Expecting the Mystery of God: Baptism of The Holy Spirit

Baptism at Metro involves a beautiful tradition. Parents, grandparents, cousins, aunties, and the church community gather to witness the sacrament of receiving God’s touch. Metro Church has a long history in Pietermaritzburg and because of the large numbers which used to occupy Sunday worship services it is nearly impossible to quantify how many Aunties and Uncles have polished their shoes and donned their best suit to take part in this sacramental ritual. Even the uncle who swore never to set foot in a church again has been found in the front rows to support his favourite niece when she brings her child to the church. Baptism is a mysteriously precious moment when we proclaim that God is ever present. To quote first century theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo “Baptism is a visible sign of an invisible grace.”

Read Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The scripture we read today leads us to consider the Baptism of the Lord Jesus.

The liturgical calendar jumps to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he joins the people flocking to the Jordon River seeking and responding to John the Baptiser’s call to repentance. The ritual was a communal one, calling the people of Israel to ‘return to God’. It is a prophetic call and John the Baptist humbly declares to all who will listen “One greater will come after me to baptise with the Spirit”.

Jesus of Nazareth is the one who fulfils this prophecy. Jesus is the Christ, and Mark wants this Christological revelation to be evident to his readers. There will be many difficult choices as the faith journey unfolds, but at the mystical moment of Jesus’ baptism there is nothing for Jesus to do but submit to God’s overwhelming grace. In divine intervention the heavens tear open, the Spirit descends and God speaks. Karl Barth proposed that God’s claiming of Jesus (This is my beloved Son) summarises the essence of the gospel: God’s desire is to be fully seen (the Dove) and heard (God’s speaking) by earthly creatures. It is God’s desire is to be Emmanuel, and to fully reconcile humanity and divinity. This is Grace. Grace which cannot be earned or deserved, but is offered as a free gift for those who will receive.

John’s call for confession, repentance and forgiveness continues to work in believers’ lives. To return to God and choose holiness as our ethical norm is to follow the narrow path of God. John Wesley, our father in the faith, was emphatic about Scriptural Holiness. During his time in Oxford as a theologian and preacher he gathered his colleagues and formed a group who pledged to follow an ethical code of conduct which stood in contrast to the behaviour of the Priests of his day. He was ‘different’, and his contemporaries witnessed it in his preaching and living. He was making a difference, but at this point of his life, like the disciples of Ephesus, he had “not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2)

John Wesley spent many years of his young theological career without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. He even had a failed attempt of relocating to Georgia as a missionary. It would only be after his return from this disastrous journey to the colonies, and after his transforming experience at a revival in Aldersgate that he could confess that his heart had been ‘strangely warmed’. This well-known phrase has been widely accepted as the acknowledgement of Wesley’s baptism of the Holy Spirit as described in Mark 1:8 and Acts 19:6.

There is a chance in social-justice based theology found in Methodism, Wesleyan and other denominations of putting the ‘horse before the apple cart’. Social Justice and an earnest seeking of a behavioural Holiness code is in our Methodist DNA. It is right and just, and it is a necessary part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. However, the risk is when believers become so involved in acting and doing, that we forget to submit to the graceful majesty of God’s divine plan. John the Baptist tells the crowds at the Jordon River, (paraphrased and contemporised): Choosing to be cleansed in this river and return to God has value, but what is of greater value is the One who will come to baptise in the Holy Spirit. John the baptiser prepares the way for believers to receive God in a new and awesome way. Very specifically in the gospel passage disciples are told to expect the Divine: Expect the heavens to tear open, the voice of God, and the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit to descend. Expect the life changing, grace infused, immersion into the Holy Spirit of God. Expect the welcoming embrace into the gracious Spirit of God which transforms disciples forever. Expect the mystery of God to be overwhelming.

When we align our priorities, when we confess, repent and receive the mysterious empowering of the Holy Spirit, we can then remember the purpose of God’s invisible Grace:

That God is reconciling heaven and earth for all eternity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Saviour. Motivated by this indescribable grace upon grace experienced by the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, believers are able to live the radical discipleship into which Jesus leads us.

John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience of the Holy Spirit would empower him to spread the Good News of Jesus in miraculous ways. He brought the message of Jesus to the marginalised of English society, reassuring people of all walks of life that God’s Eternally Saving Love was for everyone. As Wesley and his followers travelled through the country side they witnessed gross systemic injustice. With God’s empowering grace, they challenged issues such as slavery, child coal miners, inadequate education & health care, as well as an imbalance of power in both church and state. Topuddle Methodists were concurrently involved in establishing trade unions as well as open-air worship services for the working class. All efforts were for the purpose of re-enforcing the mystery of God’s saving work through Jesus, the Christ.

Today’s homework:

We are encouraged to slow down and conduct an introspection of our Spiritual lives. Meditate and reflect on the questions below:

• Are we living in the blessed assurance of the Baptism of Jesus?

• Does the invisible Grace of God empower and stimulate holiness in our lives?

• Do we boldly speak of God’s Divine presence mingling with our earthly nature?

• Do we submit to the Holy Spirit who gracefully transforms our lives towards God’s holiness?

• Do we expect the Divine to overwhelm and empower in mysterious ways?

• Is our faith focused on what we can do for God, rather than letting God work through our lives?

• Is our passion for social development born out of a desire to make God known through Jesus?

In the Gospel passage which follows Jesus’ baptism of repentance and of the Holy Spirit Jesus is in the wilderness, empowered to stand against evil. We too often find ourselves in difficult situations, standing for justice and resisting self-aggrandisement. The ability to journey in Godly ways is only found in the power of the Holy Spirit but even with the presence of the Holy Spirit there are moments when life seems unbearable and God feels far away.

Let me close with an Isaiah passage as translated by Eugene Peterson in the Message. When our lives feel far from empowered, and the assurance of salvation’s baptism is a distant memory, Isaiah’s prophetic words tell of God’s eternal intention to gather us into the heartbeat of God’s Grace and reminds us of God’s desire to reconcile heaven and earth.

Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Saviour." (Isaiah 43:1-4 MSG)


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