Baptism: affirmed by God in front of witnesses

Mary Copping, 14 January 2018

Genesis 1: 1–5; Mark 1: 4–11

It is a real privilege to be part of the baptism service of Eilidh McCabe, daughter of Magnus and Victoria, and of Aaron Burrows, one of our youth assistants who joined us in October 2017 and has become a valuable part of our children’s and youth work team. We have many baptisms at St Paul’s and St Matthew’s, quite a few of which are outside the normal service times. But it’s always extra special when the baptism is within one of our main services, with the church family supporting and welcoming those being baptised.

Today we’re thinking of the Baptism of Christ – very different from the baptisms we have at St Paul’s and St Matthew’s. Jesus definitely wasn’t a baby, and the water of the Jordan wasn’t clean – very muddy, in fact. Yet the similarities are that Jesus was coming to be blessed by God, to be affirmed by him, and in front of witnesses.

All three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tell of his baptism. ‘Synoptic’, so named because they have many of the same accounts in similar sequence, and here is an example of this. Some of them have more detail than that which Mark gives us. In Matthew’s account he explains more fully than Mark that John was not happy to baptise Jesus, as he realised that his baptism of repentance did not apply to Jesus, the Son of God, the sinless one. Yet Jesus insisted, saying that it must be so, identifying with us in our sinfulness, being one with us in his humanity.

Jesus’ baptism comes after the hidden years when all we know about him is that he was brought up by Joseph the carpenter and Mary in Nazareth. The only story we have about Jesus the boy is when he was 12 and stayed listening to the teachers in the Temple; his parents thought he was lost.

Jesus’ baptism was a hinge point for him: the time when God began to make his Son known to the world, one of the major milestones. Did the crowds around Jesus hear the voice of God and see the dove descending? We don’t know; some accounts say the people heard thunder. Whatever happened, this was a special moment – for Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry; for John, handing over the reins to the Messiah, the one he had been preaching about, the one who ‘was to come’; and for the people around, perhaps not the start of understanding, but realisation that this was an important event.

In any baptismal service we are all invited to remember our own baptism, or at least recall that we were baptised, and to think again about what was said for us. When preparing for the baptism service with families, we talk especially about what the parents and godparents are going to be asked to agree to, and what that means.

The first question is, ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ This is about looking to him, belief in him as our saviour. I wonder what that means for us as we begin this New Year as Christians. It’s easy to become complacent about our faith, to take it for granted. Here we have an opportunity once more to reaffirm our trust in Christ, to look to him for guidance and direction, to thank him for all his many blessings.

I heard a preacher affirming the value of thanking God each day: how it lifts our hearts, focuses us again on him who saved us, and who continues to save us each day. She made the point that sometimes we may have to search around to find things to give thanks for, especially if we are at a low ebb or things are dark. Her suggestion was to give thanks for life and breath. So, let us turn to Christ afresh.

Thanking God each day lifts our hearts, focuses us again on him who saved us, and who continues to save us each day.

The second question is ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ Each day we say and do things that we should not say or do. Do we ask forgiveness? Some people do an ‘examen’ at the end of each day, a devotional exercise looking back and seeing where we felt happy and where we could have done better, then asking forgiveness. It can feel like a cleansing, ready for a new day.

The third thing we are asked is, ‘Do you renounce evil?’ Do we have the courage to speak out if we are asked to do something we feel is wrong? Or just not to join in gossip? These three baptismal questions seem a good guide for us all to follow in our Christian lives.

If people who want their babies baptised aren’t churchgoers, some churches insist that they must first do a special course on Christianity. For us, ours is to welcome all who want their babies baptised or who themselves want to be baptised – the picture is of the open doors and soft edges of the church. And through this, we have wonderful conversations at the meetings with families about why they want baptism, what their beliefs are and where they see God in all of this. Usually we say a prayer for them and their family.

If the baptism is outside the normal service, two people from church prepare for it and welcome all who come. Then, afterwards, we keep in touch with them, letting them know of all that is going on for families, and often they come to events and services. Such good relationships are made, another step on their journey towards Christianity.

Returning to the water at Jesus’ baptism – not sparkling, fresh, clean and even warmed up, as it is for the baby, but dirty and cold – and Jesus was fully immersed in it. This is such a sign for us of Jesus being involved in the painful, dark things of life, then and now. Jesus is with us in all our difficulties; he is with the world in all its problems, even though we can’t often see him.

And as we go out into the world, we reveal Christ’s light in the darkness. Perhaps we wish for easier lives, we worry about all that is happening? But each of us can and does make a difference, through our prayers, our words and our actions.

Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. Let us each remember our own baptism and begin afresh our ministry as Christians, whatever that may mean. Here is the personal prayer of Mary Sumner, founder of the Mother’s Union, which is a wonderful way to start each day.

All this day, O Lord,
let me touch as many lives as possible for thee;
and every life I touch, do thou by thy spirit quicken,
whether through the word I speak,
the prayer I breathe,
or the life I live.