Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3.15-22, Isaiah 43.1-7, Acts 8.14-17)

A sermon by Lay Reader Ian Lawrie      10 January 2016

When we read the New Testament it often helps if we understand a little about the Jewish perspective of the day.

Jews were educated in the synagogue; much of it based on Old Testament scriptures. It would have been oral, but many would have been able to read and write. So they would have been familiar with much of Scripture. God’s covenant to bless all families through Abraham was the foundation (Gen 12.1-3), and He chose Jacob, renamed Israel, to be the means of that blessing for all through the line of Judah. After the Exodus from Egypt, God gave them the Ten Commandments to understand his ways and renewed his covenant with them, but God set conditions on their obedience.  Repeatedly Israel failed to follow God’s law, and did not fulfil their chosen role of bringing that blessing. Through the prophets, God promised to renew his plan of salvation by sending a Messiah of the line of David to be an everlasting king. Still disobedient, the Jews were taken away into captivity. However the prophet Isaiah (in our Old Testament lesson) reassured the children of Israel that they were not forgotten and that a time would come when their fortunes would be restored. The forerunner of this would be a voice crying in the wilderness. In time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance.

The religious leaders had fixed in their minds that they were the chosen people; ignoring God’s promise to Abraham that through them all families would be blessed. They were chosen, but they were chosen for a purpose and failed to fulfil it. For them baptism was for those joining the Jewish faith and not for Jews themselves! In John’s preaching, the people heard the voice of God. It was not only to baptism that John was calling them, but to repentance and this struck a chord in their hearts. They realised that things were not right in their lives. They recognized that they had displeased God. They knew that they must make a fresh start. It was John who pointed the way repentance and baptism.

Jesus stepped into this scene on the banks of the Jordan.  But why did Jesus, who is without sin need to be baptized? A writing of that day called ‘The gospel to the Hebrews’ (not the epistle) would have us think that he was persuaded to go to the Jordan by his mother. More likely, was Jesus’ growing awareness of God’s calling. At Cana in Galilee, his words to his mother were ‘my hour has not yet come.’ But now that hour had arrived. As the one sent by God to redeem the world, Jesus must take a leading role to confirm John’s message. The waters of baptism are symbolic of a change of direction, a new life, the start of a new era. Jesus was identifying himself fully with mankind who needed this change.

Repentance was the starting point for restoring their relationship with God, and it is no different today. Repentance is not the same as confessing our sins. Repentance is more than just saying sorry. Repentance involves a heartfelt desire to change and be changed by God. It is not just a means of feeling comfortable again. Because of our frailty, repentance, turning to Christ, is an on-going need in maintaining our relationship with God.

John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah and pointed the only way in which we can come to Jesus was through repentance. John’s ministry was very much one of helping people to turn to Christ from their old life. Not only did John point towards Jesus, he pointed towards the fulfilment of Jesus ministry. His words were ‘I have baptised you with water but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ as we heard in our epistle. Here was a gift which Jesus offers to all who come to him with an open and hungry heart; a gift which each one of us should receive; a gift which began on the day of Pentecost and continues to this day. It is through Jesus that men and women are filled with the Holy Spirit.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us and Peter in his epistle (2 Peter 1.17) reiterates it when he states that ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty; for He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from heaven saying ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’. – Words which were spoken again on the mount of the Transfiguration.

The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven affirmed before all those assembled that Jesus is God’s beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. Now some would say that these words were spoken as an encouragement and assurance for Jesus as he began his full time ministry. Others might interpret these words as God the Father launching Jesus on his ministry. But neither of these explanations really seems to ring true.

Many there would recognise ‘This is my beloved Son’ from Psalm 2.7; widely accepted at speaking of the Messiah. But added to that, a few years ago I met a Christian minister who was well acquainted with Jewish customs who had lived in Jerusalem for over 20 years and was highly respected among the Jews for his knowledge. It was he who gave a further explanation. We are made aware of the customs of circumcision, when Jesus was presented at the Temple; of Jesus at the Temple at the age of 13when a boy attains the age of religious responsibility. But few of us hear about the time when a son enters into his inheritance. This happened at about the age of 30 years. When we think of ‘Sonship’ we tend to identify with western culture and we forget that our understanding of Scripture should reflect Jewish culture.

In the past weeks we have heard and pondered the Christmas story. We have seen that from his birth Jesus parentage was a matter of mystery to some. Joseph was not his father, and Mary had given birth to a child while she was still betrothed and not married. Who was the father of Jesus had been a question on the minds of many people? As we all know gossip travels fast and persists.

Now at the age of 30 years it was the Jewish custom for a father to acknowledge his pleasure at what his son has achieved, when he takes on the mantle of his inheritance. And what more wonderful way could God the Father have chosen to still that gossip once and for all, and, before a crowd of witnesses, eager to turn away from their old life, to acknowledge his pleasure with Jesus as His Son, the Messiah. ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’. And, at the beginning of a new year, what better time is there for each one of us to turn, in repentance, away from those things which are past; to turn again to Jesus acknowledging Him, not only as the Son of God, but as our Lord, our Saviour and friend and to invite from him that refilling of the Holy Spirit that each one of us needs in order to obediently follow Him in our daily lives.