Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection January 13, 2019
"At the Jordan" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This Sunday, January 13, we again celebrate Jesus’ Baptism. And so we once more find ourselves at the Jordan River. On Sunday, I will use the earliest account of Jesus’ baptism from Mark’s Gospel. We will hear about God’s Spirit coming in the form of a dove upon Jesus.
It might help us to know that at the time of Jesus, the people of Israel believed themselves to be in a very long period when God’s Spirit was quenched. There had been no prophets for hundreds of years. God appeared to be silent.
The last prophet of the Old Testament was Malachi who lived around the year 425 B.C. After Malachi – there were no more prophets – no more inspired writings. It seemed to the Jewish people that God had abandoned them. Why had God not raised up more prophets? Why such a long silence? Perhaps God was angry with them because of their sinfulness. This is what the people felt. A sense of shame overtook everyone in Israel up until the time of Jesus. It was a time of despair and disconsolation.
The people awaited the fulfillment of prophetic promises such as Joel 2:27–29: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I’ll pour out my spirit.”
The people of Israel were anxiously awaiting the Spirit’s return. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had been waiting a very long four hundred years! What was needed for the Spirit to be released again? What could the people do to unquench the Spirit? It was into this void, into this silence, that Jesus stepped.
In all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism – the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. The Holy Spirit who had apparently been absent for over four hundred years returns and comes upon Jesus as a dove.
Why a dove? We know the dove was a symbol of hope. Think of the dove Noah sends out which returns to him with an olive branch in its mouth – signaling the end of the flood and a new beginning for humanity. The Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus is once again a symbol of hope and the sign of a new beginning for humanity in Christ.
Jesus certainly understood his role in terms of releasing the Spirit. Recall in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus returns from the wilderness, he is filled with the power of the Spirit and goes to his hometown of Nazareth. In the synagogue, he unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free.”
After reading this text from Isaiah, Jesus announces: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Yet we recall the people’s response to this proclamation is an attempt to hurl Jesus to his death. It seems the people of Jesus’ hometown would rather live with the absence of God’s Spirit than imagine the Spirit could come upon Jesus.
Yet regardless what the people of Nazareth believed, the Spirit had returned to Israel. The Spirit had returned to the people. The Spirit rested upon Jesus and proclaimed him the Beloved Son in whom God was well pleased. The baptism of Jesus initiates his public life, his ministry.
Let me suggest that our own baptism is meant to initiate our ministry, our life of service. After baptism, we are changed. We become united to God in a special way – like the union of intimates. In baptism, we hear God say to each of us: You are my beloved son – you are my beloved daughter – in whom I am well pleased. This is why the decision to be baptized is so important to our faith life. And let me say clearly: I am very happy to work with anyone called to baptism.
We are, of course, all created by the power of the Creator. God calls us all into life. And the relationship of Creator and creature is a special relationship but it can go deeper. Our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us becomes more intimate through the power of the Spirit.
At the baptism, the Spirit of God filled Jesus to overflowing. When we are baptized in Jesus’ name, the Spirit of God also fills us to overflowing. In the Spirit, we’re joined to Christ. In the Spirit, we are joined to one another in the body of Christ – the church. It is this Spirit that was unleashed anew upon all humanity and all creation through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
In this Spirit, we are vitalized. In this Spirit we’re filled with the power of life. In this Spirit, we’re liberated – freed – healed – from all that would hold us captive. In this Spirit, we’re drawn into the dynamic cycle of birth, death, and resurrection with and through Christ. This Spirit has been given to us and it will never be taken away from us. God does not take back what God gives.
But God will never force anything on us. We must desire what God wishes to give. Human freedom, free will, is precious in the eyes of God. We must say “yes” to the invitations that God, through the Spirit, is always extending to us.
In a special way, baptism unites us with God in and through Christ. Baptism unites us in a special way with the whole church. After baptism, we share in the same relationship Jesus has with God. In other words, what happens when we get baptized is that God takes us into a deeper relationship. This happens in and through the power of the Spirit of the Living God. Baptism is a great grace and a great gift.