So this week provided the chance to talk about baptism at a baptism… sometimes I just love the lectionary! And I didn’t fall off the plinth the font is on either…
In our Bible reading this morning, it’s Holy Week. It’s a day or so after Jesus’ triumphal if confusing entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah, the Jewish king. He does so on a do nkey, to shouts of ‘Hosanna to the son of David’, or we might say, ‘son of David, save us’. But he’s not there to conquer the rule of the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people, he’s there to show who’s authority he’s acting under.
For this reason, Jesus is spending time in the most holy place in the Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem, and he’s been doing things that remind people just how holy that place was meant to be, a place where God’s presence was at it’s most tangible, if it was allowed to be. So he’d thrown out the people selling things for financial gain because that wasn’t the sort of justice and freedom to receive God’s forgiveness that God wanted, and he’d been healing people, giving them a better life. Now, a group of leaders of the Jewish people who don’t like this behaviour, are trying to get Jesus to say something that puts him in trouble, so they can arrest him, and effectively silence him. It’s all a question of authority: who has the right to change the traditions that the faith leaders have built, or allowed to be built, around their worship of God? Who has the authority to heal people, God or someone else? Who holds authority over our lives?
Let’s think about the idea of authority for a minute? Some of us will remember the game ‘Simon says’ where a leader tells the children to hop, skip, jump, or any other directions and the children will DO what “Simon says”, but otherwise they should NOT do the command.
[Play: “Rev’d Rachel says…” (remember to say some WITHOUT the ‘Rev’d Rachel says’) hop, kneel, clap, jump, turn all the way round, stick your right arm up, hug someone near you.]
Explain to the children that Simon/Rev’d Rachel is the one who has the authority in this game.
Jesus knew that as God’s Son, his authority came from God, but he also knew that was exactly the answer that would get him arrested, because the leaders of the Jews thought they were the only ones who had God’s authority to teach people, to judge people or tell them off, to help people or make things better for them. Jesus also wanted people, including the Jewish leaders, to work out for themselves by what he was doing, where his authority came from… good psychology that, people learn at a deeper, more life-changing level, if they work things out for themselves, rather than simply believing or doing what they are told!
So, Jesus gives the Jewish leaders a riddle, a riddle about another man they have recently had arrested and killed. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, the other man who we hear about being born as part of the Christmas story, and the person who God had helped to preach and baptise among the Jews in the months leading up the start of Jesus’ ministry, [what was called a prophet]. John was someone whom the Jews, or at least some Jews, had understood to speak God’s truth, and had told of a special person who was coming after him who was the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-3) and would act with the authority of God himself (Matthew 3:11-12 and John 1:19-28).
Jesus asks the Jewish leaders something that could have a straightforward answer; “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Was John the Baptist a prophet sent by God, or was the baptism he offered, just something he made up, and therefore of human origin.
Baptism. We’ve got baptisms today. We know it as something that happens often at a font, where water is sprinkled on someone’s head. In some circumstances it can happen in a giant bath, pool or even a river, which is where John the Baptist did his baptisms, in the River Jordon (Matthew 3:13-17).
When John was baptising people, he was asking them to turn away from their sins, i.e. the things they do that are not what God wants, and do the ones he does want them to do; to accept God’s authority in their lives. The symbolism of water was about being washed clean, made new, renewed to live the life God wanted to give them. [If I put this very muddy ‘person’ in this bowl of water, they will come out as clean and new as the day they were made.]
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was himself baptised by John in this way, not because he had done things that God didn’t want him to do, but to show his humanity and his divinity, to show by whose authority he would work. He was just as human as you and me except he was God’s Son and therefore perfect; he had never done wrong. When John baptised Jesus he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit to do the work of the Messiah, declared to be God’s beloved Son.
Jesus was pushing the Jewish leaders to decide and say out loud that they understood what John had been doing, and that he, Jesus therefore had the right to behave in the Temple as the Messiah, the only one with authority greater than the Jewish leaders to change their traditions, and with those traditions their understanding of God.
The leaders were incredibly worried by what the crowds who’d followed John, some of whom now followed Jesus, would say: denying John was a prophet from God would make them very unpopular; admitting he was would meant the lost their own authority in the eyes of the Jewish people. That question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” only turned into a riddle because of people’s fear and selfishness, in other words their unwillingness to believe that God was doing a new thing through Jesus, a new thing for the whole world (John 1:15-18).
Baptism, or if we’ve been baptised as a child Confirmation or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, is a sign that we know the answer to Jesus’ question: the baptism that John brought as God’s prophet, was from heaven, it was from God. Through being baptised, and having our children baptised, we are saying we understand that Jesus was the Son of God, and that we accept God’s authority in our lives. We’re not playing ‘Simon Says…’ or even ‘Rev’d Rachel says…’ but ‘God says…’ For this very reason, when I stand at the font and baptise it may be ‘Rev’d Rachel’ saying the words, but I do it in the name of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, the means by which we can all recognise ourselves as children of God.
So when you think about baptism, your own, or someone elses, remember that it’s about giving up your own authority, and if necessary your use and misuse of that authority, and accepting that God is the one whose authority we live under as baptised Christians. Jesus is the supreme example of how we should use that authority, to offer God’s forgiveness so others can live renewed lives, to work for healing where people and relationships are broken, and to seek justice where authority is being abused.