Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11, NRSV)
Historically, today is a special celebration in the annual church calendar. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a feast day which commemorates the account we just read, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. We don’t always commemorate this special day in our church but when we do we do so the first Sunday after Epiphany, which is today.
I want to take this opportunity to think about the mystery of baptism by first looking at Jesus’ baptism and asking what it means so that we can then look at our own baptisms and ask what they mean.
One Sunday afternoon an old country boy was walking down by the river when he came across a baptismal service already in progress. Curious, he walked down to the riverbank and stood right beside the preacher. Noticing the stranger, the minister turned to him and asked, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” The old country boy looked back and said, “Yes, sir, I sure am.”
Without hesitation the preacher took the willing man, dunked him under the water, and then pulled him right back up. “Have you found Jesus?” the preacher asked. “No, I didn’t!” said the old country boy. So once again the preacher dunked the willing convert down, a bit longer this time before he pulled him up. “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” “No, I didn’t,” the man said again.
Well, disgusted and running out of patience, the preacher dunked the old country boy down in the river one last time and this time held him down in the water for a good thirty seconds. When he finally brought him up there was a harshness in his voice when he asked, “My good man, have you found Jesus yet?” After catching his breath and wiping his eyes, the old country boy looked up and asked, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Baptism is a mystery. At the outset it’s important to acknowledge that it is a gift given to the church that we will never fully understand. Still, it’s important that we do our best to find Jesus in the mystery of this ancient sacrament. As we do, we may also discover something about ourselves.
If we are to begin to understand Jesus’ baptism we need to start at the beginning. As we spent all last year talking about, you can’t begin to understand the New Testament until you at least begin to understand the Old Testament. So let’s go back to the beginning, literally back to the beginning.
In the very first verses of the Bible we read these words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good.”
As the Bible describes it, at the outset of creation everything was a watery chaos, marked by disorder and darkness. But then God enters in. Specifically, the Spirit of God hovers above the waters. The verb for “hovers” in the Hebrew can literally be translated “flutters.” In fact, ancient Jewish rabbis often would translate this passage saying that, “the Spirit of God fluttered above the face of the waters like a dove.”
The Spirit flutters over the waters as the word of God is spoken and out of the darkness comes light. Out of the chaos comes order and beauty. And then God speaks his judgment: it is good. Everything is good. At the beginning of time God reckons that everything was right. All was as God intended it to be. There is no pain, no death, no darkness, no sin. The world at its birth is the world as it should be.
Tragically, the world does not stay this way for long. We all know what happens next. Humanity, God’s most treasured creation, turns against God. That is our story. Every one of us, to a greater extent than we would like to imagine, has trusted in ourselves and in the creation instead of in God our Creator. Sin has entered into the world and along with sin, chaos has returned, along with darkness, and disorder, and shame, and guilt, and death. This is not just some lofty theological idea we read about in books, but a truth we personally know all too well.
John Ortberg is a pastor and writer. In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted he begins with these words, “I am disappointed with myself. I am disappointed not so much with particular things I have done as with aspects of who I have become.” It’s the sort of honest and vulnerable public admission not too many of us would make. As he goes into detail he talks specifically about his disappointment as a father. He writes,
I look in on them as they sleep at night, and I remember how the day really went: I remember how they were trapped in a fight over checkers and I walked out of the room because I didn’t want to spend the energy needed to teach them how to resolve conflict. I remember how my daughter spilled cherry punch at dinner and I yelled at her about being careful as if she’d revealed some deep character flaw; I yelled at her even though I spill things all the time and no one yells at me; I yelled at her – to tell the truth – simply because I’m big and she’s little and I can get away with it. And then I saw that look of hurt and confusion in her eyes, and I knew there was a tiny wound on her heart that I had put there, and I wished I could have taken those sixty seconds back. I remember how at night I didn’t have slow, sweet talks, but merely rushed the children to bed so I could have more time to myself. I’m disappointed.
