Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday of Advent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Third Sunday of Advent.

The Third Sunday of Advent

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Our Gospel reading this week is a selection of verses from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. We will also be reading the first part of the chapter for our service on Christmas Night. The verses for this week are those in the chapter about John the Baptist whom we also read about last week in the first chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. On Christmas Night, our focus will be on the ‘Word made flesh’, so it is appropriate that we take time this week to see what St John also says about John the Baptist as we think in Advent about those who prepared the way for the coming of our Lord. 

In his preaching, John is anxious to make clear that he is not the Christ, and that the One whose coming he is preparing people for is so much greater than he. John is not worthy even to help the Coming One take off his sandals. Despite this, John’s role in getting people ready was an important one; one that was itself promised in the Scriptures. All four Gospels go out of their way to stress how central John’s role was. St Mark, as we saw last week, described it as the ‘beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). All four Gospels see the ministry of John, and Jesus’ baptism by him, as the beginning of Jesus’ own public ministry to his people, ‘to his own’, as St John, the writer of this chapter, puts it. 

In preparing people for the coming of Jesus, John is best known for his baptism, hence his nickname, John the Baptist! John, we are told, preached a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). By repenting and confessing their sins, people showed they wanted to be ready for when the Messiah himself appeared. Quite why John chose baptism as the way to do this, we simply do not know.

St John, in chapters two and three of his Gospel, describes Jesus’ first public visit to Jerusalem after his baptism by John. When it is over, St John tells us:

‘After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized — John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.’ (John 3:22-24)

In chapter 4, St John explains, in a note, that it was Jesus’ disciples who did the actual baptizing under the supervision of Jesus (John 4:2). He also tells us that Jesus’ baptism was so popular that when the Pharisees heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John, Jesus felt he had to return to Galilee, presumably because there was a threat to him and his followers as a result of his growing popularity. The point, however, is that, for a while, Jesus and John were both ministering at the same time and both were baptizing people. Jesus, however, soon started to become the more significant person as John himself said he must (John 3:30). John the Baptist’s ministry itself comes to an end when King Herod has him arrested. It is at this point that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) take up the story.

John’s baptism was to be the precursor to the Church’s baptism. After our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Church carried on the practice of baptizing people, and it has been an essential part of the life of the Church since. Many of us were baptized in Church, and although the exact procedure may have been different to how John and Jesus conducted it, there is still a clear connection between our present day practice and theirs.

So, here’s a question: if you could choose, would you prefer to be baptized by me here in Christ Church or by, say, St Peter in the presence of Jesus back there in the Judean countryside?

The right answer, of course, is by me here in Christ Church. Not because it is by me, but because the baptism that John and Jesus were conducting wasn’t Christian baptism. Christian - or better, believers’ baptism - gets its meaning from the death and resurrection of our Lord. That couldn’t happen before our Lord died and rose again. John’s baptism was a looking forward to the One who would come; the baptism of the Church is about faith in Jesus who has come, and who died and rose again and is now alive and reigning at the Father’s right side.

If you were somehow to be magically transported back to the Judean countryside and to be baptized by St Peter, you would be baptized with ‘John’s baptism’ – a baptism of repentance to get you ready and which looked forward to the One who was to come. Now Jesus has come and completed the work the Father gave him to do, John’s baptism is no longer relevant.

This took some people at the time some time to grasp. Despite the fact that the One to come had now come, nevertheless, even after the resurrection, people continued to be baptized in John’s baptism, and even some who believed in Jesus.

So, for example, St Luke in Acts chapter 18, describes how a man called Apollos came to Ephesus when St Paul was back in Jerusalem. St Luke writes:

‘He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.’ (Acts 18:25)

Apollos got it right about Jesus and spoke with ‘burning enthusiasm’ about him. But as he knew only the baptism of John, Priscilla and Aquila, two of St Paul’s closest co-workers, had to instruct him ‘more accurately’. Apollos was also to become one of St Paul’s associates, but that is a story for another day.

For now, we have to ask what it was that Apollos was missing that meant he only knew the baptism of John, despite all the other things he got right.

