A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 11th January 2009 by the Rev. Wong Mei Fung. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 29 and Mark 1: 4-11.
Dear God, may Your Holy Spirit comes upon Your People, inspire us by Your Word, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray, amen.
In the church liturgical year, we now fall into the season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ or ‘theophaneia’, meaning ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’. It is a season for Christians to wonder at the revelation of God to the world in Jesus Christ. The feast of the Epiphany on January 6 symbolizes Jesus Christ, who was the man born to be King, took on the human flesh to be identified with humanity.
Epiphany is the season that honors the public life and witness of Christ, including his baptism in Jordan, the miracles he performed and his unfailing compassion for others. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. According to the church year, today is the Baptism of Jesus. It is a time for us to celebrate, to remember and to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ baptism and how it is related to our life of faith.
Jesus’ baptism was recorded in three gospels, in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13 and Luke 3:21-22. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer. The baptism proclaimed by John was repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus has not sinned, why did he join the crowd and be baptized by John?
Jesus’ baptism revealed the mysterious love of God, for God’s full identification with humanity in its brokenness. Jesus did not sin and yet he received baptism, this reflects that Jesus did not separate himself from the sinners whom he would save.
In the Jewish tradition, baptism is not only an act of ritual purification alone but an act of self-dedication to the God of Israel, involving spiritual factors as well as physical factors with fundamentally sacramental character. According to Jewish law, for people who were chosen to be ordained as priests, they have to be washed by water, an act of purification, to symbolize the change of roles and life commitment. This tradition was recorded in Exodus 29:4 and Leviticus 8:6, when Aron and his sons were ordained to be priests in the rites of Ordination.
Jesus came to Jordan for baptism was an indication of his commitment to God and his readiness to engage in God’s mission. When Jesus was baptized, an amazing scene appeared. According to the description of the scripture in Mark, it emphasized that it was Jesus seeing the vision and hearing the voice of God that spoke to him directly. In Mark, the author emphasized it was Jesus who received the call directly from God and it was God and the Holy Spirit that spoke to him straight away. The vision and voice that Jesus saw and heard were also confirmation of Jesus’ roles and identity by God, as God’s son, the chosen one. A son who was given a mission on earth to fulfill God’s will. In Mark 1:11, it says ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.’ This entailed a very personal and close relationship between the holy God, the Father from heaven and the Son Jesus. The relationship of Jesus Christ with God is a very intimate one that is based on love and full acceptance.
From Mark 1:9-11, there are theologians who regard the full presence of God, the voice from heaven, the Holy Spirit through the dove, and Jesus Christ, as manifestation of the Trinitarian nature of God. This Trinitarian nature of God reveals the essence of God in terms of relationships, relationships built on mutual love. God of Trinity has a strong theological meaning of ‘mutual in-dwelling’ or ‘being-in-one-another’. The idea and faith of ‘relation of mutuality’, is particularly meaningful for us in a world where use of power to dominate others is so prevalent. Violence in families, in tribal villages, in nations and in the world, is a manifestation of the human desire to dominate over others and even over nature. In our world we have witnessed many abusive relationships between fathers and sons. In the Christian faith of Trinity, God the Father and God the Son is grounded in a loving, deep and inseparable relationship with one another. In the faith of Trinity, as the essence of God ‘being-in-one-another’, relationship of dominance is replaced by relationship of honor and respect among equals. It has formed the basis in the divine way of life. The Trinitarian faith reflects divine love that freely gives of itself to others and creates community, mutuality, and shared life.
The understanding of God’s nature of relationship gives us great insight to lead a life according to the will of God and follow the good deeds of Jesus Christ.
From the news, we heard a number of blunders in medical settings recently, cases like the loss of a baby’s body which was suspected to have been misplaced and dumped in a landfill, another blunder involved a man suffering from heart attack just outside the Caritas Hospital but was refused help until it was too late and ended in his tragic death just yards from the emergency ward. It is really ironic. I agree with a writer of an article in a local newspaper on this particular blunder. The writer shared that if the receptionist at the hospital counter who was asked to help, tried to treat the man with the heart attack as her father, her brother, her friend, or someone who is close to her, she will never respond in such an aloof way. The writer continued to say that the receptionist would not just work according to hospital guidelines but to offer anything possible to save life if the patient is her loved one.
It would be horrible if we treat other people as strangers without sympathy. If we take other people as enemies, the situation could be of course even worse. When there is no love and concern in the relationship, the world is a horrible place to live. Just look at the wars around the world now, we are pretty sure of it. Right?
Dear friends, if we look at the world from the perspective of the God of Trinity, a God that treasures so much of mutual and loving relationship. Jesus as son of God, the beloved one, has shown to us we people are holy creation of God too, we are all children of God. Every single person in the world near and far is linked in God’s world. If we take everyone as our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, good friends and neighbors, I think the violence and conflicts will be greatly reduced. Try to imagine we are being in one another, to stand in each other’s shoes, we will have a sense that other people’s suffering is our suffering, their problems are our problems, we will then be less violent but more tolerant and compassionate to each other.