Now I know that there is a great temptation to imagine ourselves in a better light. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we simply cannot do this. I know John Ortberg’s disappointment and I suspect you do as well. Not only in my failures as a parent, but in so many countless ways I have failed to live as the sort of human being God has made me to be. You don’t have to read the Bible to know that sin has marked your life. It’s self-evident. All of us have a deep sense of the sort of people we were meant to be and a clear awareness of the gap that exists between that person and the person we have instead become.
This isn’t new. In the days of John the Baptist people also carried around with them this deep sense of disappointment and regret. In that time John came as a prophet from God to remind the people of God’s law and his standards of holiness and righteousness and to confront the people with the fact that they had taken God’s good creation and, because of their sin, brought darkness and chaos and disorder. John called people to repent, to confess their sin and to agree that they needed to be forgiven and changed.
People listened. In fact, a revival of sorts took place. As we just read, people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John at the Jordan River to be baptized. Baptism, a word that originally meant “plunged”, had been a common practice in ancient Israel long before the time of Christ. When Jews, for whatever reason, became spiritually ‘unclean’ they would often undergo this ritual immersion in water as a sign of spiritual cleansing. Apparently there were many, many people in John’s day who were disappointed enough with themselves that they came willingly to the river seeking this cleansing.
Then one day Jesus shows up, not to baptize but to be baptized. And if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve said so far you realize that something is off here. What in the world is Jesus doing here? This is like Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, waiting in the lunch line at a downtown soup kitchen. This is like Pavarotti signing up for voice lessons down at the local community college. It’s like Picasso showing up to your kid’s kindergarten class to learn how to finger-paint. This is the holy and righteous Son of God, God himself, coming to be cleansed in baptism. How is it that Jesus gets in the line for disappointed people? He’s sinless! Why would Jesus need to repent and be washed clean? He’s spotless already!
Do you see how stunning this is? Pay careful attention. The holy and righteous Son of God is coming to immerse himself in the chaos, to plunge into the depths of human sin, into all our disappointment, all our shame, all our guilt. Not just here at the river, but ultimately Jesus does this on the cross where he plunges even into our death. Later in his ministry, Jesus himself put it this way in a question to his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” he asked them, “or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He was speaking of the cross and the fact that he was about to plunge into the very depths of hell. You see, in Christ God took upon himself the destiny reserved for those who turn their backs on God. Can you understand this? Jesus went to the Jordan River that day not because he shared our sin but so that he could share our sin.
But then, watch what happens.
Verse 10 reads, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending – [hovering, you might say] – like a dove on him.” Maybe you missed the connection before. How can you miss it now? Jesus, the Son of God, sometimes called the Word of God, has taken on human flesh and become the sort of perfect person we were made to be but have failed to become. Then, though he alone is sinless, he comes nonetheless to plunge himself beneath the water, into the depths which symbolize the grave of darkness and chaos which has become our sinful world. As he comes up out of the water, however, the Spirit of God, fluttering again in the form of a dove, hovers over the waters just as God speaks his judgment. Looking down, God reckons, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Do you see what is happening? There is great mystery here but maybe we can at least get a glimpse. Creation, as Genesis teaches us, was the product of a three-in-one God, the Trinity, one God who we know in the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father spoke creation into being. Creation came into being through God’s Word, who we now know is the Son. John 1 declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him.” The Father speaks, the Son is the Word spoken, and of course the Holy Spirit is also present, hovering over the waters. At creation Father, Son and Spirit are all present and active.
Jesus’ baptism represents the beginning of what Christians have long called the New Creation, God’s movement through the Son by the power of the Spirit to recreate or renew the fallen world and make it good and right again. And once again, just as at creation, at the New Creation the community of God is also present. At the river that day the Father speaks, the Son, the Word made flesh, is immersed, and the Spirit descends in power. And all at once we get this rare but beautiful glimpse into the interior life of the Trinity as the Father speaks words of deep love and pleasure over the Son and the Spirit comes down to cover him with power. You see, if you can find your way to the very essence of existence, to the very heart of reality, this is what you will find: One God, in three persons, permanently marked by an eternal, self-giving, self-sacrificing love for one another. The Father loves and gives himself completely to the Son and the Spirit. The Son does the same for the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit, in turn, loves and sacrifices for the Father and the Son.