Here we need to go back and ask what it was that John the Baptist himself had to say about what he was doing and about the One whom he was getting people ready for. In St Mark’s Gospel last week, we read that John said:

‘I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:8)

All four Gospels agree that John taught that what defined the person he was preparing the way for was that he would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist doesn’t, in fact, tell us a lot about what the One to come will be like and what he will do, so this makes what he does tell us all the more important. Jesus, he emphasizes, is the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit.

So, given that the Church’s baptism is about the One who has now come, is baptism in the Spirit what makes the baptism the Church now practices different from John’s baptism? Well, yes and no. For while there is a close relationship between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit, they are not the same.

We need to look at another occasion in Acts when people were baptized. In Acts chapter 8, we read of how as a result of the severe persecution that the Church in Jerusalem is experiencing, some of the leaders have to flee from Jerusalem to escape. One of them, Philip, goes to Samaria where he preaches to the Samaritans. St Luke writes:

‘But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.’ (Acts 8:12)

However, St Luke continues to tell us that St Peter and St John have to come from Jerusalem to pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15). What is particularly strange about this story is what St Luke says next:

‘… for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (Acts 8:16)

As a result of St Peter and St John’s prayer, the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit, so all is well. But what on earth does St Luke mean by writing, ‘they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus’. Not only is John’s baptism not enough, it seems the Church’s baptism isn’t either.

There is much that could and should be said about this, but the bottom line is this: Jesus is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, and until he has baptized someone in the Holy Spirit, something is missing, even if a person says all the right things about Jesus as Apollos did, or believes and does all the right things as the Samaritans did.

The obvious question, then, is what does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit?

The word ‘baptism’ is the clue. It is a clue we miss because we are so used to thinking of baptism as the very nice, but somewhat formal and controlled ritual that takes place in Church. Think for a moment of the context of John’s words about Jesus as being the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. Imagine John, standing there, soaking wet, having been out in the river Jordan immersing people in it. He turns and says, ‘I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit’. I soak you with water. I drench you with water. I take you into the river and plunge you into the water. Jesus will do that to you with the Holy Spirit. That gives a somewhat different feel to it.

It is impossible to be soaked with water and not know about it. This explains a question that St Paul asks a group of believers he comes across at Ephesus. He asks them:

‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ (Acts 19:2)

They answer that they haven’t heard about the Holy Spirit, and it turns out that they too have only been baptized into John’s baptism. St Paul explains the Gospel to them and then baptizes them ‘in the name of Jesus’. But, as with the Samaritans, this is still not enough; it is only when St Paul prays and lays hands on them that they receive the Holy Spirit. They knew they hadn’t received the Spirit and they knew when they did. And, interestingly, St Paul also knew that they hadn’t and knew when they did.

Again, there is much more that could and should be said about this. The bottom line, again, is that while clearly in the New Testament, as a rule, people are baptized in the Spirit at the same time as they are baptized in water, there is a distinction to be made. Being soaked with the Spirit is something that, whenever it happened, the person knew it had happened. It was a definite and concrete experience.

But what was the purpose of it and what about us today?

First of all, in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra. As we saw when we read through St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life that defines whether or not someone is a follower of Christ. St Paul writes:

‘You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

This has caused all sorts of confusion in more recent years as some believers have talked about receiving the Spirit as a kind of ‘second blessing’ after the ‘first blessing’ of becoming a believer; in other words, as a separate experience distinct to becoming a follower of Christ. There are many experiences that believers can and should have subsequent to coming to Christ; receiving the Spirit, however, isn’t one of them.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit isn’t about an isolated and purely individual experience. Baptism in the Spirit is baptism into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). It’s about becoming part of the community of Christ, his body on earth, where we find both a place to belong and a place to serve, and where we are given by the Spirit the gifts to do so.

