We read today of Jesus’ baptism
Baptism as a ritual washing had been practised by Jewish communities for many years before John the Baptist came on the scene.
But John takes it to a new dimension. He is saying that if you are baptised, you are not just washing away the rubbish from the past, but you are identifying yourself with God, his kingdom and his ways.
When he calls people to repent he is asking us to do more than just be sorry or turn from the bad stuff. He is calling us to change our whole way of thinking: so that God and the desire for his kingdom becomes the key driver in our life. It is about choosing in our minds to move God from the edge to the centre. It is about saying that whereas before I was nominally a fan of God (he got a ‘like’ on my Facebook page), now I identify myself with him (I become a page on his page)
And John urges people to do that through water baptism.
So why was Jesus baptised?
1. Jesus was baptised as an act of obedience.
When Jesus comes to John to be baptised, John says to him, ‘You don’t need to be baptised. You already are completely identified with God. If anybody needs baptising, it is me – and you should baptise me’.
But Jesus says to him: ‘Let it be so for now; it is proper for us to this to fulfil all righteousness’. (Matthew 3:15)
In other words, Jesus is saying, ‘I am going to be baptised as an act of obedience.'
Jesus didn't need to be baptised. But he chose to be baptised - because he knew it was what God wanted him to do. It was the right thing to do.
And that decision, at the very beginning of his ministry, set the pattern for his life. He lived a life of obedience.
And of course the supreme example is when he went to the cross. He didn't need to die on the cross. He certainly didn't wish to die on the cross. But he chose to die on the cross in obedience to his Father.
2. Jesus was baptised as an act of identification.
When Jesus is baptised, he is saying, 'I choose to identify myself with all those who have chosen to be baptised’.
That is also the way of Jesus.
When he was born, he left heaven and became a human being to identify himself with human beings.
When he went to the cross, he chose to identify himself with us in our sin.
When he died, the giver of life chose to identify himself with us in the very deepest pit.
The Orthodox icon of the baptism shows Jesus at the bottom of the pit. I'm not going to explain this in detail here (I've done that before), and I appreciate that if you are not familiar with icons this might look very weird.
But it is an image which tells us the story (there is John, Jesus in the river and even an axe by a broken tree - Matt 3:10). It also helps us understand what is going in the story. Jesus, the Son of God, has come from heaven and, as an act of obedience and humility, has gone into the pit. This grungy bit here is very similar to how hell is depicted in the icon of the resurrection.
No wonder the angels are looking on in stunned, and rather sorrowful, amazement.
3. Jesus was baptised as an act of witness.
[This is why we remember the baptism the week after we remember the wise men.
The star revealed Jesus to the wise men]
When Jesus is baptised, the voice from heaven reveals to us who Jesus is.
‘The heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (v16)
This is the first time that we are specifically introduced to the Father. He is the true Voice. And we are introduced to the Holy Spirit and the unique Son of God.
We need to remember that the one who was baptised is the eternal Son of God.
He is shown in the icon as the ideal person. He is the one on whom the Spirit rests. And he is the one who makes the two figures in the water (symbols of the sea and river Jordan) look like nothing. He is greater than any who pretend to be a Neptune or Poseidon or, for that matter, any other false God.
And He is the one who blesses the pit from within the pit. His hands are in the shape of a blessing. Light comes from them and him and penetrates through the water. He creates life (the little fishes here) and because of him what seems like a tomb becomes a life-giving river that flows out to whoever stands in front of this icon.
The reason that Jesus was obedient to his Father; the reason that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, identifies himself with us - is so that he might bless us. He became one of us so that we might become like him.
So what about us?
What about those who have not been baptised, or those of us who have been baptised (whether as a child or an adult, it does not matter).
I would like to focus on three reasons for being baptised
1. We are baptised in obedience to God: Jesus commands it.
Jesus was baptised as an act of obedience, and he commands his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, to baptise them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
Peter, in Acts 2, tells his listeners when they ask what they must do to be saved: ‘repent and be baptised’.
