by Rev. Dr John Evans
Our Bible readings today are about beginnings: in particular the big beginning, the creation of the world, and an equally big beginning, the commencement of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist.
At this time of the year it is a good time to consider beginnings – new beginnings. The year has hardly woken up and it is a great time to reflect on new directions, new opportunities, new beginnings for ourselves, church and community. Certainly the whole world, and I think also the United States, is awaiting – eagerly awaiting, perhaps desperately awaiting – a new beginning with the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States in a few days’ time.
And so today what goes into a good “new beginning”; what can we learn from our big beginnings of scripture?
The first thing to ask is, when does a new beginning begin? Or perhaps, how does it begin?
Jesus begins his ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist; creation begins – if you like, on day one. Change, and the beginning, has a reference point. There is a time before; and there is a time following. In Genesis there is primeval chaos and disorder when God begins creating and there is then, well, the creation – everything else follows. For Jesus there is his baptism and in all gospel accounts he then commences in his ministry. It was special moment. Something significant was done, in a particular place something was done. In the United States there will be a huge occasion for the inauguration of the new President: a ceremony, parade and endless balls – and on this occasion a huge outpouring of excitement. If one is to believe the TV series The West Wing, literally during the inauguration ceremony; the White House is stripped of the previous President, and the new is installed. There is a time before; and a time after. Just on 12months ago, I was inducted – a special occasion; it marked the beginning. I can look back and say – that is when I began in Carlton.
Marking a change, a new life, a new relationship is a significant aspect of being human. For this reason (among others) I believe, a wedding is important. The wedding provides a date, even a time, when one is married. There was a time before; and there is a time after. The baptism of Jesus served, obviously among a variety of reasons, as a marker, a point when he was called and anointed by the Father, to be engaged in his ministry. Our baptism, similarly is a reference point to when it was acknowledged we are claimed by God – and the sign of the cross was upon us.
And this leads to a significant second point; a beginning, even a new beginning, is not just more of the same – with some fiddling at the margins. One does not just drift into a new beginning; or a new relationship, or new job or a new self understanding. There was a day when you were married, or you started work or when you were baptised. So with a marriage, there was that time when publicly before God and before friends and family, you declared your love for your husband or your wife. It is why such occasions – weddings, baptisms, births, deaths are important and are marked in our lives.
We hear a lot today about change. There can, however, be change that really is just transition – a moving on, a building on what has gone before; a tweaking here, a tweaking there. And that can be important. Consolidation of things started previously is fine – but in my experience, much which is touted as a new beginning, is really not. It is the same old, the same old. A new beginning is not a drifting into or out of something. There is a disjunction. John the Baptist saw the need for such a radical break when he called for repentance and seeking for forgiveness. He was not offering a religious experience – he was seeking lives to be transformed; to be radically different. There was a moment of conversion.
Which brings us squarely to our Genesis story and the Baptism of Christ.
There are two common themes in these accounts. Both stories are intriguingly linked by water and the Holy Spirit.
First water. Water for the ancients – and I think this is also true for us today – water, represents chaos, terror and uncertainty. The waters of the deep are to be feared – and if not feared, they are mysterious. Strictly speaking in Genesis 1, it was not out of nothing the world was created. God steadied this primeval watery chaos. This was the first action of God in creation. From chaos there came a change to order; there was the separation of light from darkness: the first day. From watery chaos came the beginning of the created order.
It is thus no surprise that the significant marking event of new life involves, perhaps transcends, water. In baptism the newly baptised emerges from water to their new life; from death, chaos, a dying to the old ways. There is a new beginning. John the Baptist marks this new beginning; this repentance and new life with baptism in the River Jordan. Even Jesus, who himself goes on to conqueror death for us in his resurrection, begins his ministry by emerging from water – chaos, death, to a new beginning. This is not an idle transition – a learning to cope with difficulties, treading water if you like – this is taming, transforming, overcoming the power of water; chaos and death. Our baptism carries such powerful symbols of both beginnings, but also our hope in Christ through his death and resurrection.
However, this comes to the main point I would wish to make today – this change does not happen because of who we are; how we might perform; because of the goodness of who we are, or because we have particular knowledge or we are especially religious. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit we emerge with a new life.
In Genesis it was the wind or spirit – in Hebrew the word is ruah – which moved across the face of the deep. In the Baptism of Jesus it was the same –
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
The Spirit makes the difference. Certainly it makes a difference to the baptism that was offered by John, as John himself acknowledges.
And so what do we make of this?
Certainly much could be made of the role of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism. Many of our Pentecostal friends develop a perplexing theology that seeks to drive a wedge between water baptism and spirit baptism, and then proceed to question and even denigrate our own understanding of baptism. The passage from Acts 19 in which there are discovered by Paul, out of Ephesus, a group of followers who still followed the baptism of John the Baptist and did not believe in the role and place of the Holy Spirit becomes significant in this. They were missing something. Indeed as an aside, we need to be aware that there is still a persecuted minority in Iraq, known as Mandaeans (some of whom live here in Australia) – who still today follow just the teaching of John the Baptist.
The point I wish to make, without going into great detail as to how we might understand the work of the Holy Spirit, is simply that for true change, for a real new beginning – this will happen because of the action of God upon us, or within us. John the Baptist realised that ultimately we are not able to sustain our new life by just dint of our own determination to change, or our desire to repent. What Jesus would offer his followers was himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit – not merely to turn around our lives, but to live a new and transformed life. A new beginning arises only by God’s grace and gift to us. Again, here is the difference between a transition and new beginning. It is God’s grace which brings about real change.
Jesus begins his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the affirmation of God the Father, on his ministry; not his own self declaration – he is the Christ, the Son of God. The self declarations then of course follow. At the end of the day, the baptism of Jesus becomes a significant moment within the life of the Trinity.
So change, a new beginning is marked – it is good to have such an occasion; it is not just drifting and a slow imperceptible transition; it is a radical change from disorder, death – through the waters of chaos by the power of the Holy Spirit, to a new life.
At the start of a year it is good to recall our own baptism – indeed it is something from the history of the church which is traditionally done at this time. Perhaps our baptism is something we cannot actually recall, because we were an infant – but it was real enough all the same, for your parents and the church community of which you were then a part and for you today. By recalling the new life which was marked on that occasion – we can recommit ourself to those possibilities of God’s ongoing presence in our lives; the power of the Holy Spirit within our lives. Alternatively, you may have not been baptised – and this is something that you have often wondered about. 2009 may be a time when you may consider what this may mean for your life, and your desire to follow Jesus.
Soon we will perform a short liturgy for recollecting our baptism – it is not itself a baptism; nor is it intended to exclude those who have not been baptised. It is, in general terms, to mark a crossover point. A cross-over for the year; a cross over to what we might want to be or do; it is to mark a new beginning at the start of 2009.