I know this is not easy to understand. These are deep waters indeed. Maybe this will help. Imagine that you find somebody in life you love so deeply that without ever expecting anything in return, you simply adore them, and find yourself willing to do anything for them, to sacrifice everything for them. Can you image that? Then, imagine one day that you discover that this person loves you in the same way that you love them, selflessly and enduringly. Could there be anything better in life than that? Well this is what God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, has been enjoying for all eternity. We get a glimpse of it when we hear the Father say to the Son, “You are my beloved. You are chosen and marked by my love. I am pleased with you. I delight in you. You are the pride of my life.” This is what we find at the very heart of God, this dance of mutually self-giving eternal love between Father and Son and Spirit. At the heart of God we find love.
So why does this matter? C.S. Lewis writes, “It matters more than anything else in the world [because] this whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each of us…a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.” Remember, when the holy and beloved Son of God came with all those other disappointed people that day to the Jordan River he stood in line to be plunged beneath the water as one of us. You might say that Jesus, God become human, took us with him that day beneath the water. All of us. He was not washed and cleansed from his own sin that day because he had no sin. Instead, he was washed and cleansed for my sins and for the sins of the whole world. Through Christ and his baptism in the river and ultimately in his death on the cross, God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought goodness out of evil, light out of darkness, order out of chaos. If we believe this, once we believe this, we are set free, forever forgiven and free!
You see, the words spoken to Jesus by the Father that day at the Jordan River were spoken to Jesus the divine son of God but also spoken to Jesus the human son of Mary. As he took our sin upon himself by plunging into the water, we in turn took upon ourselves the love and favor of God when Jesus, in our place, emerged again from the water. The words spoken to Jesus that day are words the Father speaks now to every one of us. As you have faith, God, through Christ, will say to you, “You are my beloved Son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.”
Again, I know this is deep. I understand that. I know that many of us may wrestle with these truths and that none of us will ever fully understand them. There is great mystery here. But at the end of the day, this is the proclamation of the Christian Gospel I pray you all have received in faith, or will receive, maybe even today, in faith. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has taken the deep disappointment and sin of this world upon himself so that we can receive in return the enduring love and delight of heaven. This is reality as it stands today and all that is left for us to do is to believe it in faith and begin to enjoy it.
I’ve got a little book at home of old Puritan prayers that I use from time to time. I’d forgotten about it for many months however until this past Wednesday morning. For some reason I was prompted to pick it up and read the prayer listed for that day. It just so happened to be the day when I was in the midst of preparing this very sermon. Listen to how the prayer begins. Though the language is a bit archaic, I trust you can still catch the meaning.
O God the Holy Spirit,
Thou who dost proceed from the Father
and the Son,
have mercy on me.
When thou didst first hover over chaos,
order came to birth,
beauty robed the world, fruitfulness sprang forth.
Move, I pray thee, upon my disordered heart;
Take away the infirmities of unruly desires
and hateful lusts;
Lift the mists and darkness of unbelief;
Brighten my soul with the pure light of truth;
Make it fragrant as the garden of paradise,
rich in every goodly fruit,
beautiful with heavenly grace,
radiant with rays of divine light.
I couldn’t believe that was the prayer listed for that specific day. I do not see it as a coincidence. At the very least I took the prayer as a confirmation from God that the message I was preparing to share with you this morning was the message God wanted me to share. I hope that this prayer can become the prayer of each of us.
I want you to know today that if you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, that you are marked by these words. As you stand today, in the midst of whatever disappointment you carry in your heart about the person you have become, your Father in Heaven, the only true judge of your life, has this to say to you today: “You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. And my favor rests upon you. In Christ, because of Christ, my eternal favor rests on you.”
