Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 14 January 2018.
This is my Bus Pass. I did not have to do very much to obtain it – except to live within Glasgow and reach the age of 60, which in my view is not really old at all. In fact, just the beginning of another age of life in which I am still a youngster.
It does not commit me to do anything but it does give me privileged access to bus and underground travel, in in this it is very useful.
But it does not change who I am, how I think, or what I like in the way of food or company or music or sport. It certainly does not change me from within, and I remain the same person whether I am awake or asleep, whether I am travelling or at home, and whether I am going by car, bus, rail or even flying.
In its way it is rather like being a car owner taking it to the garage to be serviced: I take it there as a driver, and the service is performed for me, but taking it to the garage does not change me into a mechanic. It only entitles me to pay for the privilege of having the car checked over by a qualified mechanic. Again there is no commitment beyond that of paying for the service.
But compare this with what John the Baptist was doing – as he preached amendment of life before the coming of the Messiah of Israel promised by God.
The immersion into the river for baptism might have been brief enough, but it did indeed point to a changing of heart and of mind. It heralded a new kind of personal commitment to a life of holiness under the law of Israel. It meant turning away from practices of the past.
Tax collectors were to collect no more than the established rate – which was a shame since the whole point of collecting taxes was to gouge the populace of as much money as you could.
Soldiers were told not to loot the land which was also a pity since the right to pillage the land was a perk of the job, provided that you survived the military campaign.
Even the religious bosses were told not to presume on being descended from Abraham and hence to be automatically in God’s favour, but to live lives of personal holiness and sanctity.
In short the baptism of John was itself a commitment to enter a new kind of life and lifestyle, and to reassess personal priorities.
Then along came Jesus. Yes, John had spoken of Him, and had acknowledged Him to be superior to himself in all respects.
For a start, Jesus went out of His way to receive a baptism of repentance – even though He was personally sinless. Nevertheless, His ministry started with a personal commitment to the people and a demonstration of His identifying with them.
He who was without sin was already making Himself one with sinners.
But then came a further development for it was after Jesus had made this personal commitment of Himself for sinners that the heavens were opened and the voice of God proclaimed Jesus as His Son. God Himself affirmed Jesus act of self-emptying on behalf of the people – indeed all people in history.
Next, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. He would be with Jesus to the very end, even to the point where He breathed His last and ‘Yielded up the Spirit.’
He would give Jesus power in miracles and in discernment; He would enrich His understanding of the law of God and the practices and strategies and coping mechanisms of ordinary – and indeed of exceptional people. He would release in Jesus the word of God, in season and out of season, whether it was to be welcome or not.
And so the Holy Spirit would empower and give authority to all aspects of Jesus’ ministry.
But there is more to this matter for Paul would instruct his churches to live beyond the baptism of John, and to thrive and excel in the life of Jesus Himself.
That is what Christian baptism is. It is to be so reborn and redirected that we are living in this world the life that Jesus wants us to live.
It is to find life and identity and purpose in Jesus Christ, and indeed to find that there is none worth living outside of Jesus Christ.
To be baptized in Jesus Christ is to receive the same Holy Spirit that Jesus had received, even if many of us then obstruct and impede Him with our own priorities and loyalties.
So yes, baptism into Jesus Christ is far more involved than receiving a bus pass or joining a sports club – or any other club come to that.
It is to be open to the same life of commitment and service to God, to receiving the wisdom of God as we ponder, the words of God as we speak, the love of God as we give ourselves to or for others.
Now the baptism of Jesus is no longer just a story of long ago and far away.
It is something intimately present to us as we are also invited into that life.
It is to step out on a lifetime’s journey equipped with the promises and the love of God, filled with the same Spirit as Jesus and perhaps facing the same uncertainties of life as He did.
But be sure of this: Jesus has already committed Himself for us. He now looks for our commitment to Him.