Felicity O’Brien, Jan 10, 2010. All rights reserved. PDF
Water – it’s weird stuff. Two atoms of Hydrogen, which is a gas, combined with one atom of oxygen, also a gas, and suddenly it’s a liquid! Different combinations of hydrogen and oxygen make entirely different things, like peroxide.
It’s vital to our survival. We are largely composed of it, and can’t survive long without it. Water is mentioned over four hundred times in the Bible. For a people living in the desert, water must have often been on their minds as the first necessity of survival.
Water can also be very powerful and destructive. The Psalm set for today, Psalm 29, reassures us that “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters”. Our reading from Isaiah also offers comfort:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
Water can be a metaphor for circumstances that seem to hard to bear. These passages tell us that God is present, and in control. Jesus walking on the water is a vivid illustration of His power over it.
In the Bible water is so often used as an analogy for God working in our lives, and flowing out from us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are often ambivalent about the power of water – we need it, yet it can destroy us.
Are we ambivalent about the power of the Holy Spirit too?
When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he offered her Living water, the water that would not destroy, so that she would never thirst again. He knew that there is a greater thirst than merely physical – the thirst for the presence of God in our lives. Revelation speaks of the springs and the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Isaiah invites us to come to the water too.
The passage in today’s gospel deals with the baptism of Jesus. It can be easy to take it for granted that Jesus was baptized, just as most of us have been, maybe as a baby. I used to think of baptism as a Christian thing, a sacrament when we join the church. And so it is, but it didn’t come from nowhere. When Peter stood up with the disciples in Acts 2 and commanded the people to repent and be baptized, they understood what was meant. Ceremonial immersion in water for purification was a well-established part of Jewish life.
Perhaps the first water baptism was Noah’s flood, and the Exodus through the Red Sea waters can also be seen in this way. Converts to Judaism were required to be circumcised (men only), be baptized, and to offer sacrifice. The Gentile world knew of this too. Archaeologists have discovered many pools in Jerusalem for just such ceremonial purification by water, and it is still a feature of traditional Jewish practice.
So John’s baptizing was not a new thing – the people understood what was intended. Instead of a purpose-built pool, John baptized the people in the Jordan river. It was a public space, available to everyone. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and the people queued up for his teaching and baptism. They had a burning question – is this “John fellow” the messiah, for whom they had been waiting so long???
Then Jesus came to be baptized. He was John’s cousin, and John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. John could have claimed to be the Messiah – after all, the crowds were eager for deliverance. But he was loyal to Jesus. John told the people that the one who was to come would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire also.
Verse 17 talks about the winnowing fork and fire – Jesus will judge us, and we will be cleaned up, as if by fire, towards increasing holiness, growing more like Christ. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables this.
It would be the baptism in the Holy Spirit that would characterize the Messiah’s mission and so would far transcend the water baptism which marked the ministry of John.
Breaking waters are often the beginning of a new birth, and according to Titus Jesus saved us, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
From a New Testament, Christian perspective, it can be easy to think of the Holy Spirit as only revealed in the New Testament. But it is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. We sing a beautiful worship song based on Psalm 51: Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Isaiah also talks about the Holy Spirit being present with his people:
“Where is the one who put within them his Holy Spirit?”
The idea of the Holy Spirit was therefore familiar to both the crowds at the Jordan, and to Luke’s first audience..
Verses 21 and 22 of our reading are very important – we have Jesus recently baptized in water, the visible Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the audible voice of God. The Trinity present together for all to see and hear. God the Father’s approval must have been very encouraging for Jesus the man. I wonder what the reaction was of the crowd? Were they still there or had they left? Luke must have had eye-witnesses accounts available to him in order to write his carefully researched Gospel.
We can assume that the Holy Spirit was with Jesus from before His birth, bound up in the triune God. In some way however, the human Jesus was further empowered at the beginning of his public ministry by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
We are also empowered for our ministry by the Holy Spirit. Has your ministry begun?
Our liturgy and our sacramental services all refer to the Holy Spirit, but the words can become too familiar.
But John was preaching a baptism of repentance from sin and Jesus was without sin. Why therefore did he need to be baptized? I believe that part of the reason that Jesus was baptized was to give us an example to follow. It made a statement – I’m here, and my ministry has begun.
Has your ministry begun? All the baptized have a ministry –Matthew’s gospel finishes with instructions for the next step. “Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples, and teach them to do everything I have told you.” This is for every baptized Christian. When we go to people and baptize them and teach them, we bring the Kingdom of heaven to the earth.
When we receive the Holy Spirit, our life changes –it is like the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, which is in black and white, or sepia actually, then all-of-a- sudden it is in glorious Technicolor! It was an effect that won Oscars, but the Holy Spirit giving us new life feels just like that. When it’s new, it’s wonderful, but after a while it can become a bit familiar if we are not careful to stay connected.
How do we stay connected? Well, Luke’s gospel has a clue – “after his baptism, Jesus was praying.” Again, Jesus gives us the example to follow. We stay connected by staying in touch. We talk to God, and allow the Holy Spirit to flow into and through us.
On a recent trip out of town, we drove past the Kaitoke reservoir, and I was telling the kids that our tap water came from there. The water doesn’t leave the reservoir until someone turns a tap on, and then there is a never-ending supply. (We are fortunate with our water supply in this country). In the same way, when we allow God’s Holy Spirit to flow through us, it never runs out, it will go on forever, and unlike the reservoir, it will increase in flow. We don’t really want our taps doing that…
Ezekiel has a vision about a river that increased – it started off ankle deep, then it was knee-deep, then waist deep, then so deep it had to be swum.
The Holy Spirit will flow more and more deeply if we let it.
As we let the Holy Spirit flow through us, the water will always be sparkling, fresh, life-giving. This water of life gives us life too, like a tree planted by the water.
I have had a dream several times, in which I am carried along in a flood. It should be scary, especially as I am not a strong swimmer, but there is a sense of peace there, that if I lift my feet, and stop fighting it, I can let the flow carry me. I think God is trying to tell me to let him carry me along by the Holy Spirit. Will you let him carry you too?