Thursday, January 17, 2008

Baptism of Jesus: Matthew 3:13-end

John’s Baptism

The baptism of Jesus is a key turning point in Jesus’ life, and is recorded in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In contrast, the birth of Jesus, which we’ve just been celebrating, is only recorded in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke.

Because we are familiar with the idea of baptism as Christians, we probably don’t see anything that unusual in what John was doing by baptising people, but John’s baptism was unusual.

Up to this point in time, baptism in the Jewish religion was something that was administered to Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. When someone wanted to convert to Judaism, they underwent a process of initiation which had three stages to it. The first stage of the initiation was to take a ceremonial bath in a Mikveh, to wash away their ‘Gentile impurities’. After this special bath, the convert was said to be born anew, to have had their sins cleansed, imagery and language that we use when it comes to Christian baptism. Then following on from this, the males of the family were circumcised, and the head of the family would offer a sacrifice.

But there were some significant difference between the self administered baptism of a Gentile (non Jew) becoming a Jew, and the baptism that John was offering.

1) John’s baptism was given to those who were already Jews.
2) John’s baptism took place in the Jordan river, as opposed to the Mikveh
3) John’s baptism was not self administered, as proselyte baptism was.
4) Fourthly John’s was a baptism of repentance. All through the Bible God
pleads with us to turn away from our sins, failures, and mistakes, and to turn toward him—trusting in God alone to save us. That is what repentance means, and John’s baptism—like Christian baptism—was intimately connected to repentance. Baptism marked the “turning point” for those who chose to turn toward God. In Matthew 3:1 John’s message is "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." And in verses 5 and 6 we’re told, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” John the Baptist was calling people to turn away from their sins and return to God.
And whilst all this is going on, Jesus comes to John and asks to be baptised. Jesus’ baptism raises a very interesting question, which is why did he get baptised? The baptism John was offering was one of reprentenance, but of all the people ever to have lived, there was only been one person who did not need to repent, because they had never sinned, and that was Jesus. So why did Jesus feel it was important to be baptised by John, and what is its significance for us today?

There are three things I want to mention about Jesus’ baptism, that helps us to understand what our own baptism as Christians means. It’s about Belonging, Identification & Commissioning.


When Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan a voice from heaven was heard saying "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." In his baptism Jesus was publicly declared as being God’s very own Son.

Baptism is a sign that we belong to God’s family, that we are children of God. The bible teaches us that we too are chosen and created by God. Psalm 139 says, “You created me, and knit me together in my mother’s womb.” And in Jeremiah we read. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;”

In baptism we are brought into the family of God, it is a public sign and acknowledgement that not only do we belong to our earthly family, but also to God’s family. Baptism is also a sign that we are loved and accepted by God. This is what the apostle John writes in his first letter. “See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children – think of it- and we really are… Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now.”

Baptism is not only a public sign that we are God’s children, but also that we are joining his family the church. This is why when someone is being baptized, we begin the service with the words, “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those whom he is calling.” So baptism is a sign that we are joining God’s family the church.


Secondly baptism is about identification.

Why did Jesus need to undergo a baptism of repentance if he was without sin? When Jesus came to be baptised, John tried to deter him, saying “I am the one who needs to be baptised by you, not you by me.” So why was Jesus baptised?

He was baptised in order to identify himself with the message that John was preaching, which was message of turning back to God, placing God first in our life. When John questioned Jesus why he needed to be baptised, Jesus said, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." In other words Jesus is talking about living a life in total obedience and faith to God. So by submitting himself to baptism, Jesus is demonstrating his commitment to serve and obey his heavenly Father.

By his own baptism, Jesus shows us that a healthy relationship to God means submitting our lives to him. As Christians we are meant to give every part of our lives over to God, our relationships, our money, our time, our very selves. I’ll be honest and admit this is something I struggle with, something that does not come easily, but the more we do it, the more we experience God’s love and mercy in our lives.

