God Descending?

(Matthew 3:13-17) Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

Jan 8, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

When I started to talk with Lexi about her baptism as a believer, we thought about this happening last fall.  When she settled on January 8th, I thought this date very good.  In the cycle of Sundays we call the Church Year, today happens to be what Sunday?  Two weeks ago was Christmas; this past Friday was Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Wise Men.  Today is the Baptism of Jesus.  Many churches around the world today are looking at this same story from Matthew – the baptism of Jesus, in the Jordan River, by his cousin, John.  

And we celebrate the baptism of Lexi Gilbert.

So, what is God up to here today?  What might our God be doing when a person is baptized?  Is God being called down from heaven again?  Are we getting the Holy One of the universe to do something special for us?

Baptist Christians don’t often use the term sacrament for the special rituals we do.  We call them ordinances, because they are things Jesus ordained, or told us to do.  Sharing bread and grape juice during communion, or being baptized by immersion in water are simple actions, really.  But we intend them to be special, holy.  

A sacrament can be thought of as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The baptism of a person is a physical action, an event.  It is to be a sign of what has happened to the person being dunked.  It is a sign.  What does a sign do?  It points something out.  

When Jesus came out to the bank of the Jordan River, to John, He told John this was the right thing to do.  “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

In this, God is being pointed to, pointed out.  By doing this, Lexi has pointed to God.  

Now, where is God?  Where do you point?

I have told the story before of the couple who had two mischievous little boys, ages eight and 10. At their wits’ end, the parents contacted a pastor for help. The pastor asked to see the boys individually. The eight-year-old was sent to meet with him first. The minister sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?”

The boy made no response, so the pastor repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?”

Again the boy made no attempt to answer, so the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy’s face, “WHERE IS GOD?”

At that, the boy bolted from the room, ran directly home, and slammed himself in his closet. His older brother followed him and asked what happened.  The younger brother replied, “We are in big trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we did it!”

The ancient language of Bible people is of God in heaven, descending down.  But we sense the Holy One arriving from above, and from around us, going ahead of us, being found within us.  

God in day-to-day life for some people is a distant thing.  It is easy for people to doubt there even is a God – God is not that obvious to all people.

I happened to pick up a few books at Frenchy’s the other day.  One was a novel – the title caught my eye: Faith for Beginners (Aaron Hamburger, 2005).  It is the story of a nominally Jewish family from Michigan, taking a vacation in Israel for the first time.  At one point the mother – Mrs. Michaelson – is visiting the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for a Jew to pray.

Impatient to feel inspired, she kissed the Wall, caressed the coarse stone blocks.  She felt no God there, but then she’d never felt Him anywhere else, either, not even in her heart.  Did He exist?  Of course He did.  It didn’t matter that you couldn’t pick Him out of a lineup. (p. 27)

But here and now, God is being picked out of the lineup. Lexi and we witnesses are pointing to Jesus.

And so, it is necessary for us each to bear witness, as it were, to the Christ we have met and known.  When baptism comes to us, in our life, it is one special moment of declaring God is real, and we say, “I will be loyal to Jesus Christ.”  The many other moments of walking with the Spirit are so important. It will be our actions and our conversations that point to the real, living God.  

Our Master is ready and waiting to be part of our conversations.  Ready and waiting, too, for us to act out gracious things – things only possible for us to do with God, not alone.  

So what is happening with God during a baptism?  God is being present, being made known, meeting with us here.  When Jesus was baptised, we read that: Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  

God ‘descends’ again into view.  Or, as I said a minute ago, God appears in front of us.  Or arises within us.   Is met in between us, among us.  

A ritual like baptism, and our whole hour of worship, are ways we do our best to put ourselves where we can be met by our Master.  The book of James tells us, Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.  You likely did not have a visionary experience yet, and see the Spirit like a dove in this room… but you may have been struck by these events this stormy morning, and sensed the peaceful presence of the Holy One.  

When we do something together with the intent to have a holy moment, the Holy one can use that, and answer our invitation to be here.

What is God doing at a baptism?  God shows up and is communicating with us. And a voice from

heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved…”  

Divine voices from heaven, or out of a burning bush, or in the still small silence of the wilderness seem usual in Bible stories.  What about in your life story, and mine?  When a person submits to Christ by entering the waters of baptism, there can be a lot that He speaks.  To our minds and hearts.  

D’you remember the radio storyteller, Paul Harvey.  He’d always tell the story of a famous person’s life, but not reveal who it was until the end.  Then he’d say, ‘Now you know…the rest of the story.’

Paul Harvey wrote about his own baptism. One summer, he and his wife were vacationing in a place called Cave Creek, AZ. Sunday morning came and they decided to go to church. So they went to this little church, and there were only 12 other people present. He believed in Jesus, but he had never taken any action. One night he had prayed in his hotel room and asked Jesus to come into his heart, but he felt that there was still something missing.

He said that the preacher got up and announced that his sermon was going to be about baptism. Paul Harvey said, “I yawned. But as he started talking about it I found myself interested. He talked about the symbolism behind it, and how it symbolized the complete surrender of one’s life to Jesus Christ, and how there was nothing really magic in the water. But there was this cleansing inside that took place when you yielded yourself to Jesus.”

He went on to say, “Finally, when he came to the end of his sermon he said, ‘If any of you have not been baptized in this way, I invite you to come forward and join me here at the pulpit.’ To my surprise, I found myself going forward. The preacher had said there was nothing magic in the water. Yet as I descended into the depths and rose again I knew something life changing had happened – a cleansing inside out. No longer did there seem to be two uncertain contradictory Paul Harveys, just one immensely happy one. I felt the fulfilling surge of the Holy Spirit in my life.”

And now you know… the rest… of the story.

What else is God doing at the baptism of a believer?  God is being pleased with us. God smiles.  As the Aaronic blessing puts it, the LORD’s countenance shines upon us – God’s faces lights up.

The heavenly Voice said, after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  

Have you moments when you feel God’s pleasure with you?  Jesus so happy about you – little old you?

I do not like every verse in Psalm 149, but I have always liked this phrase from verse 4.  For the LORD takes pleasure in his people…

The Creator, the Freedom-giver, enjoys us.  Smiles because of us.  Lights up, when one of ‘His’ children is baptized, or sings, or prays, or simply blesses someone else.