Baptism vs ‘Christmas’ St Marks Baptisms 17.12.17 Isa 7:10-16; Ps 72:1-8; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-25
Everyone is baptised into something. I will never forget the experience of being in Cairo during the call to prayer when countless loudspeakers saturated the atmosphere with the Islamic declaration of faith; or recently standing on a street corner in Myanmar with the morning air filled with the broadcasted chants of Buddhist monks. These are powerful methods of indoctrination, but they have not stopped the spread of the message of Jesus. The Australian experience however seems to teach that total immersion into materialism is more powerful than everything. This is at its worse at Christmas when traditional carols and nativity scenes are commandeered to intensify a happy mood amongst shoppers that will maximise…buying. Even if mixed with the fun, or pain, of being with family at Christmas, consumerism reigns almighty. And the minds of many church goers are moved more by the demands of getting Christmas “right” than by amazement at the coming of the Son.
As a follower of Jesus I have always felt this way but my early protests against corrupting consumerism were naive. 40 years ago I was part of a group so sickened by the festive materialism of Christmas that we organised a protest march down the main street of Adelaide headed by a large banner saying, “Jesus Was Born To Die”. The crowds of shoppers no doubt thought we were religious nuts (not far wrong), and in hindsight our banner should have read something like, “Jesus Was Born To Die So We Could Live With Him Forever”. Today I know that you can’t free people from their addictions to material things without something better to offer them. The immediacy of pleasurable sensuous experiences will always exercise more power than any other reality (1 John 2:16-17) unless the message of baptism is true, it is possible to have a direct encountering “God with us” in Christ.
Who is God with Us?
The prophetic promise in today’s readings from Isaiah and Matthew, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us)” (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23), is nothing like the temporary earthly appearances of a god familiar to the ancient world and the great Eastern religions. It is a promise that God has been united to humanity in Jesus in such a way that he is one of us forever, eternal life is being with Jesus forever (cf. John 1:14; Phil 2:6-7). To my knowledge only the religion with Jesus as the centre teaches a true union between the purity of the eternal sphere and existence drawn from this perishing world. The consequences of such rejecting the relevance or possibility of such a unity are immense.
Our Buddhist tour guide in Myanmar had been educated in a Christian orphanage. He agreed that the Buddhist belief that salvation is “all up to us” is totally incompatible with the belief that salvation comes through what Jesus has done for us in death and resurrection. Back home, if you think there’s no “God with us” you will have many worries (Matt 6:25-34). A friend who is an aged care chaplain friend went to a seminar recently where they shared that fear, anxiety and chronic stress are causal factors in dementia. There an epidemic of mental illness in Australia and no one has a solution. In any year 20% of Australians suffer from a mental illness and rates amongst young people are even higher (http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-mental-health-and-suicide-prevention/talking-to-media-about-mental-illness/facts-and-stats; http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/04/11/mental-illness-is-still-on-the-rise-in-australian-youth-study-s_a_22034649/ The minds of Australians are stuffed with the message that life is all about consuming, but deep in their hearts human beings made in God’s image need something eternal. The message of an eternally satisfying world is rarely heard because our culture is deeply cynical about anything that can’t be experienced in a sensory way. Baptism speaks to our cynicism by a realism that testifies that even delightful little children need a Saviour.
Baptism and the Gospel
The adorable simplicity and innocence of childhood is short-lived. After spending some time with Boe (4) and Shay (1) the other day Donna said “It’s a pity that they can’t stay at that stage.” Ever serious I answered, “Everyone needs to grow up because the truth of the state of their hearts needs to be exposed.” We all know there are parts of our character that no one would want to be around forever. Only Jesus breaks this rule (John 8:46). Baptism is not about something we do but about identifying with the power of Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection which alone are worthy of eternal life. What do I mean by that?