2. We are baptised to identify ourselves with Jesus
Jesus identifies himself with us in his baptism
We identify ourselves with him in our baptism
Paul says something like this in Romans 6:2-3
'Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.'
And what I find helpful in the icon is that it is not really John baptising Jesus. Rather, it is as if John is placing his hand on Jesus’ head and identifying himself with Jesus in his baptism.
And when you are baptised, you are identified with Jesus when he was baptised. It is like wearing a T-shirt with the words, ‘I am with Him’ emblazoned across your chest. ‘I am with the one who is the eternal Son of God, who was one with his Father in heaven, but who in obedience chose to strip himself of everything, to become a human being, to suffer and die – even die on a cross – in order to bless human beings and this creation’.
And you are saying, ‘I too am stripping myself of all that I treasure or take pride in: my achievements, my success, my goodness, my qualifications, my possessions, my knowledge, my securities, my ambitions – in order that I may trust in Him for my all, go wherever he leads and do whatever he calls me to do’.
When we are baptised we are identified completely with Jesus Christ.
3. We are baptised as a witness to Jesus
When a person is baptised as an adult, they publicly declare that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and they identify themselves with Jesus.
At the baptism event they are asked:
Do you turn to Christ as your Saviour?
Do you submit to Christ as your Lord?
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
Some of the most powerful moments, when heaven is opened and God is revealed, is when people formally and publicly declare themselves to be followers of Jesus, and identify themselves with Jesus. It might happen at a baptism, or – if someone was baptised as an infant – at confirmation.
The early Christians insisted on the need for everyone who was a follower of Jesus Christ to have received water baptism, and so identify themselves with Jesus. They made one exception, and that was for martyrs – people who had become Christians but had had no time to be baptised, because they were arrested and, because of their faith, were taken to the arenas. They were treated as people who had been baptised - not with water, but with their own blood. And the word martyr comes from the Greek and means simply ‘witness’.
I suspect that few, if any, of us here will be called to physically give up our life for Jesus Christ.
But even if we are not, please remember that when you were baptised you did exactly that. Paul, we saw earlier, says that when we are baptised we die to ourselves, and come alive to him. He says of himself, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’. If I'm being dramatic and I want to make the point, I sometimes say to people who have asked for a christening or baptism that at our baptism, when the water is poured over us, or we go down into the water, it is as if we are putting ourselves or our child into their coffin. We die, they die. From now on they are dead to the world, but alive to God. And then we or they come up as completely new people.
So the witness is not just the act of baptism. When we live as someone who has been baptised, as someone who is learning to daily die to ourselves and come alive to God, then your life and my life declares that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
And that really leads me to my final point
Baptism is both an event and a state.
It is like marriage. There is the event of marriage and the state of marriage. You have the event of marriage, when you make the vows, but for your marriage to have any meaning you need to live those vows out with your partner as one who is in a marriage.
In the same way, there is the event of baptism, when the vows are made, but if that baptism is to have any meaning or power then it needs to be lived out. We need to live with Jesus as one who is baptised. And that means living a lifestyle of obedience to Jesus, of identification with Jesus and of witness to Jesus.
For some people the event of baptism can be immensely costly. Saiffee was a young man from a Muslim background who became a Christian. When he was baptised, they considered that he had betrayed the family, cut him off and even placed death threats on him. But even for people who come from a nominal Christian background, the decision to be baptised can have some painful consequences: people think you have betrayed your family, want to better yourself or think that you are saying that you are above them. And you can experience hostility.
And for all of us, there will be times when living in the state of baptism will be immensely costly
There will be times when God takes us down deep into the water. Maybe he asks us to let go of all that we find comfortable and secure and precious. Maybe when he calls us to do something that we would far rather not do. And we have to make the decision whether we are going to be obedient, identify ourselves with Jesus and witness to him.
But the baptism of Jesus also shows us that it really is worth it:
It is worth it because of the blessing it can bring other people.
It is worth it to hear, with Jesus, our Heavenly Father say to the host of heaven, to open-mouthed angels, to all of creation, ‘This is my child, whom I love. With him, with her, I am well pleased’.