Baptism of Jesus

4th February 2009

The former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked by a young an upcoming politician what in particular made being prime minister a difficult job. Macmillan answered “Events, dear boy, events”.

We have had plenty of events in the last few weeks.

In the international field in addiction to the ongoing problems of Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we have seen what journalists call the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas first on the Gaza border, with each side hurling weapons from a distance, but then with the reality of ground forces going in to work in hand to hand situations. Both sides blame each other; both have a case. 

International diplomacy, the intervention of the United Nations – no one at present seems to have an answer. Meanwhile, as Anita reminded us vividly on Tuesday, it is not just the military who suffer; it is ordinary families, women and children who as so often in war bear the brunt of the aggression. People die, people are wounded, and people lose their homes, their livelihood, and their hope.

It is also true that local conflicts don’t stay local. Only a few years ago the kind of political and religious issues that divide humanity in the Middle East spilled across the world, with the attacks on New York and Washington and in London. We live in a global city.

That is one reason why politicians are so desperate to find a solution to the age old conflict of Israel and Palestine, a conflict almost as old as the human race – we think of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and recognise that from Biblical times onwards ownership of territory is the issue that has again and again brought conflict and violence to that area of the world.

And here in our own lives at this Convent, while our discussions and arguments may lead to nothing like the bloodshed of  these raging conflicts that cry out to us from newspapers and TV screens, we have had our share of  conflict, however benignly we manage to deal with it, relative to the shocking events in Gaza.

Today’s Eucharist is important in thinking about all these things. Mark, whose gospel we heard read today, is brilliant in the way he reports the events of the start of the Lord’s ministry. Unlike his successors Matthew and Luke, he tells us nothing about who Jesus was. Nothing about his parents or his family or what they were like. Nothing about Jesus preparing for or being prepared for what he was to do in the few years he toured Galilee and preached the Kingdom of God. Mark, in a wonderfully spare and economical way of writing, gives us the bare facts, and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what to think.

All we know for certain is that John the Baptist came with a call to national repentance, inviting the people to turn to God, and to express that by the ceremony that involved going in to the water of the River Jordan and being ducked. A sign of cleansing and renewal. It was not like a personal confession of sin, it was a corporate act, an act of national decision making, a turning away from past failures to take God seriously - and to re-invest in the plan of God for his people as they had learned it from the ancient prophets.

Jesus simply aligned himself with that movement. So we don’t have to bother with questions about why Jesus as an individual needed to repent. He was doing what others were doing, and expressing solidarity, agreement with their action.

In speaking about Jesus John the Baptist gives us a clue about Jesus and what he would mean for the people. “I have baptised you with water,” he told them. “But one is coming, a greater man than I, who will baptise you with holy spirit”. What does that mean? Well, in a word, events, to use Harold Macmillan’s expression. 

John provided a base for the people to work from, a new beginning, one that they could see and hear and recognise. A return to God, a return to the security of faith in God and the written Law he had given them. But the baptism that JESUS was to offer was not like that. His was to be the baptism of the Spirit, which implies a commitment to uncertainty, insecurity, unpredictability, and paradox. 

Commitment to a world in which old certainties and old reliable solutions to problems would not be enough. The people had to grow up, to learn how to face change and turmoil and decision and perplexity and conflict. In one simple phrase, they had to grow up. The adult world rarely provides easy, straightforward clear black and white answers to problems; often we have to make do with the lesser of two evils.

A few years ago, I went to hospital to the bedside of a teenage girl who had died. Her grieving parents and family were there and the nurses who were offering their support to them all. But what I noticed was that the girl’s lungs were still functioning – it seemed as if she was dead, but also breathing. When I had the opportunity to ask a member of staff what was happening, she said that they were keeping her ‘ventilated’ – to use the technical phrase – because the following morning the surgical team would be able to take some of her organs for transplant use – a procedure that had been explained to the parents and they had agreed.

But what was worrying them was that if another child needed that high dependency bed in the night that child would have to be turned away. There was a deal to be made between the advantages of keeping those organs alive for someone else’s benefit on the one hand, and the possibility of denying specialised care to another child on the other. As so often in my experience of working with ethical questions, there was no easy, obvious answer. All any of us could do was to weigh up the alternatives, and come up with an answer that we knew was at best only going to be partially acceptable.

I think that our calling as mature Christian men and women is so often like that. We are baptised with the Holy Spirit. We never know what dilemmas and conflicts life will throw at us next. All we can do is bring the ‘brightest and best’ of our emotional and intellectual abilities to work on the problems, and then to be able to say - not with resignation, but with true faith – we did our best. 

Here  comes one who will baptise you with holy spirit – someone who will throw open the world and all you experience and leave you with no guarantees except one. We can choose if we wish to commit ourselves to that promise – no one can make us do it. That one guarantee is the promise that whatever the events may turn out to be, where there is faith, God will provide all that you really need.

Nicholas Roberts

Chaplain at Ham