As we celebrate the baptism of London this morning, I wanted us to reflect a little more on what it means. Congregationalists have a long history of sprinkling water on babies. Other traditions do it differently. For instance, a young son of a Baptist minister was in church one morning when he saw for the first time baptism by immersion. He was greatly interested in it, and the next morning proceeded to baptize his three cats in the bathtub. The youngest kitten bore it very well, and so did the younger cat, but the old family tom cat rebelled. The old cat struggled with the boy, clawing and tearing his skin, until he finally got away. With considerable effort the boy caught the old cat again and proceeded with the “ceremony.” But the cat acted worse than ever, clawing, spitting, and scratching the boy’s face. Finally, after barely getting the cat splattered with water, he dropped him on the floor in disgust and said: “Fine! Be a Congregationalist if you want to!”
As we think to our own baptisms, let’s listen to the story of a baptism from the book of Acts.
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior regions until he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers.” Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asked them.Congregationalists also have a long tradition of fine preaching. Another story is told of a young preacher who had just announced to his congregation that he was leaving to accept a call at another church. He was standing at the door after the service and greeting people when one of the elderly saints approached him, her eyes swimming with tears. She sobbed, “Oh pastor. I’m so sorry you decided to leave. Things will never be the same again.” He took her hands in his and most graciously replied, “Bless you, dear lady, but I’m sure that God will send a pastor even better than I.” She choked back a sob and was heard to reply, “That’s what they all say, but they keep getting worse and worse.”
“No,” they replied, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
“Then what baptism did you experience?” he asked.
And they replied, “The baptism of John.”
Paul said, “John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.” As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7)
How do you handle it when you keep hoping for something better in your life but it never seems to come? How many times have we settled for something less than we really want or something less than we’ve been promised? I think the people in today’s reading may have felt the same way. Ephesus was a trade center for the Roman Empire. The people of the city had a spiritual core. The city was home to the temple of the goddess of nature, Diana, which ranked among the seven wonders of the ancient world. So, Ephesus was constantly filled with religious worshipers, tourists, and traders from all over the Empire. In this cosmopolitan center, Paul finds twelve followers of the teachings of John the Baptist. They have not heard about the death and resurrection of Jesus, nor have they heard about the giving of the Holy Spirit. Let’s recall the message of John the Baptist. He says, “I baptize you in water for repentance. But he who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not even fit to remove his sandals; for he himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Men and women flocked to John make a visible demonstration of their need for cleansing from sin. They carried with them the word of hope that the Messiah was coming to do more. Now we meet twelve disciples of John who had no knowledge that the Messiah had come. They were still hoping for something better in their lives. Paul noticed that something was missing in their experience with God. Their hearts had been prepared to receive Christ. They knew the promises, but they had not yet come to a place where they experienced the fullness of God.
Have you ever found yourself in the same situation? You know the message of God’s love. You’ve heard the promises over and over again. But something seems to be missing. I talk to a lot of people who feel that they have not found any real spiritual satisfaction. They say, “Whatever it is that has the power to satisfy me truly and deeply, I have not found it yet.” Maybe you are frustrated because you know that God has more abundant life for you than you are experiencing. Maybe you have experienced great tragedy in your life and need to know the fact that God’s promises of comfort are true. Perhaps you are standing broken and bewildered in life and you don’t know which way to turn. Maybe you are earnestly seeking God, but nothing seems to be happening.
THINK ABOUT THIS: Perhaps those gnawing feelings of unfulfilled faith are God’s way of getting our attention. Maybe those thoughts are pointing to something which we don’t yet know–something that lies beyond our reach but still draws us with the force of an invisible attraction. Suppose our longing for spiritual fulfillment points to a reality we have not yet discovered–something that really has the ability to turn our lives around.
Paul’s answer to the yearning of the twelve disciples of John is to announce that the promise is fulfilled. Then he baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And as Paul places his hands on them, the Holy Spirit falls upon them and they begin to show supernatural signs of the Spirit’s presence. On that day, twelve people did more than make a superficial commitment to Jesus. They experienced God’s power and were transformed. They encountered God, and the promises that they heard about in the past were finally answered in their own lives.
