An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Baptised to What?

A sermon on Mark 1: 4-11 by Nathan Nettleton preached at the St Kilda Baptist Church

This is one of the common weeks for ministers with training wheels to preach, because lots of regular preachers are away on holidays at this time of the year. On this week every year, one or other of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism comes up and this will be the forth year in a row I’ve preached on it somewhere. But this year I have a new perspective on it. This year, and today especially, I feel much closer to the story, I can identify with it in a new way. This year I want to claim it as my own story and urge each of you to likewise claim it for yourselves. 

The baptism story is about a dramatic turning point in Jesus’ life and there are two reasons why I relate to this turning point in a new way this year. Firstly, for many people, a major birthday is a crisis time and a potential turning point. 21, 30, 40, or 50 can really affect people. The consensus opinion among biblical historians is that Jesus was baptized at around age 30. Today is my 30th birthday, and although I’m not feeling any real crisis about that, as I studied this story again I felt closer to it because Jesus was my age when this took place.

Secondly, the baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his public ministry— it was, if you like, his ordination to mission, and I feel closer to that this year because I will be ordained as a minister later this year. Again, that won’t be such a major change for me, I’ve been more or less full time in ministry for 4 years now, but it will be a public recognition and confirmation of a change that has taken place. And for most of us, that is what our baptism was or will be, a public proclaimation and confirmation of a change that has already occured. This morning I want us to ask “what is the change?” “What did baptism mean for Jesus?” and in turn “what does it mean for us?”

The story of Jesus being baptised by John in the Jordan is one of the most certain stories in the whole gospels. Even the most sceptical scholars, who dismiss most of the Jesus stories as legends, believe that this one was an actual event. They might question the details but they believe that Jesus was baptised by John. It’s interesting how these scholars decide which stories are beyond reasonable doubt. One of the criteria is how well attested it is, and the baptism story, being told in all four of the gospels and a number of other places, does well here. Then there is a criteria that works hand in hand with that one. If a story is a bit embarressing, or causes a bunch of theological problems, and still gets told then it is more likely to be true, and if it is a real problem but still gets told by everybody, then it is almost certain to be true. Now this makes a lot of sense when you think about it, because we all edit the stories we tell as we go. If I was telling you the recent history of the St Kilda Football club, you can be quite sure I’d tell you about the day when Tony Lockett kicked thirteen goals on Steven Silvani, but I probably won’t tell you about the day he lost his temper and put a bloke in a head lock and nearly suffocated him. It’s an embarressing detail, it doesn’t fit the over all impression I want to give.

Now the story of the baptism is a little bit like that. You would understand if someone left it out because it really causes some problems. You see John’s baptism was for repentance and for forgiveness of sins, so Jesus feeling the need to be baptised by John implies that he had something to repent of and some sins to be forgiven. And although the scriptures never make much of an issue of it, the tradition developed very very early in the church that Jesus never sinned in his whole life. And to make matters worse, being baptised by someone implied some sort of submission to their authority and so the idea of Jesus submitting to John’s authority caused some problems too.

You can see the evidence of this problem if you flick over and have a look at the way Matthew adds a few extra details to try and clear it up. Only Matthew’s version has John refusing to baptize Jesus and Jesus replying, “Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us to fulfil all righteousness.”

This baptism story is far to much of a theological headache for any one to have made it up, because if they had, no-one else would have used it. So the scholars conclude that because it causes serious problems for the Christian image of Jesus, but everyone tells it anyway, then even if you’re the most veherment athiest you can bet your house that someone called Jesus of Nazareth got baptized by John the Baptizer somewhere around the year thirty.

However, the fact that it actually happened is not the reason it was written down. None of these stories were written down merely because they happened, but because they mean something. Mere details of recorded history can be terribly tedious reading. Jesus may have taken his sandals off before entering the water but nobody bothered to write it down. We don’t care about the historical details. What we want to know what it all means, how it shaped Jesus ministry, what impact it had on his mission and how it affects our calling as disciples now.

This story is the opening scene of the gospel journey. John’s ministry started before Jesus’ and was obviously very significant, because all the gospel writers see it as necessary to give some sort of explanation of how Jesus emerged from John’s movement and how the two related to one another.

John was a wild man. He lived a radical ascetic lifestyle, living in the desert, wearing beggar’s clothes and eating bush tucker. He preached a firey message of the wrath of God and the coming judgement on a sinful generation. He called people back to a radical obedience to the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and threatened the firey anger of God on those who didn’t repent and obey. He baptized those who responded as a final sign of the conversion of all Israel, of the beginning of the reign of God. Jesus recognizes and affirms John’s message. His own message is somewhat different as we shall see shortly but he identifies himself with John’s message by coming to him for baptism along with all the rest.

Now you might not be comfortable with using the words conversion or repentance for what happened to Jesus at that time, but whatever you want to call it there is a big change in his life from this time on. For the last eighteen years Jesus had done nothing to hit the headlines. To the best of our knowledge, he’d done his apprenticeship and worked in the family carpentry business for pretty much all of that time. There are no reports of crowds flocking to the chippy’s shop to sit on the saw dust and hang on every word that proceeded from the mouth of the chippy. Apparently his mother thought he was the messiah and he thought his mother was a virgin but that’s not particularly unusual in Jewish families. He wasn’t making any waves. He wasn’t upsetting anybody or getting in any trouble. He wasn’t challenging or confronting anything. So far as we know he was just letting the world go on as it always had.

