Bible Readings

Mk 1.4-13 Trinity and Emptiness

Acts 19.1-7 John’s and Jesus’ baptisms

Ps 62.5-8 for God alone my soul waits

In the Jordan Valley.

Today, come with me down into the Jordan Valley. A few weeks ago we began Mark’s gospel by talking about John the Baptists’s place in the uncertainty of his times. Now, bigger picture, we look at John in relation to Jesus and to the incredible change unleashed at one of their meetings in the Jordan Valley.

The soil down there is dry and a river runs through it. Below sea level, at the lowest point on the face of the earth, the air is heavy. It is the exact spot where Joshua brought the nation of Israel into their Promised Land by crossing the river in flood. It is the place where the prophet Elijah had been taken up in the fiery chariot never to be seen again. The hills and cliffs tower over it, blocking out the valley into permanent rain-shadow. The mountains are capped by towns and villages and Jerusalem itself. The only sources of life down here are the long slow small river called the Jordan that runs down from Lake Galilee and the occasional underground springs, like Jericho or Ein Gedi. Here in this remote desert, John the Baptist preached his public message for all Israel. Here, with John, Jesus began his global ministry. At the lowest point on earth, where three continents, we will examine today where great men, and great histories intersect.


The non-Christian historian, Josephus, wrote in these times but he never linked Jesus with John. The New Testament always links them closely. All four gospels and the Book of the Acts name John as the opening batsman for Jesus’ team, or something like that. (I say that to make the South Africans feel just that bit happier this morning). Even when they were choosing an apostle to replace the traitor Judas, they said Acts 1.21-22. It must be a completely honest fact, because it actually creates two difficulties for the New Testament – how come a sinless Messiah gets baptised by a preacher of repentance? And how is it, whenever the two are spoken of together after this, that Jesus’ baptism is different from John’s baptism. The somewhat skeptical Swiss theologian Schillerbeecx takes this awkward connection as proof that this is historically accurate, saying: ‘the fact of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan…is quite certain.’ (1979, p 137). So, what were the connections and the differences between Jesus and John?

Let us first notice the Continuity between the two. Superficially, they are cousins and John is just six months older. More substantially there are three similarities in ministry:

i.Their Message: v4 and v14. Repentance was merely the step into the Kingdom way of life. (This is the starting point only for Jesus’ teachings, and it is only spoken in this way among the Jews, but that is another study entirely.)

ii.Their Vision: They welcome all people to become one all-inclusive Israel. Other groups in their time were somewhat competitive in favour of males, in favour of an elite status group (Sadducees), the more educated (Essenes) or the more legalistic (Pharisees). Jesus and John accepted people within the hard places of their lives – disability, sickness, leprosy, or even just being under harsh occupation by the Romans. We also know of the radical justice offered to slaves and women in Jesus’ very international community.

iii. Their Ethics: If you wanted to belong to God, you had to live in God’s love, and live for God’s purposes – this was called holiness. That is why the Old Testament name of Spirit of God is popularly called Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

SO we know that there is a substantial sameness of main message, vision and values.

There are four main elements of Discontinuity between their groups, but I should make clear that there was no rift while John was alive.

i. Location: John was in Judea, and Jesus went north to Galilee, seldom venturing into the south, where most of his trouble came from, and where John had been beheaded.

ii. Miraculous power: Jesus did miracles, or deeds of power(dunameis- dynamite), and John did not. All the early records, both Christina and non-Christian, say this about Jesus. This is what convinced John in his own doubting moments (Mt 11.2-11) that Jesus was the Messiah, the Spirit-filled-to-the-full man. It also convinced John’s followers before Jesus’ death: Jn 10.40-42.

iii. Baptism. Acts 19.1-7 John’s and Jesus’ baptisms are different. Some of John’s people are re-baptised into the ‘Father Son and Holy Spirit’. Christian baptism is a vehicle for confessing the faith and so receiving the Holy Spirit in a decisive new way that Jesus alone can impart. Baptism was and is today a once-only ritual for Christians, and we do not know what John’s group thought about that. [There are a few followers of John the Baptist still in existence, so I am told.]

iv. The Time. Jesus is even more bold than John. John says ‘the day is coming’ – Jesus says ‘the time has come’. Jesus describes himself as ‘the bridegroom’ and while John and his followers practiced fasting without food, Jesus maintains that there will be a time for that later, but not while he has come for the bride. In theological shorthand, John is apocalyptic (preparing for future cosmic events) and Jesus is eschatological (practicing eternity in the here and now).