Secondly, in his baptism Jesus identifies himself with a world where there is so much sin and suffering. God choose to reveal himself to the world, through his Son Jesus, by immersing himself in the world and in its struggles. And in that way God is able to identify with you and me. At his birth, Jesus stepped from heaven to take on our flesh. At his baptism he waded out into the water to stand with us in our sinfulness. Baptism was for the immoral, the impure, the liars, adulterers and thieves, and yet Jesus willingly plunged into the water as if to say, “I’m with them!” Jesus in his baptism identifies himself with you and me.

And through our own baptism we identify with Jesus. In baptism we identify with Jesus in his death and resurrection. When someone is baptised, the sign of the cross is made on their forehead as a reminder that Jesus died on the cross for them, and for each one of us, it is a mark of identity. And when we go into the waters of baptism, it is symbolic of dying to sin, and being raised to new life with God.

This next short video, reminds us of our identity in Christ as Christians:

The Jews saw baptism as a rite of passage for proselytes. John preached baptism with repentance for the forgiveness of sins—acknowledging that, apart from God, we are all unclean. But Jesus added a whole new level of meaning to baptism, as it came to be a living picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This is why Paul writes, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? When we were baptized into his death, we were placed into the tomb with him. As Christ was brought back from death to life by the glorious power of the Father, so we, too, should live a new kind of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)Just as the waters of baptism provided Jesus with a way to identify with us, they also provide us with a way to identify with him.


Thirdly baptism is a commissioning.

When Jesus was baptised it marked the start of his public ministry. At his baptism the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, affirming that he is indeed God’s Son, and equipping him for the task ahead. “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.”

In our baptism we too are commissioned and equipped to follow and serve God for the rest of our lives. We are commissioned to share the love of God that we have received with the world around us. We are all called to full time Christian ministry, because our calling is to live the Christian life 24/7, whatever we may do. his is both a tremendous privilege and a tremendous responsibility, and so we need help in doing this, and so in baptism we are equipped to do this by receiving God’s Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a promise to everyone who places their faith in Jesus. The Bible says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39 NIV).God enters into our lives through his Holy Spirit, and it is the Holy Spirit that guides and directs us as we follow and serve God. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us our new identity in Christ so that we truly are born again spiritually.


So Jesus’ baptism tells us something very important about who Jesus is, and also reveals something important about who we are.

It reveals to us that through baptism we belong to God’s family, that just as God spoke ‘this is my son whom I love’ so he says this to you and I. He loves us, he calls us into his family.

We see that in baptism we are identified with Christ’s death and resurrection, and that through baptism we are commissioned to serve God in the world.

I want to finish by inviting you to renew the promises made at your baptism, as a way of recommitting ourselves to serving and following God. It doesn’t matter whether you can remember your baptism or not, and if there is anyone here who hasn’t been baptized, you also can join in with these words.

Renewal of Baptism Promises

Monday, January 07, 2008

Luke 2:4-7 And his shelter was a stable

Sermon based on article published in December's edition of 'Christianity Magazine' (2007)

Every Christmas, in schools, and playgroups throughout the country, Mary and Joseph, riding on a donkey, arrive in Bethlehem. There they knock on the door of an inn and are met by an innkeeper – or several inn keepers, and when they ask whether there is a room available, the innkeeper shakes their head. There is no room at the inn. Eventually, however, they are offered a stable round the back and there, in the cosy straw, surrounded by children wearing animal masks Jesus is born.

It’s a very familiar scene, but there is very strong likelihood that it never happened like that at all.

Here is what Luke says,

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2:4-7)

The image of the manger and inn has firmly established itself in our imaginations, in nativity plays, and on Christmas cards, we have this picture of innkeepers and cattle gently lowing.

But the truth is that Luke may not have meant ‘inn’ at all. The Greek word he uses is Kataluma which can mean ‘inn’, but just as easily can mean guest room, or spare room, or anywhere you might put visitors.