If you are just going through the motions, God is saying, “I am here, and I am ready to fulfill my promises in your life.” This new life takes commitment from us which says, “I have heard your message, Lord, and I believe it. I want to experience all you have promised and I am willing to commit myself to the next step in my spiritual life.” Saying this takes great openness and trust in what God wants to do in your life. We have the choice to invite the Holy Spirit to per part of our lives and transform us, or to shut the Spirit out.
A patient went to her doctor with a catalogue of complaints about her health. The doctor suspected the real problem was the patient’s negative outlook on life; the bitterness and resentment that kept the patient feeling ill. The doctor took the patient to the room in her office where she had a shelf filled with empty bottles. She said to her patient, “See those bottles? Notice they are all empty. I can take one of those bottles and fill it with poison–enough poison to kill a human being. Or I can fill it with enough medicine to bring down a fever, or ease a throbbing headache, or fight bacteria in the body. The important thing is I make the choice. I can fill it with whatever I choose.” The doctor then looked at the patient and said, “Each day God gives us is like one of those empty little bottles. We can choose to fill it with love and life-affirming attitudes, so we can fill it with destructive, poisonous thoughts. The choice is ours.”
In our spiritual lives, we have some choices to make. We can just go through life hoping to make the best of what we’ve got, trying to distract ourselves from the feeling that all is pointless. Or we can see life as a glorious gift which points to something even more wonderful which is yet to come.
I suspect the twelve people in Ephesus were faced with the same decision. John’s baptism was OK, but it was not all that God had promised. There was something even more wonderful to come. This phenomenal gift came through accepting Jesus the Messiah in faith and being filled with the Holy Spirit. The same offer is extended to us. It’s your choice to accept the Holy Spirit in your life or to ignore the Spirit’s presence. It’s your choice to live with enthusiasm or to just fumble along, always wanting but never getting what you hoped for. Christ died and rose again so that we could enjoy a relationship with God. The Spirit is here to fill us and transforms us. Don’t be satisfied with anything less.
Luke tells us that the twelve were baptized in the Spirit. The Greek word from which we get the verb baptize literally means “to submerge.” In other words, the twelve men were totally flooded by the power of God’s presence. It engulfed them. It consumed them. For us to experience God to the fullest, we need to be baptized with the Spirit–submerged in our relationship with God. I talk a lot about having an intimate relationship with God from this pulpit. I do this because I’m convinced that without it we are spinning our spiritual wheels in the mud. I speak only from personal experience. I don’t know how I would be able to keep going in this life if I could not call God my friend. The Gospel is this: we are all God’s friends, claimed in baptism and submerged in his Spirit. No longer do we have to wonder when God is going to act. No longer to we have to hopelessly wait for something better. We have been offered friendship . . . relationship . . . status as God’s beloved.
Have you ever stopped to ponder what makes a real friend? One person put it this way:
“Friends are people with whom you dare to be yourself. Your soul can be naked with them. They ask you to put on nothing, only to be what you are. They do not want you to be better or worse. When you are with them, you feel as a prisoner feels who has been declared innocent. You do not have to be on your guard. You can say what you think, as long as it is genuinely you. With a friend you breathe freely. You can avow your little vanities and envies and hates and vicious sparks, your meanness and absurdities, and in opening them up to friends they are lost, dissolved on the white ocean of loyalty. They understand. You do not have to be careful. They like you. You can weep with them, sing with them, laugh with them,. Pray with them. Through it all – and underneath – they see, know, and love you. A friend? Just one, I repeat, with whom you dare to be yourself.”
God offers this kind of friendship with us – the kind of friendship I know to be true in my own life. No more aching loneliness. No more yearning for something better. No more unfulfilled promises. God sees us, know us, and despite of what we’ve done, and especially because of everything we’ve done, God loves us. What baptism did you experience? Are you living a life of waiting for unfulfilled dreams, not knowing that they have all come true? Are you living in only half the blessing, not knowing the tremendous joy and love that comes with experiencing God through a relationship with Christ and a submersion in the Spirit? Are you living a Christian life on the outside and secretly wondering if there is more? If so, there is no secret formula. No magic words. Nothing to buy. No gimmicks. We simply believe, receive, and begin a new life submerged in God.