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Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Baptism of Christ

Someone on Twitter asked me to post my sermon. So, @pilgrimexplorer - this is for you!

Baptism of Christ

Question – why did Jesus get baptised?

He didn't need to – he wasn't a sinner. I've often felt for John the Baptist at the moment when Jesus turns up. Recognising the Messiah before him, he's clearly thinking, you don't need this – what are you doing here? John was baptising people as a sign of their repentance from their sins. So when the sinless one stands before him, he doesn't know what to do. Why does Jesus ask to be baptised? He is the one person alive at that time, or at any time, who doesn't need it.

Digression - The baptism furore

The argument has been about the “dumbing down” of the liturgy, and the removal of any reference to the devil.

Actually, I quite like these words – I think they can make sense to people. They are real about the fact that in life we all experience evil, without mentioning things that might cause sniggering.

Why does baptism matter?

Why does it matter? Because we all know that our lives are broken and incomplete, that we have made a mess of things, and that God through Jesus has done something about it. John in his letter says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
But there is a problem in all this that if we're not careful can tie us up in knots. Even after we have received God's forgiveness, even after we have been set free from the past in such a wonderful way, the fact of the matter is that we still mess up, We still sin. What's going on? How is it, that after God has forgiven us all our sis, and purified us from all unrighteousness, we aren't changed for ever completely? If we allow ourselves to think, or to say to people, “But the Bible says we don't sin any more, once we've come to Christ,” then as John goes on to say we make God out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
Or perhaps, when we find that we've slipped back into our old ways, that the things we longed to be set free from have still got us trapped, we panic, we think it hasn't worked. Perhaps God doesn't want me. Perhaps he isn't there.

Broken down cars – a wonderful illustration of what a physicist would call entropy – that things left to themselves don't automatically get better, they get worse. Things don't go from a disordered state to an ordered one, they tend towards chaos. Left to itself, everything breaks down. If you just let things run their course, if you don't intervene, things don't move towards a more perfect world, but towards a more broken, chaotic, disordered one. This is the world we live in.
So we can't afford to think of sin in black and white terms – either you're a sinner or you're forgiven and righteous. That isn't the way the world is. None of us have ever met a group of people who so live in such a cloud of righteousness and perfection that there is no sin in them. So what is the point in getting baptised? What is the point in going through this ritual that speaks of being cleansed from all kinds of dirt and brokenness if at the end of it, we're just as dirty and damaged as we ever were? Why are we deluding ourselves?

Transforming the rubbish

To help us understand the answer that God has – the real answer that God offers us to our situation, I want to tell you about a place in France that Gerard Kelly told me about last year when I was at Spring Harvest. He was one of the speakers at Spring Harvest, and he lives in Normandy, near the city of Caen, where he works with a community of Christians who do all sorts of mission work all over Europe, and who are particularly involved in starting a new church in that city.

One day, some of the members of his community came back saying that had found a really good place to go and pray for Caen. They described a park they had discovered, built on a hill just outside the city, called Colline AuxOuiseaux, the Hill of the Birds.
They talked about the lovely trees there, that there was a rose garden, with apparently their own new variety of rose, there were playparks, even a little zoo, and lovely views over the city. So the community started to go there regularly, to sit amongst the peace and pure air, and pray for the city. Then Gerard found out the history of the park. 40 years before, it had been the city rubbish dump, and for hundreds of years, people had brought all their rubbish out of the city, and piled it up here, building up this hill. But as the city had grown, this smelly, messy hill wasn't suitable any more – houses were getting closer and closer, and the smell was not something that people wanted to live with. So they stopped dumping the rubbish, and set to work transforming it into a park. And what had been a horrible place, became something beautiful where children went to play. In one place, they have dug into the hillside to reveal what it looks like below the surface.

It didn't happen straight away. It took twenty years for it to look anything like a park. The trees that were planted, didn't grow overnight. The rose garden, it didn't grow overnight. But what did they do? Did they sack the tree planters, the rose growers? Did they say, well I thought you were planting some trees, where are they? Where’s this rose garden then? No. They knew it took time. Now if it takes 20 years to sort out a rubbish dump, why should we think God can sort us out in 10 minutes?
It takes time in our lives to resow forgiveness and peace where bitterness and anger have been. But given time, with the time that God spends on us, we will no longer be known as a rubbish dump, we will no longer be known for our brokenness. The life of God will grow to displace our brokenness. This is the life to which baptism is the gateway.
Every day we have a choice – whether to live the old way, doing things out of our brokenness, or to live the new life that is opening up before us, of forgiveness and peace.

Growing the fruit

Now how does this come about? The picture that the Bible give us is of fruit, isn't it? But if you want to be a fruit, you don't go to a fancy dress shop and hire yourself a costume. That won't make you a tomato, or a bunch of grapes, no matter how good the costume. You cannot simply put on a bunch of behaviours and say “I am now a nice person.” You have to let God transform you from within. It's about growth, not manufacture. God sows good things into our life, he waters them, he wants us to nurture them as they grow, and then you see the fruit.

Guilt and shame

Now there's one final thing. And it's guilt. How we deal with guilt can be very helpful and wholesome, or it can bring us down into the dust.
Contrary to what you hear said sometimes theses days, guilt can be good. I know there are people who will say you should never feel guilt, you should never beat yourself up. But there is nothing wrong with feeling bad about doing something bad! If I've let someone down, or behaved badly, I want my conscience to tell me about it, before someone else points it out to me. I want to know for myself that I've been a jerk, rather than have to rely on my wife or my friends or my children having to say “Nick, when are you going to get your act together?” So guilt can be good. Conscience can be good.
But false guilt is a different matter. False guilt is a dangerous cancer that can destroy our relationship with God. If we allow the awareness of how broken we are to paralyse us, to stop us from taking action to change, it will cut us off from God. And here's how.
When God was walking in the Garden of Eden, saying “where are you Adam?” and Adam said I was hiding because I was naked and afraid, God said “Who told you that you were naked?”
When I was a young Christian, I used to feel guilty when I'd done wrong things and let God down. Sometimes I felt that because I had done such things, I had no right to come before God, as if I was pretending that nothing had happened. So I should keep my distance. And as the days went by, I began to feel even more guilty because my relationship with God had been wrong for so long. So it became harder and harder to pray, to go to church, to get back to where I should be. And what was God thinking?
I'll tell you what he was thinking. Nick, who told you that it's a good idea to stay away from me? I'm the only person who can really help. Who told you that when you do something you regret I don't want to talk to you? Who told you that you have no right to come into my presence when you've messed up? I didn't, the Bible didn't – where did it come from? Who have you been listening to?
So if you ever feel that your life is a mess, and you just can't come to church until you've got yourself sorted out, do you know what I'd like to say to you? Don't be so daft! The most useful thing you can do with the mess in your life is talk to God about it! Call me a hypocrite, call me what you like, but I'm going to keep coming back to God because he's the only one who can get my life sorted out. I'm not going to let shame keep me out of God's presence because it isn't God who tells me that I need to stay away.

So – why was Jesus baptised?

God wants to open a gateway to a new way of life in us. He wants to plant good things in us that will outgrow the bad stuff. Jesus endorsed this process by submitting to baptism himself. He was saying, this is the way that God is going to sort out the mess of the world. This is the way to do it. We submit to baptism, to enter through the gateway into this new life. The life that has begun in us is greater than the garbage it is beginning to displace and in due course, it will become the dominant force in our lives, if we let it. This is the Christian life. Let's live it.

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