SERMON FOR A BAPTISMAL SERVICE ON THE 1st SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
(Matthew 3: 1-2, 4-6, 13-17)
This ought to have been a difficult sermon to write. Our theme for today - the Holy Trinity – is a notoriously challenging subject to preach on. And this is a baptism service – a time of celebration in which people don’t expect s lot of dry theory but a lively message with some practical bearing on their lives. Fortunately, the Bible contains a story tailor-made for an event like this. It’s the story of Jesus’ own baptism, which was read to us earlier.
My starter question is this, and I’ll give you a couple of moments to think about it before I carry on: How many characters are involved in the story?.....
Let’s go through the possibilities in order of appearance:
- First, there’s John the Baptist – a hermit who lived out by the river Jordan – someone to whom the confused people of the day were coming in droves to feel the touch of the sacred and to find peace.
- Secondly, there’s Jesus – a carpenter from Nazareth, struggling perhaps with his own destiny, but soon to build up a following of his own.
- Thirdly, there’s something referred to as the Spirit of God – a mysterious presence sensed floating down from Heaven and settling on Jesus almost like a dove.
- Then, finally, there is God as people traditionally imagine him, a disembodied voice from heaven, proudly declaring Jesus to be his Son.
Four main characters. Four players, in a story that records the first Christian baptism…or so it would appear. But, I want to put a different interpretation to you. I want to suggest that in substance there are only really two players in the story: firstly John the Baptist, and secondly God. That the main point of the story is not the first baptism, but the first revelation to humanity of God as three distinct Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It would take a much later generation of Christians to develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as we know it today. But even as the very first generation of Christians wrote the Gospels, they were understanding God in a new and radical way, in a total break with the past: not as a distant, solitary, unknowable ruler, but as a complex interplay of personalities seeking to draw humanity itself into their loving circle of fellowship.
It’s impossible to overstate how novel and politically dangerous this vision was. According to the Jewish religion in which Jesus grew up, God is One in every sense of the word: solitary, unique, inaccessible, and dangerously holy. Again and again in the OT, God is depicted as so holy that just to glimpse him results in instant death. Such was their fear of this awesome being, they did what you would do if you found an exposed live wire in your house. They insulated themselves against it, representing his presence on earth with a tiny, secluded shrine, surrounded with stone walls and guarded by an all-powerful priesthood.
Then Jesus appeared, and he was like nobody the people had ever met before. And as they felt his love and power moving in their lives, they had an extraordinary realization. Meeting Jesus was indistinguishable from meeting God. The divine presence that had been hidden away for so long was out in the open, accessible to everybody, welcoming rather than threatening.
Then when Jesus finally left them, they experienced the most remarkable thing of all: they felt the Spirit of God come down on all of them at once – in much the same way as it had descended on Jesus as he stood in the river for baptism. It was like being set on fire by a supernatural force. And amazingly, they found that they no longer needed the physical presence of Jesus any more than they had needed the Temple when he was with them. In the power of this Holy Spirit, in order to find God, all they had to do was look into themselves or across at one another.
This discovery was dynamite in the first century – it turned the world upside down. And it’s dynamite for us today. It tells us that Jesus is unlike any other mystic or religious leader in history. The truth we in the Church celebrate and safeguard is this: the God of Eternity has personally come to dwell with and within the human race. It started with the person of Jesus, who came to earth and left us with the perfect example of how to live lives pleasing to God. But as we’ve seen, that was only beginning. When we turn from our past lives to follow Jesus, when we submit to the waters of baptism, the same Holy Spirit of God that descended on Jesus comes down to take up residence in each one of us.
Heaven knows we’re not worthy of him. Heaven knows the church has been going through tough times. It consists, after all, of weak, fallible human beings who rarely if ever live up to Jesus’ teaching and example. But here is the crunch: If you want to see God, look around you. Look one or two of your fellow worshippers in the eye…God’s presence is as real as if the person sitting next to you was Jesus himself.
[Names of baptismal candidates]: In baptism you are uniting yourself not just with a lot of beautiful old buildings, not just with a group of well-meaning but flawed people, not just with a social cult built on old hymns and rituals. You are uniting yourself with the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and with the Spirit he left behind when he returned to heaven. In short, you yourselves in baptism are becoming vessels for God’s transforming presence on earth. We hope that over time you’ll join with us in exploring what that means for the way we live our lives, but above all we hope you’ll enjoy being part of this enlarged Christian family.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer…