Brixton Hill, 12 January 2003
Today is the day that the Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ, and when I first looked at the readings, I quite thought I was going to be preaching on baptism. But when you look more closely at the readings, there is another theme that springs out – and that is the Holy Spirit!
In our first reading, from Genesis, we are told that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Other translations refer to the Spirit of God hovering, or brooding, over the face of the waters. I rather love the image of brooding – as though God’s Spirit were protecting the as-yet-unmade earth.
Then in our second reading, in Acts, Paul realises that there is something missing in the believers at Antioch, and asks them whether they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptised. And they are like, “Er, you what?” not at all sure what he is talking about. So he enquires a bit deeper, and finds that they had not actually heard the full Good News about Jesus at all, but had only got as far as John the Baptist. So he has to give them a quick crash course on what salvation is all about, so they can be baptised into Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit.
And our Gospel reading, of course, is one of the passages that describes the baptism of Jesus, and tells us that the onlookers, or some of them, at any rate, saw the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus looking like a dove, and they heard the Father speak from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Actually, Mark’s version, which is the one we heard today, seems to imply that it was only Jesus who saw the Holy Spirit, but other accounts say that the bystanders did, too.
In the beginning, God. That says it all really, doesn’t it? We know that God was responsible for the Creation of the World, and that right there at the start, the Holy Spirit was there, hovering, brooding, caring!
The Holy Spirit was there when the world was made. The Holy Spirit was there when Jesus was baptised. And the Holy Spirit came down on the believers, as we believe he still does today. As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit is one of the Persons of the Trinity. That is a rather formal way of saying it, but it is one of those things that is difficult to put into words. We worship one God, not three, but we worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Or, if you prefer, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier.
I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the Trinity here; time enough to do that on Trinity Sunday! All too easy to say the wrong thing. All we really need to remember today is that the Holy Spirit is God, just as the Father is God and just as Jesus is God. And that, when God works in us, it is God the Holy spirit who “does the doing”, as it were; someone once described him as “The executive arm of the Trinity”!
And we see Him “doing the doing” in our readings today. We see Him hovering over the as-yet-uncreated earth, brooding over it, protecting it. We see Him descending on Jesus in the form of a dove, affirming him and, I rather think, enabling Him for ministry. And we see Him descending on those new believers in Acts, cleansing them, renewing them, gifting them and enabling them, too, to be Jesus’ people.
And, I hope, we see Him “doing the doing” in our lives today!
Earlier on, when I did that thing with the water, it was a bit of a picture, wasn’t it? First of all, I couldn’t pour water into the cup until I’d taken the lid off. Then, there was rather a lot of stuff inside – no room for any water. Then, I needed to rinse the cup out before I could have a drink. But once all that was done, the cup was fit for my use. And that is what God the Holy Spirit did for the believers in Antioch – through baptism, they were enabled to “take the lid off”, be cleansed and made fit for service, and then God could fill them and use them.
I hope we see Him cleansing us, renewing us, gifting us and enabling us, too, to be Jesus’ people. I hope we see those lovely characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians that a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit will have: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, loving-kindness, faith….
Not that we can probably see it in ourselves – these qualities are always easier to see in other people than in ourselves. But I hope we do see them in one another, too, and affirm each other in them. After all, no matter how freely we are able to talk about our faith – and for some of us, that comes easier than for others, I do know – it is whether our lives match up to what we talk about that is important, that either attracts or repels other people to Jesus. If we say one thing, but do another, then people are going to be turned off. If we don’t behave the way Jesus describes His people as behaving – always putting other people first, always treating other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are, not neglecting your family under the heading of “religious duty”, and so on; if we forget that, then maybe people will wonder whether faith is worth the effort!
I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that wasn’t one of the reasons Paul recognised that the so-called believers in Antioch were actually nothing of the sort. They were not allowing God the Holy Spirit to indwell them and it showed. They weren’t acting like believers, if you like! So Paul knew that something was wrong. They were like the cup with the lid on – there was no way God could use them.
Now, there are various ways we can react to this sort of sermon. We can reckon it doesn’t apply to us – God wouldn’t use us anyway. But, in fact, that’s not true. God can use you, wants to use you, and very probably already does use you, if you have made yourself available to be used. If you are sincere in wanting to be God’s person, then God will use you.
You can also react to this sort of sermon by feeling guilty. You feel that if only you were holier, or more pious, or a better Christian, or even a better person, God could use you more. But that’s also not really a sensible response. You see, it isn’t about you trying hard. You don’t have to be perfect before God will come to you. Rather the reverse – after all, if you did have to be perfect, that would rather negate the whole point of the Gospel!
My cup didn’t have to empty itself and clean itself before I could use it, did it? I did all that. And likewise, we don’t have to become perfect before God can use us. All we have to do is to be willing to let God work in us, be willing to co-operate with God, if you like. God the Holy Spirit will, if we ask, come and indwell us, cleanse us, fill us, renew us, make us whole – and then we can be used.
God doesn’t just make us whole in order to use us, mind, although that too. God wants to make us whole so that we shall be whole. Through the Holy Spirit, God makes us whole for our own sakes, but by doing that, he enables us to be used. We become the sort of person Paul described, full of those qualities I mentioned earlier. We leave behind the sort of qualities we aren’t supposed to have, and develop the sort we are.
God the Holy Spirit was present at creation. He was present when Jesus was baptised. He was present when the believers of Antioch were baptised. And He is present here with us, now, today. Let us pray.
God our Father,
We confess that we have allowed ourselves to become empty,
Not filled with your Spirit, not fit for your use.
We pray that you will fill us anew, cleanse us, gift us, and make us whole, both for our sakes and so that you can use us in your service.
This we ask in the power of that same Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ your Son, who died for us. Amen.