The baptism of Jesus was a watershed, a fundamental break in his life. Before his baptism, Jesus was a respectable, but unexceptional, and unnoticed carpenter in Nazareth. Then news came to Nazareth that there was a new prophet on the rounds; a baptiser named John. When Jesus heard of this, he downed tools, turned his back on Nazareth and set off to be baptised by John. Things would never be the same again. From now on he had nowhere to rest his head as he dedicated himself totally to a religious mission to all Israel. Both family and neighbours were shocked and even offended by this very different Jesus, and not without reason. Some members of his family thought he was mad. On his return to his native Nazareth they wondered where he got all this wisdom and eventually were so scandalised by his remarks that they threw him out of the village. The baptism of Jesus marks the moment when all this change took place. Jesus the woodworker was no more. He was now a man on a mission.
The huge change in Jesus did not mean that he became overpowering or domineering. On the contrary his message was one of comfort and consolation especially to the poor. Today’s first reading sums up his attitude: “‘Console my people, console them,’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and cry to her that her period of service is ended, that her guilt has been atoned for, that, from the hand of Yahweh, she has received double punishment for all her sins.’” Far from being a firebrand, what was most obvious about Jesus was his focus on God and God’s grace, forgiveness, reconciliaton and mercy.
Luke says very little about Jesus baptism, but dwells much more on what happens afterwards. Following the opening of the heavens, two significant events take place. On the one hand he is addressed as God’s beloved son and secondly Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit. The voice from heaven declares unequivocally: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” A lot of our problems today stem from an identity crisis, a feeling of being a nobody and unwanted. Jesus had no such difficulty. His felt experience of being God’s beloved son, God’s delight, was the foundation of his ministry. Furthermore, his anointing meant that he was empowered by the Spirit. From now on, on a daily basis, Jesus would be led by the Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that led him into the desert immediately after his baptism. It was the Spirit that guided him every step of the way, to preach the Good News to the poor and proclaim liberty to captives etc.
Would that we could take our baptism as seriously as Jesus took his! It is, after all, no different. We too are anointed by the Holy Spirit enabling us to become sons and daughters of a loving God. In some parts of Nigeria, I’m told, the baptism of a child is usually followed by a happy reception where children are sure to eat one thing, rice. For this, the baptism dress is sometimes referred to as the rice dress. Thinking of baptism easily makes people think of rice. And sometimes when you are speak of the “rites” of baptism, people think you are speaking of the “rice” of baptism.
Happily the word RICE turns out to be a very helpful acronym for baptism. R stands for Rebirth. In baptism we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. This means the old person has died and there is a new life principle within us enabling us to become to become children of God. So just as the heavens opened for Jesus and he was addressed as beloved son we too, in living out our baptism are being continually addressed each day as a beloved son or daughter of God in whom God is well pleased. If only we could grasp the immensity of this fact alone we would have no identity crisis. God delights in you and me to an embarrassing degree.
I stands for Initiation. At baptism we are initiated and admitted into full membership in the church, that community of believers who find their whole meaning of life in the Trinity of persons, namely, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are now a people full of hope and trust in God. We are a resurrected people and the Easter Alleluia is our song.
C is for Conversion. Conversion means turning around and away from ourselves and turning towards God in all things. We are invited to leave behind our old, egoistic ways of doing things and to live and behave as children worthy of God. C is also for consecration. We consecrate and dedicate ourselves to seek and to spread the kingdom of God. We commit ourselves to be servants of God, to do God’s will and serve God all our lives.
And E is for Empowerment. We can never live this new life on our own. At baptism however the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and empowers us, equips us, gives us the moral strength to say no to evil and to live as God’s children that we have become.
Rebirth, initiation, conversion, consecration and empowerment: is all of this possible? The answer is yes. The first Christians did it on a grand scale. They truly took hold of their baptism and lived their faith in Jesus Christ as a powerful ‘spiritual movement’. They felt themselves possessed by Jesus’ Spirit. Moved by that Spirit, they lived everything in a whole new way.
To live by the Spirit and not by our own lights is the daily challenge facing us. It calls for radical commitment and never forgetting what Paul said to his communities: ‘Do not stifle the Spirit’. A church stifled, empty of Christ’s spirit, can’t live or share his true Newness. It can’t taste or spread his Good News. Let us set ourselves today to live by the Spirit on a daily basis so that we can truly become who we are meant to be, sons and daughters of the living God.
Sunday, 10th January 2016