But now he comes out to John to be baptized, and from here on he radically changes his style. He turns around. He converts to a new approach. And what a change it is. Immediately following his baptism the satan personally makes a last ditch effort to throw him off course. Within another 7 verses we’ve got people quiting their jobs to follow him. Within 13 verses we’ve got demons screaming at him in the synagogue. Within 17 verses we’ve got the news spreading all over Galilee. Within 34 verses he can no longer enter a town openly because of the disturbance that would be caused. Within 41 verses he is being accused of blasphemy by the lawyers. And within 62 verses we’ve already got the pharisees and the herodians plotting to kill him.

All quite a dramatic impact for a gentle chippy from Nazareth. You can’t tell me nothing changed. People don’t plot to kill you because you are good. They plot to kill you because you confront the evil that they profit from. Donald McKay didn’t get killed because he didn’t sell drugs. He got killed because he confronted those who did. Archbishop Romero didn’t get killed because he didn’t torture and oppress. He got killed because he confronted those who did. Martin Luther King didn’t get killed because he cared about those who lived in poverty. He got killed because he confronted those whose wealth was built on that poverty. Jesus didn’t get killed because he was righteous and loving and merciful and just. He was killed because he set about confronting and transforming a world that was corrupt and hateful and ruthless and oppressive.

And so Jesus goes through the waters of baptism for conversion and comes out with a new mind set, a new approach, a new lifestyle, a radical new mission to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth. That’s what I call a conversion. And that’s what I call ordination. And that’s what baptism is all about. Conversion from one way of life and ordination to a new way.

Something changed pretty dramatically when Jesus was baptised and Mark records it so that we can not only understand but do likewise. Mark is calling for the church to undergo the same sort of dramatic transformation so that we can make the same sort of impact on our society. He is calling for us to be converted from something and ordained to something.

So what actually happened to Jesus at his baptism. Others may have experienced the forgiveness of sins for conversion at this moment, but what Jesus experienced was the experience of the Spirit of God. He saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God descending like a dove on him. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in you I am delighted.” This is the same Spirit of God who we met in the first sentence of Genesis, brooding over the formless earth, like a mother bird over her egg, cherishing it and willing it to life. This is the Spirit who broods over each one of us, cherishing us and willing us to fullness of life. This is the Spirit who is the active creative power of God in the world, who calls and guides and loves us into the paths of God, who calls us to live life and to create life and to redeem life and to enhance life and to protect life.

It was this Spirit who came down and alighted on Jesus as he emerged from the water and claimed him as the son of God who brings delight to the Lord. The description recalls the passage we read from Isaiah: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Thus says the LORD, “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners who sit in darkness.”

Those words of course were not spoken of Jesus when Isaiah wrote them, they referred to the community of God’s people. This is what God’s servant is to be. But as a description of the servant of the Lord they fit beautifully for Jesus. He is the chosen one who delights the Lord, who the Spirit is given to to bring forth justice and healing and freedom. It was in this moment of baptism that Jesus was annointed as the Son of God, the chosen Servant of the Lord and commissioned to confront the demons of his society and to bring healing to the brokenness of his people and to call women and men into an intimate relationship with God.

And from that moment forward that was the mission he embarked on.

Unlike John, Jesus does not proclaim the coming of the angry judge of the world, but the intimate nearness of God.

Unlike John he does not demonstrate the arriving kingdom through threats of judgement and an ascetic lifestyle, but through signs of grace and acts of mercy to desperate people, and through miracles of health and healing for those who have been sick and suffering.

He preached not so much of the last terrifying days, but of the fulness of time, the dawning of the jubilee, the day of liberation, peace and hope.

The fruits of Jesus’ experience of the Spirit can be seen in every following story of the gospel. He was a changed man from this moment on, a man on a mission, a man bent on bringing that message of an intimate, merciful, healing, liberating God to men and women in need, even if it cost him his life. The reading from Isaiah serves us as a beautiful summary of his approach to that mission. But it can do more than that for us too. Remember that it was written to describe the mission of the people of God, not of Jesus. It was written as a description of our mission. When Isaiah wrote “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to set free the prisoners who sit in darkness,” it was you plural; you Israel, you who bear the name of the Lord. And so as we read it now, we can legitimately read it as You St Kilda Baptists. You are given as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners who sit in darkness. You St Kilda Baps are my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon you and you will bring forth justice to the nations.

It’s scary, isn’t it. But the same Spirit that descended and alighted on Jesus at his baptism is given to us . . . and for the same reason. That is why in Acts 19 Paul rebaptizes a group of people who had only received John’s baptism. They had been baptized for the forgiveness of sins, baptized from something, but they hadn’t been touched by the Holy Spirit, and baptized to something. We who are baptized as Christians are baptized to something. Baptism is the ordination of every follower of Jesus to the mission of Jesus.

It is time to put that mission before everything else in our lives. It’s time to turn the world upside down. Jesus was given the Spirit for the sick whom he healed. We are given the Spirit for the sick and broken who desperately need healing in our world. Jesus was given the Spirit for the sinners whose sins he forgave. We are given the Spirit for the sinners around us who are in desperate need of forgiveness and mercy. Jesus was given the Spirit for the poor and the outcast whose fellowship he sought out. We are given the Spirit for the poor and outcast whose fellowship is shunned by most of our society. Jesus was given the Spirit for the men and women who he called to follow him in discipleship. We are given the Spirit as those men and women whom he has called so that we might follow in his footsteps and carry on his mission.

And a voice is heard from heaven, “You St Kilda Baps are my beloved child, in whom I delight. Go, do as my beloved son has done.”


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