A New Year’s Resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other. I wonder where you are with yours? Or maybe you don’t bother anymore. I do bother. I think there’s something quite profound underlying the New Year’s Resolution: the human longing to be better. Better in any one of a hundred different ways: fitter, happier, healthy, more productive, easier to live with, whatever. It’s a sign of an imagination that things could be different in our lives, and an effort to make that change. The New Year’s Resolution is annual hopefulness.
Surely as Christians we’d want to say that desire to be better is a good thing. But doing it in our own strength can only get us so far. As Mark Twain said: ‘I don’t know why people say it’s so hard to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times myself.’ Making a real lasting behavioural change is not at all easy. Doing it in our own strength is very hard but the power of the Holy Spirit can make a real difference. God can work with us to make change possible.
Take as an example Alcoholics Anonymous. That programme is pretty good at helping people in a serious fix and several of their twelve steps recognise the importance of depending on a greater power or God. This is something they do, not so much because they hold a pre-existing theology but from a recognition that it works.
Christians might also ask: ‘Why do you want to make a particular resolution? What is it that’s driving you? And is that driving force healthy, or a problem?’ For instance if someone wants to go on a diet because they cannot accept themselves as they are, then they need to hear that God loves you as you are. Often though it’s a case of knowing that God loves us as we are, but also that he loves us and those around us too much to allow us to keep being grumpy or doing that bad habit.
That desire to be different, the hope of becoming a better person, and the recognition that we need God’s transforming power to do so lie at the heart of today’s gospel reading.
We need to make a few imaginative leaps to enter into the gospel. We need to leave behind sodden England where we have too much water, and imagine what it is like in dry dusty Palestine, where water is a precious life giving resource. Baptism is about life.
The second thing we need to remember is that the people who responded to John the Baptist really believed that God was about to arrive. They genuinely expected God to intervene very soon. The God of the Old Testament who had parted the Red Sea, defeated the Egyptians and the Philistines, the God who had worked miracles and raised the dead was about to do it once more. They are thinking God will put the world to rights, he will judge and destroy evil, things will never the same again. As John the Baptist preached in Chapter 3 verse 2: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.’
This isn’t some kind of general belief about some far off indeterminate point in the future – ‘one day over the rainbow’. No, they believed that God was going to act very very soon. In the next few months. So they got ready. I wonder: What would you do if you knew God was coming?
It’s a thrilling prospect, but at the same time, I’d want to be sure of being on the right side of God when he comes. I’d want to make sure my life is sorted out so I’m not swept away with the evildoers.
That’s where they were coming from, and when you think about it, it’s not such a strange idea. John the Baptist preached the coming of God’s Kingdom and he was right because as v.17 says God did come in Jesus. Our situation is not as different as we might think. The Bible tells us that Jesus will come again in heavenly glory, which could be at any time. And of course, there’s not that much difference between God coming to us, and us going to God when our time comes. Who knows when that will be? So it makes sense to be prepared.
But how? Many of those people who came to John were religious people. They had been trying hard for all their lives to keep the Old Testament Law, doing their best to obey God and be good. And yet, when it came to the crunch they found that didn’t give the certainty they needed. Maybe they knew their failings, that there were things they’d done that needed to be forgiven. They probably also had the spiritual sense to realise that trusting in God’s mercy is a far more reliable option than trusting in one’s own efforts.
And so they prepared for God’s coming by repentance, humility and casting themselves on his forgiveness, all summed up by the simple, dramatic, self-emptying symbol of baptism.
Two things really strike me about the way John baptised. Firstly it was public, in a huge crowd. Understandably nowadays some families who want a baby baptised will get a bit shy about making the promises in front of a full church and ask for a private event. Occasionally congregations feel a bit overwhelmed by crowds of friends and family and wonder if baptisms might be better out of the main service.
But baptism should be public. It’s nailing your colours to the mast, affirming what you believe and declaring that you build your life on the rock of Christ. So baptisms should be when all can hear, and it means a lot that the congregation is there to support the family. Looking beyond baptism, it can be helpful for mature Christians to be similarly accountable to one another – to share in small groups or with a supportive spouse the things that challenge us, the parts of life we’d like change so that others can support and ask how it’s going with the resolutions we’ve made.
The second striking thing is how humble people had to be. Rich Sadducees and poor farmers waded into the Jordan side by side. Voluptuous prostitutes and weaselly tax collectors admitted their need of God together. Brawny soldiers humbly dunked under the water.
However grand someone’s place in life, they look similarly undignified when wet and muddy in the middle of a stream. Baptism is a great leveller, and yet as we get older in the Christian life status, position and the contribution you make can seem to creep back in. It’s so important that we remind ourselves frequently of God’s grace and our need of him. That’s why, at a baptism service, the congregation may join in with the promises – so we remember they apply to us too.
So if that’s what baptism means, how does John react when Jesus comes to him? ‘I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me.’ It’s like giving a lecture on the life’s work of David Attenborough and finding the great man in the audience – come up, I’ll shut up, take over, we’ll listen to you. Imagine if Attenborough then says, no, I’d really like to hear your tips on how to make a wildlife documentary.
It seems wrong. Jesus, for whom they were waiting, wants to be baptised. Jesus, who is sinless submits to baptism. He says in v.15 ‘Let it be so now for it is proper in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
He identifies with us, being baptised as if he were a sinner. Just like at the end of his earthly life he dies on the cross as if a criminal. Although he did no wrong, Christ submitted to the consequences of human sin as if he himself were responsible. The mystery of the cross, reflected throughout his life, is that (in the words of 2 Cor 5:21) the sinless one becomes sin for us, the innocent one stands in our place and takes the penalty so we may go free. Throughout his life there are signs of this, and being baptised is one of them: he identifies with and saves sinners.
For Jesus, being baptised was not about turning from a bad life to a good one. It was about committing himself to God’s will, a path that would lead him to the cross. God the Father recognises and affirms this dedication, sending the Holy Spirit to bless Jesus and empower him. The Holy Spirit comes on the sinless Christ, not as purifying fire but as a gentle dove of peace.
It is often God’s way. In our own lives, a greater acceptance of God’s direction, a yielding to his will, often results in a deeper filling with the Holy Spirit which enables someone to serve and live for God and others. That is a kind of resolution, but it is a resolution to live God’s way.
I started by thinking about the New Year’s resolution and that’s where I’ll end. Those annual attempts to do better can point us to a deeper truth: that a true personal transformation can happen through the power of God. That change will begin to happen when we are humble and acknowledge our need, when we ask God’s forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit to fill us so we can be what we should be. Wholeness and growth will happen as we depend on Christ, who identified with us and was baptised for us.