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BAPTISM OF CHRIST ACTS 8.14–17 LUKE 3.15–17, 21–22

People sometimes ask me a question which goes something like this: “did you always want to be a vicar?” or “what made you decide to go into the church?” So I answer by saying that it is a calling, and one which I first heard when I was 12 years old in India. In many ways it is not about wanting to do a certain job or deciding to pursue a particular career. It is about realising the God is calling you to serve him in a particular way. So, yes, from an early age I knew that I was to become a Minister, and yes, I decided to respond to that calling. However, what is not always understood is that it started with God and took my response to God’s initiative to develop into my vocation, my calling to be ordained and serve the Lord in this way. That sense of calling never really left me until, about 10 years later, as a student I began to test it out, to decide to offer for ordination in the Church of England. So it was that, after further training, I began my ordained ministry in Birmingham in 1985.

For each of us there come turning points in our life. After that particular experience you are never the same. Perhaps you remember the day you started school or when you moved to a new school. Maybe you recall meeting your best friend or your life-partner – the time or place when you realised that you were in love. The day you started work may be etched in your memory or the time when you were promoted or given special responsibility. I enjoy listening to programmes like Desert Island Discs or Private Passions because they give us insights into the way music has such a profound effect on the life of the person being interviewed. Perhaps you recall the first time a cultural experience struck you in a new way and you’ve been passionate about it since: it may be football, or music, art, literature or the theatre. Less positively, for you there may have been a time when your life was changed because of something to do with your health or your significant relationships. Great or small in their importance, these turning points had a long-term significance in your life which you may have only half-realised at the time. Some people may give a secular explanation of why those days were important. Others say that God opened their eyes to some new truth, that this was a spiritual experience.

Jesus’ sense of calling
Jesus, too, had turning points in his life. The first came when he was 12 years old, when he went up to Jerusalem for the first time, and debated God’s law with the experts. When his parents found him in the Temple, he explained himself in words which, literally translated mean, “Didn’t you know I have to be about the things belonging to my father?” This is often translated as “in my father’s house” but 12 is a significant age for Jewish boys. It is normally when they celebrate their Bar Mitvah – their coming of age, when they become a “Son of the Law” – able to read the Torah and to take their place among the adult members of the synagogue. In Jesus’ culture it was also the point at which a young lad would start his working life. They would normally join the family business or occupation. So Jesus’ answer could be understood as: “Didn’t you know that it is time for me to start working for God, my heavenly Father?” Either way, it was a turning point. He realised in a fresh way, that his relationship with God was that of father and son. Gradually he developed a deeper understanding of the special and unique relationship he had with God and what role he was to play in God’s work, God’s purposes.

Today we commemorate Jesus’ baptism as part of the season of Epiphany which is all to do with the nature and meaning of Jesus being made manifest, being opened up. We do not know exactly what Jesus did between 12 and 30, but Luke tells us that he went home with his parents and was obedient to them. More than likely he followed his father’s trade and worked with him as a carpenter. But then his cousin John, just a few months his senior, started baptising the crowds in the River Jordan, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was about to begin. Now Jesus realised that his hour had come. He was baptised, and as he came up from the water, he heard his Father’s voice exclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words were quoted from two different places in the Hebrew Bible. “You are my Son” is from Psalm 2 and was spoken by God to the new king. So oJesus realised he was called to be the Messiah. But “In you I am well pleased” comes from Isaiah 42, in what are called the Servant Songs. These poems climax in Isaiah 53, when it is made abundantly clear that anyone who serves God will have to suffer for it. So the track of Jesus’ life was mapped out for him at this moment: he was to be not just the Messiah, but the crucified Saviour. From the moment of baptism Jesus’ life was to be changed.

Earlier I invited you to think about a life-changing experience in your own personal growth. I mentioned a number of things that might have been very important in your life. I even mentioned whether the day or moment could be explained from a secular or a spiritual point of view. But I didn’t mention something which I very much hope is the most profound or important development in your life: that of becoming a Christian. For some people and in some Christian traditions this has to be a very specific thing – a definite point of conversion when you respond to a call to repentance and faith. Some people call it being saved. Other Christians take the long-term view, being convinced that there has never been a time when they didn’t believe, that they were brought up in the faith, and that their whole life has been a story of gradually becoming more and more converted. Whichever way, the baptism of Christ challenges us to be more conscious of our calling to follow him. I sometimes think that we treat the Church more like a social club than we realise. We like doing the same kinds of things such as singing hymns or joining in the set prayers. We sign up, and perhaps agree to do duties or go on a committee and we give or raise funds to keep the club going. We join the Church because we are a certain type and we find similar people there. Whilst that may be true in many ways, and certainly a social life at church does play an important role, are we not also to be the fellowship of those who have turned to Christ and seek to follow him in our everyday lives? Are we not meant to be a body which expresses that same call of the Lord to the world, to those around us? Are we not also a movement of those who challenge what may be unjust or violent in our world? We may have club-like qualities to our belonging, but we are to be far more than a special interest group!

Covenant Service
In the Methodist tradition at the start of the New Year a Covenant service is held. Indeed, it happens in some of the other churches in our team. It is a point of rededication and is meant to be preceded by proper personal preparation so that the prayer of dedication is not just an empty set of words. It is a very challenging prayer and I’m going to read it out for you to ponder:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me and where there is none;
when I am troubled and when I am at peace.

Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking;
when I have all things, and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you,
as and where you choose.
Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven.
In the name of Jesus-Christ, our saviour. Amen.

We have been thinking about turning points in our lives as we have recalled the turning point in Jesus’ life that was his baptism. We know that afterwards he had to go into the wilderness and that prepared him for his mission which led him to the cross. Deciding to follow Christ does not mean an easy life for the believer either. But you are never on your own once you have begun to respond. Just as God affirmed Jesus: “You are my beloved, with you I am well-pleased,” so he says the same to us as we respond to his call. The covenant service is not just about giving up our lives to God in a one-sided act of self-sacrifice. It is much more about entering into God’s love and learning that life given to him is always life given back a hundred fold, and life on into eternity!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.