There are only two times in the Gospels when the Father speaks audibly to the world in a voice others can hear. Once is at Jesus’ baptism. The other is at the transfiguration, an episode when Jesus becomes radiant with light on the top of a mountain. Did you know that both times the Father speaks the Father says the very same thing? Both times God says, “This is my beloved Son!” This makes me believe that if our Heavenly Father spoke audibly to us here today, in a voice that we all could hear, that this is the first and maybe the only thing he would say to us as well. The first thing God wants us to know is that in Christ we are his beloved sons and daughter. We are not worthy of this love, of course. You are not and neither am I. That’s the point. That’s what makes it grace. That’s what makes it amazing. That’s what makes it the most priceless gift we have ever been given.
If you are a Christian the truth of these words marks the very core of your identity. If you are not yet a Christian, know that they can. They are meant to. It is God’s desire that these words mark you. God wants this to be the identity with which you begin and end each day, the truth to which you cling to in life and in death. Thomas à Kempis once wrote, “Listen to this one word from God and you will no longer care for 10,000 words of men.” It’s true. You will not. Who cares what judgment is passed on you by others, or by the devil, or even by your own condemning heart? If the Creator of the Universe marks you as His beloved in whom he delights, then all other judgments simply fall away.
As many of you know, the words Jesus’ Father spoke to him at his baptism are permanently fixed to the face of our baptismal font which normally sits at the entrance to our sanctuary. There is a very good reason for that. As you come here to worship you come, like I come, so often full of disappointment, fully aware that there is this great gap between the people we were made to be and the people we have instead become. Truth is, we only know the half of it. Nonetheless, whenever you come into this place seeking Christ, pass by the waters of baptism. That’s why they are there. Let them remind you. Let them remind you of your own baptism. Let them remind you of who you truly are, of your chief identity in Jesus Christ. By the grace offered you in the sacrifice of Christ, you have been adopted in faith as a son, as a daughter, by your Father in Heaven who loves you and delights in you. You do not come to worship to earn God’s favor. You become instead to enjoy God’s favor and to praise him for it.
In the same way, as you leave this place also make sure you pass by the waters of baptism. That’s why they are there. As you go back out into the world let them remind you of who you really are. You do not go out to love others in the world this week to prove to God you are worthy of his love. No, we go out humbly and gratefully into the world this week and every week to freely share a love with the world that we have already freely received. We love the world in response, in response to the way we have already been loved.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Have you been baptized? Share what that experience meant to you then (if you remember it) and what it means to you now as you reflect back on it.
Read the account of Jesus’ baptism once again in Mark 1:4-11. What stands out to you about Jesus’ baptism?
Baptism was a rite in those days offered so that spiritually ‘unclean’ people could come and repent and seek God’s forgiveness. The water symbolized being washed clean of sin. Why then does Jesus come to be baptized?
Many people have made connections between Jesus’ baptism and the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-4. (e.g. God speaking, water, Spirit hovering like a dove, proclamation of goodness, etc.) Do you also see connections? What might this mean?
John Ortberg said, “I am disappointed with myself, not so much with particular things I have done as with aspects of who I have become.” Can you relate? How does Jesus help you face your disappointment in life?
The Father says to the Son, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Do you believe our Heavenly Father says the same thing to you? When God says it does God mean by it the very same thing He means when He said it to Jesus?
Imagine you woke up every day and the very first thought that came into your mind was the reality that you are God’s beloved son/daughter and that he delights in you. If that happened, what would be one thing that would change about the way you went about your day?
Thomas à Kempis once wrote, “Listen to this one word from God and you will no longer care for 10,000 words of men.” What are some of the “words of men” in your life right now that you need to disregard in light of the word your Heavenly Father has spoken to you? Be specific.
 Genesis 1:1-4
 Tim Keller, King’s Cross, (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), 5.
 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 11-12.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 213.
 Mark 10:38
 I’m borrowing language here from commentator Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
 John 1:1-3
 Tim Keller was helpful here in King’s Cross, p. 7-8.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1952), 137-141.
 The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, c. 1975), 56. This is a phenomenal resource for your personal prayer life.
 Mark 9:2-8