Luke uses the word kataluma twice in his gospel: once in this passage and once to describe the room in which the Last Supper took place; the ‘upper room’. In Luke 22:11 two disciples are told to go and ask, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ No theologian, suggest that the last supper took place in an inn. In fact, the whole tone of Jesus’ preparations for the Last Supper indicate a concern to find a private space, a space away from threats and interruptions and away from the vast crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover.

When Luke does come to talk about an inn, he uses an entirely different word. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the victim of the thief’s is taken to an inn, and here Luke uses the word pandocheion.

This indicates that either Luke is being inconsistent in his choice or words, or he didn’t mean an inn at all. Luke is however someone he likes to get the details right. So Luke says, not that the inn was full, but that there was no room in the guest room, or spare room. And further more, Mary and Joseph weren’t staying at the travel lodge, but were probably staying with relatives, as it seems highly probable that Joseph had family links with Bethlehem.

This actually makes more sense of the story, because for Joseph to return to Bethlehem for a census meant that he had to have strong links there, and if he had relatives there, it would make sense that he and Mary would have stayed with them.

And just because Joseph travelled for the census doesn’t mean that a lot of other people did. There may have been compelling reasons for him to escape Nazareth for a while, to escape the rumours that must have circulated regarding Mary’s pregnancy. Certainly Luke gives no indication that Bethlehem was full.

This means that sadly for schools and playgroups everywhere, the story of the hardhearted innkeeper who grudgingly opens the stable round the back may well be a complete misreading of the story.

On top of this, there may not have even been a stable as well! Luke records that Jesus was placed in a manager, and animals feeding trough, but this would not have necessarily been in a stable.

We have to remember that Mary and Joseph were poor. When Mary receives news that she is going to give birth to the Messiah, she sings a song full of delight that the poor and hungry have been blessed by God. “He (God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she sings, “and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.” (Luke 1:52-53)

This song makes no sense at all unless Mary – and the man she was to marry – were ‘lowly’, poor, and even hungry. The language is full of the idea that God has chosen to bless the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. And quite clearly Mary was ‘lovely’ in a number of ways. She was the subject of a scandal and she was a virgin. This probably means that she was quite young; although older marriages did occur, the usual age for a Jewish girl to be married was between 13 and 16. Parents usually arranged marriages through intermediaries. Betrothal was legally binding and could only be dissolved through death or divorce.

The fact that Mary and Joseph were poor is back up by the sacrifice they later give at the Temple. Luke records that they sacrificed a ‘pair or turtledoves or two young pigeons.’ – which was the sacrifice you gave if you were too poor to sacrifice a sheep.

Given this information, we can assume that Joseph came from a simple, poor background, and simple homes did not have stables!

The homes of ordinary poor families of the time were frequently built on two levels: there was the lower level where everyday living took place, and an upper level where the family slept. Or if they lived in caves, as many people did, the family would have slept in the central part of the cave, with the animals kept at the entrance.

Israel can get very cold at night, so the animals would have been a heating source for the house, a kind of primitive central heating. What Luke is saying is that there was no spare room in the residential part of the house. The place was packed out. So they had to go to the lower level, where the animals were kept. This would explain why a stable is never mentioned. There wasn’t one, the animals were kept downstairs in the home; what happened was that Jesus was put downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full.

What difference does this make, apart from ruining many a nativity play? Well for one thing it shows the truth of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming man. It brings alive the fact that Jesus was born in a very specific place at a very specific time. And that place was a cramped peasant’s home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.

We can see that Jesus was born into a lower class family. It blows apart the cosy Christmas card picture of a nice warm, clean stable, with golden straw illuminated by the flowing halo round Jesus’ head. In many ways it’s a much more ‘ordinary’ scene. In some ways Jesus’ birth was highly unusual: very few births are announced by angelic choirs. But in other ways it was almost painfully normal. The home was an ordinary peasant dwelling; the first cot an animals feeding trough. In some ways, as well, the birth is more shocking. The Son of God is laid, not in some kind of rustic cot, but in the place where usually the animals ate. He slept in hay full of ticks and fleas, in a home that was small and cramped. His parents were poor, his mother was incredibly young.

