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Baptism: A Beginning

Date: 07/01/2018/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Today in the Lectionary, we commemorate the Baptism of the Lord.
Mark 1:4-11
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins..
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

How many of you are baptised?
When I was growing up, I often encountered Christians who were obsessed with getting people to get baptised. It was the litmus test whether they have succeeded in their work evangelising. I always found that troubling. Baptism became the goal in and of itself. Some pastors measure their own performance based on how many baptisms they have conducted in a year. If that is the right measurement, then I have failed quite miserably.

But have you noticed that given the importance of baptism in Christianity, the Bible does not have any account of Jesus baptising anyone? Even in the Gospel according to John, the author makes it a point to clarify that Jesus himself did not baptise.

John 4:1-2
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples),

In Mark 1:7-8, John the Baptist says
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What does being baptized by the Holy Spirit mean?
Those of you who are baptized, I am sure you were baptized by water – whether it was immersion or it was sprinkling, it would always be by water. But what does being baptized by the Holy Spirit mean?
When we are baptised, we step into a new life. We die to our old selves. The old life is no more. It is not an easy process, nor is it something that happens quickly. We let go of the old and familiar – it is painful, it is disruptive, it is scary. We put on something new.
Baptism isn’t about passing some standards, but rather expressing our commitment to a new life – one marked by Christ, and living out our faith so we are aligned with God’s will – and what does God require of us – the question that Mark asked earlier during prayer. What does God require of us?
“What does God require of you O Mortal” is the beginning of Micah 6:8 – and you must be familiar with what comes next – “But to Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”
That’s always the answer. Of course, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God may mean different things to different people. Different Christians define them in different ways. Different people see justice in different ways.
I was really moved, and I felt that I must have done something right in my years of ministry when I read Wang Zhi’s testimony during her baptism on Easter Sunday 2 years ago. She sent it to me to go through before the service. I worked my sermon around her sharing – because I felt that her testimony was the heart of the message.
She wrote –

  • Since the very first day I stepped into church, I felt that baptism was like a graduation ceremony. Only when you are qualified and attained your degree, then you can graduate. Before that, just work hard towards it.
  • Obviously, last year and all the years before, I felt that I was not qualified yet. Only when I am fully reconciled, fully healed, 100% comfortable to face my past, to deal with the problems that I thought were resolved, then I deserve to be baptised.

  • This has been the transactional relationship between God and me.
  • It took me years to gradually grow out of this mindset, with the help from many of you, and the love from God.
  • Today, I stand here, I am not ashamed to say that I have not reach the standards I set for myself.
  • I believe that baptism is not a graduation ceremony. It is more like a freshmen inauguration ceremony.
  • The journey will not stop here, but continues, together with everyone present here.
  • I thank God for never letting go of me, even at my most vulnerable state.
  • I thank God for every single one of you.
  • I look up to many of you here. All of you have inspired me in one way or another, showed me how to love and more importantly, how to receive love, how to be authentic, vulnerable, compassionate.
  • Thanks for giving me the space to grow and experience God in the most amazing way. It is difficult and scary to tear down the walls I have built throughout the years. But I know that one day I will overcome.
  • Thanks for being my pillars of support and holding me accountable. Thanks for accepting me for who I am, and for showing me the path to eternal love.

Wangzhi got it. She grasped the meaning of baptism – it is not the end, nor the goal, but the beginning.
Last week, Pauline preached “Meaningful Endings, Hopeful Beginnings.” She quoted Richard Rohr:
“The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart.”
That is the same for baptism. It is not only about starting a new life, but also dying to the old live. Our Christian lives are all about dying to the self, and living in Christ.
We all talk about transformation. We all talk about change.  We all pray that we will be transformed inside out and that we will become someone new. But transformation isn’t a rainbow-colored happy party that we imagine it to be.