SO, all too briefly, we can see that Jesus is a quantum leap in spiritual power over John and this quantum has exploded into action.

John’s movement message:

The God who is outside time, who has been somewhat involved in our history, who has revealed what holiness is, is coming decisively. Prepare yourself by holy living. (thus v 8)

Jesus’ movement message:

The time of Preparation is over and the Time of the Kingdom has come. Hear me and begin to live again in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

In academic terms, this so far is a rare historical certainty. But the personal possibilities are fantastic. Let’s listen carefully about this. Based partly upon this reliability, if Jesus really is for real, you and I can have a personal relationship with the living God through the Holy Spirit. Jewish, Buddhist and Moslem friends of mine are alike amazed at my intimacy with God and the ease with which I pray in God’s presence. What Jesus gives is explosively different from the structures of even the best religion.

That means a real place within the central generating plant of the Universe, hooked up to eternity in the here and now. This is because Jesus provides to those who welcome him a whole new connection with the Holy Spirit. Without this, the best you can hope for is to stand beside John the Baptist as it were and hold on to hope for your future, and concentrate on becoming better than you are. Jesus drew the same contract when he said that JB was one of the greatest prophets, but that the person who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater. It is admirable religion but not Christian. If all you have is a list of things that you have to hope are true, you haven’t yet got the point.


As I said, this so far is a rare historical certainty. But the next events reveal far more. of what ‘the Time’ has come for. They reveal a pivot-point in history. A pivot point is a moment that changes everything that follows. On a small scale, we know that Anzac Day at Gallipoli in 1915 forged a national identity; that the atomic bombs on Hiroshima in 1945 demonstrated starkly that we were so smart we can unleash the power of the atom, and so corrupt that we bomb people with it; that the assassination of JFK in 1963 brought an end to youthful idealism – all pivot points.

Even greater, the Battle of Gaugamela changed us all, and somehow paved the way for the spread of the gospel 400 years later. This is a damaged mosaic in the ruins of Pompeii and records the pivotal moment. In 323BC Alexander the Great of Macedonia has doubled his empire, taken Egypt, and now turns his army east to face the Persian Empire, and the might of Darius 1st. The armies face off on the plains of Gaugamela. The Persians outnumber Alexander ten to one, they have an advantageous position and they have cavalry against the Greek foot soldiers. As the battle commences, the Greeks draw back and form into a curve, Darius surges forward, at which the Greeks open a hole in the centre and Alexander charges forward directly at Darius. [This picture.] Emperor Darius is frightened to death by the bold attack, and retreats, then his army follows, the Greeks counter-attack, and Alexander wins an Empire that stretched from present day Iraq all the way to India. That moment changed all of Indo-European history outside China.

But this day at the little river Jordan is greater than all of these.

Part 2 Vv 10-13 The Holy Spirit and the Desert.

v10-11 As Jesus emerges very wet from the river, The Spirit appears upon him (hovering as a small whiteish shimmering shape that looked like a dove, NOT embodied as a dove. Later indoors this bright shimmering would resemble tongues of flame Acts 2) In the same slice of time, the voice of the Father booms that he loves his Son – all in one scene, one moment, one pivot of history. Father Son and Holy Spirit – later to be called the Holy Trinity. There. We need to remember this moment for the following three reasons. [This next part is about the big picture so the more details-focussed persons can sleep through a couple of minutes.]

i. We need to open our minds. We live in an era when it is seductively attractive to scrunch together all ideas of what God is like or not like – all beliefs will do, any dream will do. This event shows three particular persons of one God in one interaction. Three identities in one harmony. It is counter-intuitive, and to some, counter-rational. But it happened, so deal with it. Don’t just find excuses to deny it. Let’s not change the facts to fit our scrunched up theory. It is quite normal in science and in life, when faced with a single new fact, that we have to pivot our whole mindset.

