Sermon - Sunday, 12 January 2020

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 12 January 2020

Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-9 / Matthew 3: 13-17

Text: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.      (Matthew 3: 13)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Baptism matters, baptism is important – and as he travelled some seventy miles from Galilee in the north to the Jordan valley east of Jerusalem, an inhospitable desert region many hundreds of feet below sea level, clearly being baptised mattered to Jesus.

John’s desert ministry was already well established and Matthew tells us it had attracted considerable attention with people living in Jerusalem and throughout Judea coming to be baptised by John.

John described his baptism as a baptism of cleansing and forgiveness for those Jews who recognised they had broken God’s covenant and needed to change their ways.

John also said there was someone coming after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire and who, with a winnowing fork in his hand, would separate the wheat from the chaff.

Doesn’t mince his words John, does he?

So was Jesus this someone?

And to what extent do you think Jesus had broken God’s covenant and needed to change his ways?

Matthew doesn’t say and as Jesus and John negotiate just who should baptise whom, the Biblical scholars suggest the dialogue serves to emphasise Jesus’ humility as he publicly commits his life to God whose presence and power he will now make manifest.

Baptism mattered to Jesus; it marked the beginning of his life as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer.

Baptism matters, baptism is important – and as much as it mattered to Jesus, it also mattered to the authors of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

As much as we might wish it otherwise, the four gospels tell us next to nothing about Jesus’ childhood and young adult life.

It is to Matthew and Luke we are indebted for the information about Jesus’ birth but beyond the single reference to him visiting Jerusalem when he was twelve years of age, we know nothing of what shaped and influenced Jesus as he grew up in Nazareth.

What is significant is that all four gospels record the events of Jesus baptism in some detail.

Clearly Matthew, Mark, Luke and John thought what happened at the River Jordan mattered, mattered to Jesus and also mattered to what they discerned to be the wider purposes of God.

As the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and a voice was heard saying This is my Son whom I love and with whom I am pleased, one commentator suggests it is a sacramental moment when human and divine wills coincide confirming the reality of God’s reign in Jesus.

Baptism matters, baptism is important, it mattered to Jesus, it mattered to the authors of the four gospels, and it mattered to the Reformers.

Along with the Lord’s Supper, the Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox identified baptism as one of the two sacraments to be observed in the Reformed church.

Defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the Reformers argued that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the only sacraments necessary for salvation.

This was the conclusion of their reading of the scriptures, in particular Jesus telling his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations baptising them in my name, and his instruction to them at his Last Supper to take and eat, this is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.

Baptism matters, baptism is important, it mattered to Jesus, it mattered to the authors of the four gospels, it mattered to the Reformers and it mattered to Mrs MacFarlane.

Having just conducted morning worship in what he described as a super wee church in one of the tougher areas of Glasgow, my colleague and friend Dane Sherrard went back into the sanctuary to collect his notes when he was accosted – his word – by Mrs MacFarlane.

Mrs MacFarlane was not a member of the congregation, Dane had never met her before, but, having attended the service, she had waited behind in the sanctuary to speak to Dane.

And what Mrs MacFarlane wanted to know was whether or not Dane would christen her wean.

As Mrs MacFarlane sat down the story tumbled out from her.

It transpired the wean in question was her granddaughter, the result of an encounter between her daughter and what Mrs MacFarlane described as a ne’er-do-well who was now behind bars and out of her family’s life.

The daughter had returned home and was staying with her Mum and Mrs MacFarlane was adamant any granddaughter of hers would be brought to the church and christened.

Unfortunately someone had told Mrs MacFarlane that because she wasn’t a member and didn’t attend church, it wouldn’t be possible!

So fixing him in the eye, Mrs MacFarlane demanded to know what was Dane going to do about it and whether or not he would ‘do the wean’?

So what would you have done about it if you had been faced with Mrs Macfarlane that Sunday morning?

And given the Church of Scotland’s rules and regulations surrounding baptism, namely, that at least one parent or other close family member is either a member of the church or willing to become a member, and that this person must profess their own Christian faith and promise to give the child a Christian upbringing, what do you think Dane did about it?

Knowing what the Bible says about baptism, mindful of the story of parents bringing their children to Jesus and angry disciples sending them away, mindful too of the church requirements, and drawing inspiration from an inscription on a 5th century font which reads Here a people of godly grace are born for heaven, Dane did what I hope we would all do, he agreed to her request.

He agreed to baptise Mrs MacFarlane’s granddaughter not because she was a member of the church, and not on the strength or otherwise of Mrs MacFarlane’s faith, but because in the sacrament of baptism God claims us as His own – and that is not something anyone can earn or deserve.

It is not even something we can stand up and claim by confessing our faith.

The new beginning that is baptism – what the Bible describes as a re-birth – comes to us as a gift.

And because it comes to us as a gift, Mrs MacFarlane’s granddaughter was no different from you or me, she too was a child of God, loved and cared for by her family and already loved and cared for by God.

God had given Mrs MacFarlane a granddaughter and what she wanted was for the child to receive the outward and visible sign of that inward and invisible grace, the assurance that in the grace and mercy of Almighty God, her granddaughter was a child born for heaven.

So what about you, what about your baptism?

Do you know where and when you were baptised?

Was it something which happened a long time ago – if you look to the back of your birth certificate you might find it was signed and dated by the minister who baptised you – but is it something you ever think about now?

Living as we do in a culture of entertainment in which celebrity is important, one in which the emphasis tends to be placed on the individual – what matters is what I want and what I think and what I decide to do – our sense of belonging, of being and thinking and acting as part of a community has diminished.

We live at a time when we have never enjoyed better means of communication or more ways of keeping in touch with one another yet feelings of isolation and loneliness have never been greater.

What hasn’t changed however is the deep human need for acceptance, the desire for understanding, for meaning, the longing to care and to be cared for, to love and to be loved and the need to belong.

Whatever else it is about, the sacrament of baptism is about belonging.

In baptism God claims us as His own and with water and the Holy Spirit, cleanses, forgives and sets us free from the power of death.

In baptism we are made one with Christ and brought into the family of God’s people, the church, a people of godly grace born for heaven.

Apparently the great Reformer, Martin Luther, was subject to bouts of anxiety and depression.

One of the ways he learned to cope was by reminding himself I am baptised.

Baptism matters, baptism is important, and no matter how long ago it happened, today will you celebrate the fact you are baptised and know it for what it is, a gift to be treasured, a gift to be nurtured, a gifted to be enjoyed with one another and in God’s company for ever.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen