As Father Jerry mentioned in the previous post, he was preaching at St John’s and I was preaching at St Paul’s in Woldingham, another church in our team, for the feast of the Baptism of Christ this last Sunday. The readings were the same at each church. Here is what I said.
We are just over a week into the New Year. I wonder how our New Year resolutions are going.
I was looking after some of my grandchildren this last week while their mum was having her tonsils out. I stood in at a parents’ evening for her on Thursday and when we were driving home from the school my grandson commented, “There are so many people out jogging. Why are there so many?” I hadn’t been so observant – I was keeping my eyes on the road of course – but then I noticed. It was about 7.30 in the evening, pretty wet as well, but out on the street were joggers, even a group of about 6 young women jogging together, and definitely struggling – they were not toughened athletes. “Ah” I said to Ben, “it’s New Year Resolutions – that’s why there are so many people out jogging”.
Well that was 7th January and resolutions were still being kept! Now it’s the 10th of January and perhaps some people’s will power is weakening. Richard Wiseman, a British Psychologist conducted research in 2007 on 3000 people and their New Year’s Resolutions. He found that 88% of their resolutions ended in failure. To be honest I was surprised 12% resulted in success – so some people actually do manage to keep up the exercise regime, quit smoking, or lose weight!
Will power is a very overrated character trait. In fact neuro scientists would tell us it’s not a character trait at all but a function of the brain and the part of the brain that is already overloaded anyway – this frontal cortex. So if we are worrying or concentrating on other things we have no brain space left for willpower. There was an experiment where one group of people had to remember a 2 digit number & another group a seven digit number, then walk down a corridor to a proffered snack, and then walk back again and repeat the number. It had interesting results. Those who only had a 2 digit number to remember overwhelmingly took a piece of fruit for a snack, while the majority of those trying to remember a 7 digit number took chocolate cake!
Well this is all very interesting and has some relevance to this early part of January and some people’s compulsion to make resolutions, but what on earth has it to do with the Baptism of Jesus which we remember today.
The Baptism of Jesus occurs in all four gospels – just!!! The account in John does not actually say Jesus was baptised, only that the Spirit descended on him like a dove. When you read the passage in the first Chapter of John’s gospel you may think you have read about Jesus’ baptism because John the Baptist describes the event, and there are resonances to the account of Jesus’ baptism from the other gospels. But, and you can check for yourself later, there is no baptism. By the time John wrote his Gospel, people were more worked out about who Jesus was – this was the Son of God. Jesus was Divine. Jesus was in John the Evangelist’s words “the pre-existent Word of God”. So this divine Jesus, why on earth would he need to receive a baptism of repentance from John the Baptist? It had begun not to make sense amidst the developing theology of a divine Jesus. So the writer of the fourth Gospel presents us with the descent of the Spirit and an allusion to a Baptism.
Now Luke, whose account we heard today, seems to offer a half way house. In Mark and Matthew it is at the point of his Baptism that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. This is not so in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is baptised by John, but the heavens do not open at this point. It says “when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
It was as Jesus prayed that the Holy Spirit descended. We think Luke was separating out the baptism by John and the descent of the Holy Spirit. The baptism is quite sidelined because Luke is emphasising Jesus rather than John, and connecting Jesus’ communion with his Father and the gifting of the Holy Spirit, rather than connecting the baptism and the gifting of the Spirit. The Baptism of Jesus was beginning to present dilemmas and in any case Luke had another focus.
Prayer and the role of the Holy Spirit are central to Luke the theologian. This is the same Luke of course who wrote the Book of Acts. In our New Testament reading people had been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus but they needed Peter and John to pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit. And of course it is Luke who in Acts gives us the dramatic account of the gifting of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost, again prayer and the Holy Spirit connect – it was after the apostles and some of the women had been “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” in the Upper Room, that the Holy Spirit came like wind and fire and Jesus’ promise that they would be baptised by the Holy Spirit was fulfilled.
It is baptism by the Holy Spirit that Luke is interested in, not baptism by water. It is the Holy Spirit that drives and empowers the early church, and it was the Holy Spirit who really had centre stage in all of Luke’s account of the birth and early years of Jesus, that we have been hearing about over the last few weeks. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary. The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth. Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon. And now the Holy Spirit takes centre stage as Jesus begins his earthly ministry.
Once the Holy Spirit has descended on him and the voice of God has been heard, what happens next? Well the next event is described thus by Luke “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” The Holy Spirit the driver and empowerer.
Luke is very attuned to that third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. And he knew that the route to the empowering by the Spirit was prayer. Perhaps this was his personal experience both for himself, the church with nurtured him and the lives of the early followers of Jesus whom he met. It had to be as Jesus prayed that the Holy Spirit came.
Baptism by water has since earliest times been the sacrament of entry into the church. But baptism by the Holy Spirit is what Jesus promised his disciples. There are churches where baptism by the Holy Spirit is made much of and is a separate experience from baptism by water or the point of accepting Jesus as saviour. People are expected to manifest their baptism by the Holy Spirit by being sometimes slayed in the Spirit – literally laid out almost unconscious and the baptism is expected to manifest itself in gifts like tongues. I have experienced such things and even in the staid C of E there was a time thirty odd years ago when the charismatic movement was at its height that many churches were involved in this sort of ministry.
That is one extreme. There is another extreme in churches, which is to pretty much ignore the Holy Spirit altogether. It often seems like we have a two person God not a three person God. God the Father and Jesus fine, but this Holy Spirit person – who is that?
Now if you can remember what I said at the beginning – New Year’s Resolutions. What have they to do with the Baptism of Christ we celebrate today? Well the connection is what drives and motivates us.
What drove Jesus was the Holy Spirit. Jesus had a goal. Jesus was pretty single minded about that goal. It has often been pointed out how focussed Jesus is, how aware of his surroundings, how attuned to the feelings and desires of the people he meets. Jesus would not have needed to do Mindfulness training. He was there already.
The problem with resolutions and willpower is that on the whole they don’t work to change how we behave. They have an 88% failure rate. What about trying prayer and the guiding of the Holy Spirit instead? Not “shopping list” type prayer, telling God what we want him to do; but silent listening type prayer where we listen for God telling us what to do. Prayer where we open ourselves like Mary, like Elizabeth, like Simeon and above all like Jesus, to be empowered and led by the Holy Spirit of God.
Now I do reckon the practice of quiet, meditative prayer has an actual connection with what the neuro scientists tell us. This front bit of brain is overloaded, especially in today’s world, with things we think we should be doing, with strivings and ambitions, with problems and worries, with just keeping up. If we were quiet and still, maybe just initially for five minutes a day, God’s Holy Spirit would begin to whisper to us that who we are now is loved by God and God’s Holy Spirit might begin to de-clutter that pre-frontal Cortex and God’s Holy Spirit may begin not to just whisper but to speak more clearly affirming us as we are, and guiding us to live for God not for worldly ambitions and irrelevant goals.
Ditch the resolutions and instead sit in silence in God’s presence for a few minutes every day and invite the Holy Spirit to guide your life.