Transformation is hard work. Transformation is painful. Transformation is scary. Just like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon. The cocoon is safe, the cocoon is comfortable, the cocoon is warm and we can just stay in there forever. But that is not what we are called to be. We are called to spread our wings and fly. And that means risk, that means there’s a chance of getting hurt, that means going out into the unknown. But that is the Christian life.

Rather than seeing baptism as the end goal, we should see baptism as the beginning. Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry. It wasn’t something that happened at the end, it happened right at the beginning. The Gospel According to Mark as well as the other Gospels also placed the baptism right on the onset the beginning of Jesus ministry and the beginning of His work on this Earth. In the class I conducted recently “A Different Kind of Bible Class,” one of the important ways to read the Bible is to find out what happens before, and what happens after the passage we are trying to interpret.

What happens after Jesus was baptised?

Mark 4:12 “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Immediately after the baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert and was tempted by the devil. What is the place of wilderness for you?
Jesus was tempted in the desert, right after his baptism. You may or may not be baptized but what it’s the wilderness for you?

The wilderness is a place of the unknown. A place of discomfort. A place where you face your fears. A place where you will face your doubts and a place you will be tested. And in all that, you will discover. You would discover yourself. You discover more about God. You discover much, much more.

It is in this wilderness that you will need to be patient and take the risks. The wilderness is calling out to us like how the big sky is calling out to the emerging butterfly.

The next verse reads:
Mark 4:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
We will also be tempted on our faith journeys – as we begin a new life, we are still drawn back to the old life, the easy path. The comfortable and the familiar. We return to old habits. We do not allow the Holy Spirit to work within us and transform us.

Some of us think we got it. Some of us imagine that since our life is going well, there is nothing we need to change. We think that only when things are not going well – having problems at work, issues in our relationships or our singlehood, challenges at home – then we must be doing something wrong.

But life isn’t that simple. How we are doing in the world often do not reflect how we are doing in our spiritual lives. We could be doing very well in our careers, but we are dry inside.
One of the most moving accounts of spiritual dryness are from the letters Mother Theresa wrote. After she started her ministry, she felt the dark night of the soul. When she was starting out as a young nun and her ministry to the destitute in India, she heard God’s voice. After that, for decades, she encountered silence – she could not hear God anymore. So while on the outside, she was doing the work she was called to do, inside, it was very different.

We can also be in the middle of a storm in our life, yet find the stillness and peace within us. When I was a chaplain intern in the US, I have met people who are at the least days of their lives. Yet, in their souls was a sense of peace that I cannot understand. That they are so reconciled with their time coming to an end, that they are peaceful. Even though they were suffering from the pain from their cancer, they were at peace.

Do not be lulled into the belief that as long as things are fine, that your spiritual life is ok. It could be the reverse. We could be materially rich, but spiritually poor.
Even in hunger, even in despair, even when he was tempted by material things, by what the world and its splendour offer, by power, Jesus remained faithful. Matthew 4:10 “Away with you, Satan, for it is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve only the Lord.”

What are the obstacles that keep you from entering fully into the new life? What are the things we worship and we are unwilling to give up? Money? Fame? Career? Love? Comfort? What are the things we are tempted by, that lead us away from God? The Gospel according to Mark says Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted. We won’t be tested for 40 days, but for our lifetime. Our Christian lives are all about dying to the self, and living in Christ.

I return to the words John the Baptist said:
“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What if baptising you with Holy Spirit isn’t so much about a ritual, or a sacrament – after all in baptism ceremonies, we baptise with water – but rather about how through Christ, God is present within us in our lives, and how in tune we are with God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, within us.

I, for one, experienced the Holy Spirit long before I was baptised. I think that’s why I am less focused on getting people baptised and more focused on transforming their inner lives so they will bear fruits – fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”” Galatians 5:22-23
So as we begin 2018, as we look ahead with hope, I invite you join me in a year living out the Gospel – the good news – so we will become known as followers of Christ by the fruits we bear.