Here, for instance, we must shift what we think a person is. We usually think a person is ‘physically autonomous individual’, but we see at the river that, with God, something more is possible. Three in one. At a human level, for example, I too can be seen as a trinity of relationships, a threefold lover – father, husband and brother. At Christmas lunch, Ian is fully present in each of these different ways at the same time. My main question today is: Do we have the imagination or humility to face these facts? It was just as contrary to the philosophical ideas available to the early church, so they created a new word ‘trinity’ – tri-unity – to summarise all of their observations.

[I am not going down the line of trying to explain the nature of the Trinity – that can happen some other day. I am speaking today of its effect on our ways of thinking and reasoning.]

Faced with the particular mystery of the Trinity, various alternatives have emerged and re-emerged through the centuries. Jehovahs Witnesses and Unitarians try to reduce them down, Moslems accuse us of having three gods, and western atheists like Richard Dawkins, David Hitchens, Immanuel Kant and David Hume want to say that the concept is nonsense. They all want to paper over the difference between time and eternity, but this Trinity, as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church often repeats, is definitive of God’s life and love. It changes the way we understand what it means to know anything, everything.

ii One thing it re-affirms is that God is bigger than all time and space. We live in a decade when so-called scientific atheism has resurfaced with the worst in fundamentalist aggression. Have no fear. Apart from the wet man standing there, this event shows that God is obviously greater than the four spatial dimensions that we normally think of – length, breadth, depth and time. God is both inside and outside time and space, like the air inside and outside this room. This means that when someone asks the questions: where is God or how big is God or how many gods are there in the trinity or what was before God? They are meaningless questions that have not understood the kind of God we are talking about. Going further, if, as some say, there is a fifth dimension called Life – well, God is bigger than any earthly version of that too – Resurrection from the dead is not too hard. Many of our doubts and questions linger because we need to reach beyond earthly examples and limited imaginations. One thing that came out of my philosophy degree was the discovery that in the history of philosophy there is no reason to elevate one narrow form of so-called scientific reason to supremacy over all other forms of observation, the convictions of conscience and a near universal spirituality.

But that does not mean, as we have said already, that God is a big blank. We can define God in God’s terms. Are you ready for this – it might make your head spin? So, yes, at this moment of baptism, a wrinkle in time reveals all three persons of God in one frame. But also in this frame, the dynamic connection between them is shown to be …. Love. ‘This is my much loved Son’. The heavy desert air is full of the most powerful creative Love. Love is the dimension that expresses the absolute reality which is God’s inner being. All through scripture, Love is the one dimension that most accurately defines God, for ‘God is love’ , and that is love of a particular kind, that love that is modelled by Jesus and brought to life by the Holy Spirit. Already we have seen that it is a love of a kind that transcends life, time, and scientifically observable space. ‘Love’ is the word that turns the galaxies. And that all-encompassing Love is a worldview that even a child can live.

So LOVE is not just a nice emotion if you can get, and being in a community of love with others is not just ‘desirable’. Being in a church where God is loved and shared together is not just a structure of religion if you are wired that way, it is a window into the cosmos, a radically true form of life in the universe. Shift your mindset. Turn off the information overload and get your understanding sorted. All of us must do this together but do it ourselves.

So, as Jesus comes out of the water, he steps into a new era of human knowledge. A pivotal moment.

iii So now, if this true, Christians do not have the option of denying that Christ is divine. For instance, I studied theology under a professor who called this a myth, by which he meant ‘optional’. Nor can we avoid the necessity of a personal relationship in the Holy Spirit. When I spoke with him, it was clear he had no personal relationship in the Holy Spirit, only a concept, or a force. Many today are like him. They still wait on the other side of the river with John the Baptist, hoping for the Kingdom to come. The quantum leap of Jesus offers us so much more – the Kingdom of God has come, he said..

So, no more excuses, the doctrine of the Trinity is not just technical theological jargon. Trinity summarises our way of knowing equally as much as it summarises the God that we know. It is a snapshot of reality by the River, in which love is the ceaseless fabric of life. So, it says that living in community is not just a nice option, it is the very fabric of all reality. Just as Father Son and Spirit populate this baptismal scene, so that name is used in all our baptisms, AND in all our creeds, most of our blessings, as indeed at the end of this service of worship it will be spoken. Friends, this Triune God is One with us who are one with Christ. How good and great is that? We dwell at the heartbeat of the universe. What unsurpassed love! This is what is happening down by the riverside.


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