Most of us accept the idea that Jesus was born into a poor family, but we don’t stop and picture what that meant. The Renaissance paintings which inform our view of the event were painted for rich, wealthy patrons. They did not want to see conditions of slum like poverty, even had the artist managed to interpret the text correctly. So we have become conditioned to see a roomy stable full of colourful characters. We have sanitised the unsanitary stable. We have swept it clean from the dirty straw, given the animals a wash and brush up, spared a bit of myrrh around to cover the unsavoury smell of sweat and animal dung.

To do so is to miss the point. The point behind Luke’s depiction of the birth of Jesus is that it WAS dirty and smelly and poor and cramped and hard and utterly, utterly, wonderful.

And this is surely the more wonderful deeper truth.

Freedom in Christ Session 11: Relating to Others

Understanding Grace

In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love you neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As Christians are calling is to love others as we love ourselves. It’s a very challenging commandment. How can we love those who seem unlovable, how can we love those people who we find so difficult to get along with? The reality is that left to ourselves we cannot, but with God we can start to love others as we are meant.

Just as knowing who we are in Christ is the foundation for our Christian life, it also forms the basis for the way we relate to other people. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) We give freely because we have received freely (Matthew 10:8). We are merciful because He has been merciful to us (Luke 6:36), and we forgive in the same way that Jesus has forgiven us.

We have received God’s amazing grace, his undeserved forgiveness, love and mercy, and the more we experience this, then the more we begin to find that we want to give it away to others.

We are responsible for our own character and others’ needs.

So how should we treat others?

First of all, as Christians we are called not to judge others. And yet we live in a culture that loves to judge other people. Think about the column inches that are devoted in newspapers and magazines to people in the public eye, the way in which people are built up, only to be teared down, and we are invited us to do the same. Or think for a moment how easy it is when you are involved in a dispute with someone to start broadening the issue and attacking the person’s character. For example, imagine two people are having an argument because one of them forgot to put the washing on, and all of the sudden one of the people says, ‘You’re so selfish’, or ‘You’re completely useless’, they have suddenly attacked the character of the other person and this can be tremendously hurtful.
Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others. You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-5).

As Christians we have a responsibility for the way we behave, and the way we treat others. Imagine what life would be like if everyone assumed their responsibility to become like Christ in their character, and committed themselves to meet the needs of everyone around them. It would utterly transform our world!

I don’t think any of us would disagree with that. The big question is why we fail to live it out.

Being aware of our own sins

All too often we are very aware of the character failures of others while appearing blind to our own. We notice the speck of dust in our brother’s eye, whilst ignoring the whopping great plank that sticks out of our own eye.
In the Bible, whenever anyone has a powerful encounter with God, their response is to suddenly become aware of their own sinfulness, rather than the sinfulness of others. For example, when Isaiah has a vision of God in the Temple his immediate response is “Who to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” In Luke 5, when Jesus appropriated Peter’s boat to speak to the crowds that had gathered, Jesus orders Peter to put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch. Peter obeys, and starts pulling in fish after fish, and he suddenly realises that someone very special was in the boat with him, and his response is “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.”

When we see God for who He is, we become much more aware of our own failings and short comings. But when our relationship with God is lukewarm, we tend to overlook our own sin and see the sin of others. And so when people don’t match up to our expectations, we have a tendency to say they are doing wrong and point it out.

Focus on responsibilities rather than rights

In every relationship we have both rights and responsibilities, the temptation we are often faced with, is to focus more on our rights rather than our responsibilities.

For example, do parents have a right to expect their children to be obedient? Or do they have a responsibility to bring them up lovingly and wisely? Do we have the right to criticise others, or do we have a responsibility to relate to one another with the same love and acceptance we have received from Christ?

The answer is that as Christians we need to focus on our responsibilities before our rights, which in today’s climate is very counter cultural.

