rather like attending a concert and looking only at the décor of the venue.
No, this was where personal commitment began: in the public space and before the people as a witnessing community. It was also where He met His first disciples.
But it was also a starting point in a different sense. It was only after He had come out of the water that, having identified Himself with the repentance of Israel, that He was also marked out by God, His Father.
Not only the words of acclamation: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’
But there was more: the personal abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit. He would endow Jesus with the power to perform miracles of healing, as well as the discernment of spirits, to be able to distinguish the things that were of God, from those arising from the human temperament and then those that were powers of darkness and spiritual evil.
He would be able to speak out the things of God with authority, as a prophet. He would have the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins with the same authority of God Himself.
Now Jesus was to be engaged in the economy of God in a way that goes far beyond the realms and techniques of public relations or of the entertainment business. This was the word of God in action on the ground. When God spoke, things happened for this was what the word of God was.
And so when Paul came to Ephesus, he met people who had been impressed by John’s ministry but who had not known Jesus’.
They may have made that personal commitment to the law and purposes of God but they were still constrained by the limits of the human spirit.
What they needed was the Spirit of the Lord – the Holy Spirit who would indwell and inspire them daily so as not to be misled by the fashion of the times.
This was the difference between the baptism of John and that of Jesus. Regrettably, what was true then is still true now. We also try to live rightly but it is in our own power that we do it.
And what we need is the power of Jesus Christ in our lives – to endow us with His personal presence and authority.
Paul had the remedy for the church in Ephesus. It is also available to us here and now.