If we are sensitive to the needs and problems of our family, our colleagues, our students and teachers, members of the church, the society and the global world, and take them as ours and do something about it. I am sure the world will be much brighter and more beautiful and peaceful.
Let’s come back again to the scenario of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1. In verse 10, Jesus saw the heaven torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him when he was coming up out of the water. The dove was used to symbolize the Holy Spirit. When we read the ancient biblical text, dove was a symbolism pointed to Noah in the Old Testament (Genesis 8), who sent out a dove to search for dry land after the flood. Dove is thus a symbol of re-birth. Therefore, baptism has a meaning of rebirth. The rebirth of Christians in baptism is completed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Baptism induces a commitment for a start of new life. That’s why we used to call people who are baptized as born-again Christians. They are new creations with a different life path which is engaged fully in our Lord Jesus Christ. In 2 Cor 5:17, it says “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” Baptism is thus an important sacrament for the baptized to declare a life commitment to God to follow Jesus’ words and deeds, to obey God and fulfill his will and mission. According to Martin Luther, a leader of the Reformation in the 16th Century, a Christian should live each day with the same calling and grace as the day he or she was baptized, to dutifully carry out his or her life commitment at the baptism.
When we read further of Jesus’ life after his baptism in the gospel readings, we know that Jesus began his ministries to God and for God. He ended up sacrificing his life, crucified on the cross for the sake of humanity.
Baptism is therefore never a simple individual gain of a better life. There are some Christians who think from this self-interest perspective. They find security in being baptized and having gained the ticket to heaven after death. Jesus’ baptism and his ministries on earth has informed and reminded us clearly that God loves us. God revealed his love through Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice to save us from sins. Yet, God’s grace does not stop in personal gain or a kind of individualistic mentality of faith. Jesus’ baptism reminds us the relational nature of God, fully engaged in a mutually loving relationship. We Christians who have been baptized, empowered by the Holy Spirit and embraced by the love of Christ that we should relive our life that is fully engaged in God. That’s why we are called disciples of Christ.
Recently I attended a sacrament of baptism. I was touched by a testimony of a young man in his 20s, a University student. He shared that he was very aloof and cold to others, even to his family and friends. He confessed his state of alienation with others and openly committed to make a change. He then stepped down and walked towards his parents and hugged them. This was the first time that he has ever hugged his parents and it was very moving to see them in warm embrace with tears of joy. His change of attitude to his parents follows his taking a new course of life like Jesus Christ to bring forth reconciliation, his relationship with his parents is much improved. The loving relationship in the family is set to grow and grow. I think many of us here listening to this sermon might have experienced similar joy of life-changes empowered by the Holy Spirit. However, as time goes by and our experiences of frustration accumulate, we may have lost our enthusiasm as before when we were newly converted and baptized. I hope that the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is speaking to us today to remind us of our covenant of love with Christ in our own baptism. We are called the children of God, the beloved one, with you, God is well pleased with us.
We live in a chaotic world, a sinful world. We could be discouraged, dismayed and disappointed. The Baptism of Jesus reminds us that God does not forsake the world. God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ is still valid in our contemporary world. Jesus Christ reveals God’s love and through baptism God has demonstrated his commitment to save us from our sins. But God needs our response to repent for the forgiveness of sins. Our sins may be obvious or hidden, big or small. It does not matter in the eyes of God. The sins of the world are shared by all of us human beings because we are all inter-connected, what we have done or what we have not done all contribute to the state of affairs in this world today, this is globalization with a vengeance!
In a recent TV programme called “My 2008”, it was said that financially, 2008 was Annus horribilis (a horrible year), but that if we prepare ourselves well in 2009, 2010 will be full of hope. I am no expert in finance and I don’t know how true this is, but I certainly agree that at the start of the new year of 2009, we should take the opportunity to reflect and begin anew.
In baptism, we are given the Holy Spirit which has set us free and helps us to walk in the Light. Jesus promises life to all, he died to save those who are lost, Jesus’ love heals our wounds. The Spirit sets us free. Free from worries and anxieties. Free from hatred. Let us use our freedom wisely, and to respond positively and courageously to our Lord Christ’s calling to follow him as disciples, and to lead a new life that glorifies our living and loving God.
God of relations, there at the Baptism of Jesus, declaring, anointing, and speaking loving words. May the Holy Spirit come to touch us, inflame us and claim us as Your own.
God, strengthen our commitment to follow the way of Christ, and deepen our faith and communion of your church. At the start of 2009, God, guide us individually and as a community of faith in your will that we serve your Kingdom on earth to bring love and peace. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.