Paul in Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up others according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen.” As Christians we are to build one another up. One of the most destructive and damaging forces that we see at work in the world, and also within church is gossip. I have known many situations where tremendous harm has been caused by gossip, and there should be absolutely no place for it in the life of the church. But yet the temptation to gossip is very strong indeed.

There were four vicars who met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one vicar said, "Our people come to us and pour out their hears, confess certain sins and needs. Let's do the same. Confession is good for the soul." In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to liking to smoke cigars and the third one confessed to liking to play cards. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn't confess. The others pressed him saying, "Come now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?" Finally he answered, "It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here."

The evangelist Billy Graham once said, “A real Christian is a person who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip!”

As Christians the three essential rules we need to remember when speaking about others are:
1 Is it true?
2 Is it kind?
3 Is it necessary?

When we are attacked

How do we respond if someone attacks our character? Should we be defensive? The temptation certainly is to be. But how did Jesus react when it happened to him? “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)

When someone says something to attack us, the natural and immediate response is to try and defend ourselves, but sometimes this leads only to further conflict.

For example, a women called her pastor and made an appointment to see him. She had written a list of the good and bad points about him that she wanted to discuss. There were just two good points and a whole page of bad ones! As she read each point, the pastor was tempted to defend himself, but said nothing. When she had finished, he said to her, “it must have taken a lot of courage to share that list with me. What do you suggest I do?” At that point she started crying and said, “Oh, it’s not you, it’s me!” A helpful discussion followed which led her to a different ministry position which was more suited to her gifting. What if the pastor had defended himself against any one of her allegations, we can’t say for certain, but it is unlikely the matter would have been resolved so positively.

If you can learn not be defensive when someone exposes your character defects or attacks your performance you may have an opportunity to turn the situation around and minister to that person.

Acceptance & Love

As Christians we are accepted and loved unconditionally by our Heavenly Father. And as Christians we too should learn to accept and affirm others for who they are, rather than what we would like them to be.

For example, suppose a teenager comes home late and a parent responds in an overbearing way and asks angrily, “Where have you been?” The teenager will probably say just one word: “Out!” At which the parent asks, “What were you doing?” And the teenager will respond by saying “Nothing!” But if that parent had approached that teenager with an attitude of acceptance rather than rejection, of love rather than condemnation, the response may have been very different.

Our own needs

What about our own needs, how do we express these in a helpful and constructive and helpful manner?

If we have a particular need, we need to be very careful how we express it. The problem is that it can all too easily come out as a criticism rather than as a need. A need must be stated as a need, and not a judgement. Suppose a wife doesn’t feel loved; she might say to her husband “You don’t love me any more, do you?” And you can imagine the husband responding “Of course I do!” And that’s the end of that. It wasn’t stated as a need. It was judgement of her husband’s character. Suppose she said, “I just don’t feel loved right now, and I need to be.” By turning the ‘you’ judgement to an ‘I’ need, she has expressed her need without blaming anybody. Her husband now has the opportunity to meet that need.

We all need to feel loved, accepted and affirmed. In Galatians 6 Paul writes that we reap what we sow. Jesus said “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It is one of life’s great compensations that we cannot sincerely help somebody else without helping ourselves in the process. If you want somebody to love you, love somebody. If you want to a friend, be a friend. You get out of life what you put into it. Jesus said in Luke 6:38 “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” If we do just enough to “get by” the truth is we are robbing ourselves.

If you wanted to give someone a bushel of wheat, you could slowly fill the bushel basket and scrape off the top with a board. That would be a fair measure. The Lord is suggesting, however, that we fill it until it overflows, and even shake it so that it settles. Whatever we measure out to others comes measuring back to us. Whatever life asks of you, give just a little bit more. Do that with everything and you will be amazed at what life has to offer.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A remarkable phone call from a 12-yr old boy to Houston radio station KSBJ FM 89.3. So profound, the station has it posted on their website.