On this fourth Sunday of Advent, shortly before Christmas, the Gospel passage brings us to John the Baptist, standing at the river Jordan, facing a delegation of priests and scribes from Jerusalem, who are trying to figure out who he is and what this act of baptism means.
It is only a few weeks ago that I happened to be at the bank of the Jordan myself, together with large groups of Eastern Orthodox pilgrims and American Baptists. I dipped my fingers in the water and made the sign of the cross on my forehead as an act of remembrance of my own baptism.
Of course you do not need the water of the river Jordan to do this. And I would like to encourage you to perform these kinds of rituals. Reminding you of God’s grace, touching your whole being. Perhaps something to do as a remembrance on the very day of the year, that you yourself were baptised, if you know that date, or if you can look it up.
Today we are all witnesses of the Holy Baptism of Aurora Mufaro and welcome her into our midst as a member of our church family. On such an occasion we are invited to reflect on our own baptism in early childhood or as an adult, long ago or not so long ago. What does being baptised mean to us today? What does this sacrament mean for our church community and for Christianity at large?
In all Christian denominations baptism in the name of the triune God is an essential and holy sacrament or ritual. The mutual recognition of baptism by so many different Christian churches, divided as they are over all kinds of other subjects, makes it also one of the strongest signs of Christian unity. Already in the early church all new Christians were baptised. So we share baptism with all generations of Christians before us, during the almost 2000 years of existence of the church. And at the same time baptism also connects us to all our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the whole world. ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. By one Spirit we are all baptised into one body.’
According to the Anglican tradition baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As such, it is not just a symbolic act of faith. We believe that God works invisibly through the sacrament, to stimulate and strengthen a person’s faith, to join us mystically to Christ, to pour out his Holy Spirit on us, to make us an inheritor of the kingdom of God!
Baptism marks the beginning of a life-long journey with God.
And this brings us to the question, what does it mean to us to be baptised? We may think of our own journey with God, since that moment. We can look back at moments in our lives, where we have been particularly aware of God’s grace. We may also think of times when He seemed far off. And as we witness this baptism today, we are again invited to open ourselves up for the love of God, that is in Christ Jesus, whose coming into the world, into our own lives, we are about to celebrate.
Combining Christmas and Baptism brings in an extra portion of joy. We have heard how St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians writes: ‘Always be joyful, then, in the Lord; I repeat; be joyful.’
Are we able to follow him in this; always? Bear in mind that St. Paul wrote these words while he was in prison. Despite the hardships of his earthly life, he was able to grasp a truth that made him joyful anyway, no matter what. And he advises us to follow him in this, and to keep searching for an inner awareness of this joyful truth. To dig up this source of everlasting joy, of a kind that the world is not able to offer; a life with and in Christ.
Today we also hear the voice of John the Baptist, the one that cries in the desert; in that barren place in our life where we have lost sight of God. ‘Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his path straight!’
He tells us to get rid of all the obstacles in ourselves, and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed to us. And through us, to all who are around us. Because that is what we are called to do, just as John the Baptist, to prepare a way for the Lord in the desert, in a society where so many have lost sight of Him.
But it all starts with opening ourselves to the Lord. That is not an easy thing to do. These obstacles can be very real and problematic. We may be afraid of losing control and on trusting on God and not on ourselves. We may be sceptical and doubtful. This story of God’s love coming to the world through his incarnated son Jesus Christ is too good to be true. We may be indifferent: the world offers so many distractions, other possible ways towards joy.
There may also be feelings of guilt; ‘I am not worthy for His love to come in’. But at the same time we may hear and trust in the second part of that sentence, ‘but only say the word and I shall be healed’. We can be hindered by other strong emotions, angriness and bitterness, or deep sorrow. “How can He, as a loving God, allow for this to happen in my life?”
Yet, we are asked today to really try to put everything aside, that stands in the way of the acceptance of God’s grace and love for us. To go inside ourselves and open that closed door with the shield ‘Can’t be true’ on it, turning it around into ‘But, what if it is true?’. And as we dare to do this, we may get surprised by the experience of joy and a peace that passes all understanding.
The Lord is near, prepare a way for him to come in, for he has opened for us the gates of life in all its fullness! He stands ready to meet us today in this service of Baptism and Holy Communion and in the celebration of Christmas that is coming up.
May the joy of the Lord be with us, now and in the rest of our lives.