Thirdly, seeing the Holy Spirit as essential and integral to belonging to Christ helps us to see what being baptized in the Spirit is all about. Many of you will have heard me say this before. But being a follower of Christ is not like anything else. It is not a philosophy of life; it’s not about an ideology to believe in, a code to live by, or a group to belong to. Or, to put it another way: it is not about what you believe, how you live, or where you go. It will involve you in believing certain things, living a certain way, and going to a certain place on Sundays (when we are allowed to do so!). But this is a consequence, not a definition.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is to have a relationship with God through Jesus and because of what God has done for us in Jesus. The way this happens is by what the Holy Spirit does in us. The baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t about having an experience as a sort of spiritual extra; some kind of reward for believing in Jesus. It is about God taking all that Jesus has done for us and making it real to us, establishing a relationship with us, and empowering us to be a follower of Jesus, here and now, as part of the body of Christ as we wait for all that he promises us in the future.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit is a ‘soaking’ in the love of God as we experience the forgiveness of God that makes it possible for us, we who are God’s enemies, to find peace with God and enter a living relationship with him. St Paul writes:

‘… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

But it does not stop there. Again, as St Paul writes:

‘… because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)

God’s love for us which he has objectively demonstrated to us in the coming of Christ, he subjectively makes real to us through the Holy Spirit. Notice that St Paul says God has poured his love into our hearts. As the water poured over people as they were baptized by John in the river Jordan, so now God pours his love over us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Now there are a number of possible responses to all this. Sadly, the most common one is for people simply to ignore it, and for it to have no effect whatever on them. This is perhaps understandable with those who are outside the Church, but, tragically, it is the response also of many within it. This is particularly sad because it means they are missing out on what being a follower of Christ is all about.

Others in the Church, however, find talking about the Holy Spirit in this concrete way deeply troubling. Their response often is that this is not their own experience. ‘If this is not my experience,’ they ask, ‘does it mean that I do not belong to Christ, or that I have not been baptized in the Spirit in the way I should be?’

Now it can mean that. And it is not being cruel to tell people, even people who are regular church members that belonging to Christ is about a relationship with God made possible by Jesus baptizing them in the Spirit. Too many in the Church are missing out on what being a follower of Christ is all about because they have been encouraged to see following Christ and going to Church as the religious equivalent of belonging to a club.

But many who ask this question are truly followers of Christ. They just sense that there is something missing. The language of the New Testament about the Holy Spirit does not describe their own experience of him.

The first thing to be said to anyone who feels like this is a word of reassurance. St Paul, as we have seen, writes:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

Negatively, this means that anyone who does not have the Spirit does not belong to Christ. But it can also be taken positively as a word of assurance. The New Testament is clear that any who put their trust in Christ and seek to follow him in their life belong to him. And, therefore, any who belong to Christ have the Spirit. So why, then, doesn’t it feel like it?

There could be various reasons but one of the most common is one that St Paul talks about in our second reading this morning. He talks there about ‘quenching the Spirit’ and instructs the Thessalonian believers not to do so (1 Thessalonians 5:19). We ‘quench the Spirit’, that is, we prevent the Spirit from working in the way he wants to, both communally as a Church and personally as individuals.

John the Baptist talks about the Spirit as being like a river. Our Lord himself describes the Holy Spirit as a ‘flowing river of living water’ (John 7:38-39). We build defences against rivers to stop them flooding or to divert them to prevent them going where we do not want them. In the Church, we build similar flood defences with church structures and how we organize our church life. We do church in such a way that allows us, and us clergy especially, to control what happens and goes on. We ‘quench the Spirit’.

But what is true of our corporate church life is true of us in our own personal lives too. Sometimes we do this without realizing it or simply because we are following the lead of our churches and clergy. We don’t know any better. Like the believers in Ephesus, it is as if we haven’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit – and certainly not heard him described in the way John and Jesus describe him.

When John the Baptist baptized people, he took them into the river and immersed them. For very good reasons, we don’t do it like that when we baptize people today. You may have seen how I baptize people: I sprinkle them with water. A small bowl of water is all I need to baptize a lot of people.

This can be seen as a metaphor for our experience of the Spirit. We have been sprinkled, but Jesus, who baptizes in the Spirit, wants to immerse us into the flowing river of the Spirit.

On this, the Third Sunday of Advent, we think, then, of John the Baptist standing dripping wet on the bank of the river that he has just immersed people in, telling those he has immersed that, one day, Jesus will immerse them in the Holy Spirit.

Maybe our experience so far has been only to be sprinkled with the Holy Spirit. It is never too late to let down the defences; to allow ourselves to be soaked by the rushing flow of the Spirit, not because we seek a spiritual experience for its own sake, but so we may experience all that God has for us and be empowered to do all that God asks of us.

‘Veni sancte Spiritus!’
‘Come Holy Spirit!’


No comments: