Sermon for The Lord’s Baptism Sunday, 8 January 2023

By Revd George Mwaura

[Bible readings: Isaiah 42: 1–9 and Matthew 3: 13–17]

When it comes to the subject of baptism, our Baptist friends seem to have all the fun. For example, there is a story of a Baptist minister who was writing an advice column in one of Sunday’s tabloids; you know, like an agony aunt but on matters of religion and faith. One letter sent to him read: ‘Dear Pastor, Do you worry about the scum in the baptismal font?’ The pastor, who was a practical joker, wrote back: ‘Dear Gerry, No, I am not bothered, I’ll baptise anyone who comes along!’

Speaking of scum in the font, I am sure some of you have seen the classic motion picture, The Shawshank Redemption. An innocent man, Andy Dufreys, is sent to prison for the murder of his wife. For twenty years, Andy, who was fascinated with geology in his former life, chips away at the rock in his cell with a tiny geologist’s pickaxe. The axe was so small that it was never confiscated. Over those twenty years of continuous picking with this tiny instrument, Andy carves an escape tunnel that leads to the main sewage pipe of the prison complex. On the night of his escape, aided by a loud thunderstorm that conceals his movements, Andy crawls through 500 yards of raw sewage. Now that’s scum!

When Andy finally emerges, he is standing in an open cesspool. But it is still raining and Andy stands there in that blessed driving rain falling from heaven while the water washes away the sludge, stench and the fatigue from his body and soul. Andy is free! For the first time in twenty years he is free! And as we watch Andy with fascination and awe, who can help but see in that driving rain a picture of Christian baptism, the scum being washed away?

For a number of reasons, some of us need to be set free from our old lives. Some of us are unhappy with where we are in our faith journey. Some of us have made grievous mistakes along the way. The waters of Christian baptism symbolise the opportunity every child of God needs to make a new beginning: to be set free.

In today’s lesson, Jesus travelled from Galilee to the river Jordan to be baptised by John. Remember, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to repent and he felt so strongly about this that he tried to keep Jesus out of the water by saying to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and you come to me?’ That’s so powerful. I wonder, what would your cousins or the people who know you best say about you? How would they react if they knew you were coming for a baptism of repentance? Would they say, ‘Oh boy, it’s about time?’ Would any of them try to keep you out of the water because they thought you had nothing to repent?

Jesus didn’t need to repent or make a new beginning; many of us, however, do. His baptism nevertheless, did mark a new phase in his life: he used it to prepare for his ministry. From a carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth, now he would be building a future for all humanity. No matter who we are or where we are on our faith journey, today’s message is one of hope; it tells us: new beginnings are possible. We can chart out a new direction, set new goals, and renew our relationship with God. So, what does it take to make a new beginning?

First of all, we must be willing to change. That may sound obvious, but this is the biggest obstacle for many people. In fact, this is the condition that vexes most of us. Physicists speak of inertia:-the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force. Individuals and churches suffer from inertia and believe you me, most people change only when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

Those of you who love National Geographic programmes, may have observed mother birds encouraging their offspring from the nest for the first time. She starts with a simple nudge. If that doesn’t work, she begins to peck at the feet of her tiny chicks and continues to peck until the pain of holding on to the branch of the tree is more painful than the anticipation of letting go. She knows that her offspring have been destined to fly and that there is more security and freedom in the sky than on the ground; a whole new world awaits them if only they will let go and fly.

Surely God must look at us in the same way. We’re so afraid of change. So slow to accept new possibilities. So reluctant to embrace new opportunities. So, first, we must be willing to change.

Second, we must be willing to confront issues we’ve avoided in the past. If we are going to make a new beginning, we cannot avoid looking at old problems. This may include personal habits. It may include how we relate to our spouses, children, friends, colleagues even members of our church. Repentance isn’t just feeling bad about our shortcomings, it is taking stock of the direction of our lives and then taking action to remedy those areas that need improvement. But only you know what needs to be changed in your life; only you who knows where the bodies are buried. So, let me ask you: Are you willing to change? Are you willing to face up to issues you’ve ignored in 2022 and in the past?

Finally, we must be willing to live out the meaning of our baptism. As those baptised, we have a challenge to live up to and a resource from which to draw: our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus made a new beginning when he was baptised by John in the Jordan. There was no reason on his part for repentance. But he was starting his public ministry and he wanted to identify with us. You know the rest of the story; you know how it ends. As soon as Jesus was baptised, and was coming out of the water, the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and lighted on him. Then a voice from heaven was heard saying. ‘This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Deep down within each of us that is what we long to hear God say about our lives: ‘This is my child, with whom I am well pleased.’ If that is the case, we need to make a new beginning today. As those baptised, we must identify with Jesus and with the needs of those around us: those for whom he died. How well do you know your context and how well can you identify with its problems …?

May God bless you as you reflect and wrestle with the issues you identify.

Happy New Year!