If Jesus is “God with us” his crucifixion is the sure evidence that God loves us enough to enter into the depths of our suffering (Rom 5:8). More important than the physical agony of the cross was the pain Christ endured through unjust conviction and social rejection (John 13:18). This came home to me recently when I saw an old friend who was jailed in China for something he didn’t do. (If you have ever been blamed for something you never did (JY multiple times) you will understand what I’m saying.) But it is the spiritual desolation of the cross that is the most profound reality of “Immanuel” God with us. In his cry from the cross, “My God…why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) we see Jesus taking into himself all the ultimate emptiness of a humanity that tries to gorge itself on the perishing things of this world (Eph 4:17-18). Jesus carries for us the frustrations of life’s impermanence – the griefs of what could have been, what never was, the mourning of every lost hope, all those things that are driving affluent Australians into mental disturbance. But death was not the end for Jesus.
As we read from the New Testament the resurrection reversed all Christ’s afflictions, he is “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead,” (Rom 1:4). His resurrection testifies that Jesus is Son of God forever. Everything has been gained for those who accept the call of Jesus to follow him.
In baptism a person marked out as belonging exclusively to Jesus so that as he stood with us in the injustice and agony of the cross we might stand with him in a world that denies who he is. If we endure with Jesus he will never abandon us but raise us from the dead. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).
Baptism means identifying with and trusting in Christ’s death and resurrection as the most basic commitment you can make, deeper even to a commitment to your own life in this world. Baptism symbolises a death to this world’s priorities and putting the call of Christ first. When Elsie and Maddy come of age they will have to decide for themselves whether their foundational identification is with Jesus or with this passing world (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). Without a powerful personal encounter with the life of Christ they will naturally choose the ways of this world.
Sensing the Spiritual
The sort of encounter Donna and I heard from an ex Muslim missionary in a church in Istanbul who testified Christ appeared to him in a dream coming out of his tomb, or the ex-Buddhist monk I know in Yangon whose doctor declared to be dead but when he heard the voice of Jesus he came back to life. Why is this way of encountering Christ so rare in a consumer culture like our own?
In New Testament times and today in the Third World being baptised commonly means rejection by family, culture and worse; so in the mercy of God those being baptised are granted a supernatural sensitivity to the power of the Spirit of God who took Jesus to the cross and raised him from the dead (Rom 8:11; Tit 3:5-6; Heb 9:14). Baptism for them is no quaint ritual; it is a doorway out of the darkness of this world into the eternal light of Christ. The risks associated with baptism are very clear to those emerging from immersion in another religion, but the most insidious and powerful religion of all is materialism. We are commonly deceived into keeping Jesus trapped in the pleasant melodies of carols and as a harmless infant in the shopping mall surrounded by the consumer items which are our real treasures. We don’t really want “God with us” if that means we can’t have a whole lot of other things with us. Christmas tests the heart of us all and generally our hearts are found wanting.
The thought life of most baptised believers is usually focussed on health, peace and prosperity, at this time of the year things simply become more intensely preoccupied with the temporary things that crowd out the tangible presence of “God with us”. Most baptised people in Australia are just as addicted to the things of this passing world as those who claim no identification with Jesus. The greatest challenge for Nathanael, Clarissa and the godparents of Elsie and Madeleine will be to model a set of priorities that reveals that the things of this world are temporary and that Jesus alone is eternal (2 Cor 4:18). Only the embodiment of such a counter-cultural way of life can make the astonishing love of “God with us” in Christ seem real. This way of living is a challenge that Christmas sharply sets before us all.
Christmas in Australia is typically an experience of being baptised into a cultural medium that blatantly denies the power of Immanuel, “God with us”. True believers however know that the heavenly angels still singing about Christ (Rev 5), wise people still seek him, and millions across the world are discovering that the revelation of God-with-us in the death and resurrection of Jesus is worth leaving everything behind for. The materialism of Christmas presents a crisis for a Church that spiritually needs to be re-baptised, to hear and obey once more Christ’s uncompromising word; “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul? 37 For what can anyone give in return for their soul?” (Mark 8:35-37). Witnessing a baptism recalls us to an encounter with the death and resurrection of Jesus which alone has the power to break the spiritual chains that tie our minds to this passing world (Rom 12:1).
Cynical Aussies already know that the superficial merriment of the season only lasts until the next hangover. What they need to see is a Church that lives with priorities for another world; that can pass on the saving message authentically, “Jesus Was Born To Die So We Could Live With Him Forever”.