I remember the day before the day Adriana was born. The due date we’d been given was August 8, and it was already August 19. The excitement of the expectation of our first baby was building daily, it was obvious that with each hour we were closer to the time that she would actually be born. Rather than decrease because the due date had passed, the excitement was increasing. That morning, as we got up and drove out to Cut Knife, Cindy intimated to me that something was going on – not labor, but something. After worship, on our way back to Unity, she shared that something was still going on. After worship, on the advice of congregants, we visited the local hospital where a good friend who was specializing as an OB/GYN sent us to Saskatoon. We grabbed lunch at Subway, changed our clothes, and went to the city. We stopped for a new battery for our camera. When we arrived at the RUH, finally the real labor started – we were on our way. Around 4 am the next morning, after a long and painful birthing process, we had our first daughter.
Have you ever been full of expectation? Have you ever lived in anticipation of a coming event or circumstance? Have you ever hoped? Think of a first day of school, or at a new job, or a wedding day, or a child’s birth. These are the kinds of things we anticipate, that we fill ourselves with hopeful expectation over. This is the kind of hope-filled anticipation that the crowds are filled with at the start of our gospel lesson today. They anticipate the revelation of their Messiah, the restoration of their kingdom, a new day in their history. They look to John, because he looks something like the kind of guy they expect their Messiah to be. In some way, he fits the part in their minds.
Now, there must have been whispering and sidelong glances and hands covering mouths, because John became aware of what they were wondering about him: “Is he the one?” And he addressed it quite openly. And he disappointed their hopes. It wasn’t that their hopes were dashed – certainly they still hoped for their Messiah, but they came to know, by John’s words, that they had to keep looking. John pointed them to someone who was even more powerful than him – in a sense saying, “Do you think I look like the right kind of guy? I can’t hold a candle to the real thing!”
Of course, the words he actually uses to say this are somewhat different: the Messiah is more powerful than John, and he isn’t even worthy to be a servant to him. That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? I had a young woman in my congregation when I was in Calgary, just before coming here, whose father was a gardener at Buckingham Palace. Growing up she couldn’t have friends over to her house out-of-the-blue. It had to be known, planned, and approved. Her dad could serve the Queen, but others couldn’t just come-and-go from the grounds. John is saying that he wouldn’t make it as the Messiah’s servant. Maybe he could be friends with a servant, and visit at pre-arranged and pre-approved times – he doesn’t get into that.
Those weren’t the only words he uses to say that he’s not the Messiah, that he couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing regardless of how much he may look like the guy the people expect. He also says that he baptizes with water, but that the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, for judgment. He points to the one coming after him and he says that things will be somewhat different from what they expect. John thwarts their expectations, he disallows them from projecting their expectations for the Messiah onto him, and he still points them toward the realization of their hope. The Messiah is coming, but has not yet come.
That difference that John notes, about the baptism in water that he gives and the baptism that the Messiah will administer to the people, that’s an important difference, so let’s pause before we continue. John’s baptism is, as Scripture puts it, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It marks the switch from a life oriented one way, a life of sin and injustice, to a life oriented another way, a life that bears the fruit of repentance: holiness and justice. One person was asked what they were before they knew Jesus: “A sinner.” What, then, are they now – having come to know Jesus: “A sinner.” Finally, well then what is the difference: “Before I was a sinner running toward sin; now I am a sinner running from and refusing sin.” That’s what repentance is about. John’s baptism is based on human intention and human ability – in short, it is as though people say, “I have, until now, not been terribly concerned to live my life the way that God wants me to. From now on, however, I will try.” The forgiveness of sin that John offers is based upon a life without sin from here on. The problem with that is, of course, that people are people – and that people cannot carry on a life without sin, in their own power. Human life (and living!) does not just need improvement, but renewal.
So contrast that with what he says about the Messiah’s baptism, which is with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit does not come upon a person without empowering them for some specific work of God. The Holy Spirit comes upon many people in the Old Testament, in the stories that John’s listeners were all familiar with, for a reason. The Holy Spirit is not about purposeless lives, but about imbuing people who have been directionless with purpose. Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied along with God’s prophets, on multiple occasions. The Holy Spirit came upon the prophets to enable them to speak God’s Word to His people. The Holy Spirit came upon the Temple itself when it was dedicated under Solomon, that all within was made holy and set apart for use in the worship of God. The Holy Spirit came upon tradesmen, kings, priests, prophets, judges, men and women – always to enable and empower according to God’s purpose for them.
It is not surprising, then, that when Jesus is baptized, not repenting from a life of sin for he was always sinless, but repenting from a life oriented to fulfillment of earthly responsibility to a life oriented to fulfillment of heavenly responsibility; when Jesus is baptized, it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit comes upon Him. He receives fresh and special empowerment for the work ahead – fulfilling the purpose of God; saving people from the power of sin; transforming ways long set in tradition; sharing the things of heaven; baptizing people in the Holy Spirit.
John said that the Messiah would baptize people in the Holy Spirit – where did he get this idea from? If we look back to messianic prophecy, we see God’s intention to pour His Spirit out on all people, look here in Joel 2:28: “I will pour out 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 will pour out my spirit.” That’s taken from a point in Joel’s prophecy that’s talking about God restoring His people – the restoration that the Messiah brings. The Messiah’s coming and the Holy Spirit of God being poured out on all of God’s people – this is what Joel had prophesied. John, preaching by the River Jordan centuries later, puts it together. As he is baptizing with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit. It’s not how Joel put it, but it’s how John draws an analogy between what he’s doing, which the crowds can see, and what the Messiah will do, which they can’t see yet. And Jesus will pour out His Spirit at Pentecost, and continue to pour out His Spirit on His people throughout the centuries.
So John disappoints the crowd, in their expectation. It’s like they thought that when he came along, it was the due date – the fulfillment of all of their expectations was about to be birthed! But John told them that he wasn’t it – they were going to have to wait a little longer. John did say that the Messiah was coming after him, and I like to think that they would have recognized an immediacy in that – the Messiah was coming right after John. So their wait was going to be longer, but not too much longer. Maybe just 12 days overdue – what’s that to a people who have been waiting for centuries?
Jesus receives the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus transitions to fulfill what He had come for, what the Son of God had become man for, to set His people free. Upon receiving John’s baptism, the outward rite of Jesus’ declaration that His life would now be specifically geared toward the salvation of humanity, Jesus took time in prayer. Hear this, this morning, and own it: we pray individually each day, and corporately each week, having received baptism into the community of God’s covenant people, and for all of the things that we pray about, God has given prayer to us as a means of the transformation of the Holy Spirit, to empower us to be messengers of God’s salvation for the world.
We were not born for this, as Christ was born to bring salvation; but we were created for it in the beginning, and in Christ we are restored to it: Jesus came to give us the status of being children of God, and the Spirit is sent to us that we might experience the reality of being God’s children. So as we look to this new year, let it be the time our lives pass from evil to good, from darkness to light, from this unfaithful world to everlasting joys. Let us pray that we may be transformed; when we lift others up in our prayers, may our minds be converted to Christ’s mind for them; may we let go of all of the things that drive us from the Lord and His will for us, and in faith extend our empty hands to Him in order to receive and hold all that He has for us. Whatever the New Year may be to you, it is the resetting of the calendar – and whatever resolutions may be made, or may be broken, may we recognize that God, in Christ, brings us to the land of beginning again. Through His grace, as we experience the transforming power of His Spirit in our lives in response to our embracing His influence and will in our lives, may we know Him more and more, and rest secure in the knowledge that He does not love us because we are good, but that He makes us good because He loves us. Amen.