He Will Baptize You with the Holy Spirit
He (John the Baptist) proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Headlines are written to capture attention. I once worked in management consulting so the title Let’s Manage Stupidity caught my attention. Mats Alvesson is a professor of organization studies at Lund University in Sweden. He wrote that “Organizations may function more efficiently when no one questions the vision, but the risk of such ‘functional stupidity’ is that people avoid speaking up when they see problems. Functional stupidity ‘is a double-edged sword,’ says Alvesson. … Improved ‘stupidity management’ would offer organizations the opportunity to weigh risks and explore alternative visions while keeping everyone on the team focused.”
Do you ever feel like this—that what you needed was a little “stupidity management?”
1. I wonder if the spiritual life is thought of in a similar this way. What we need is better management when problems arise. We acknowledge that we commit sin from time to time and so a strategy for managing those moments of weakness is needed. Sin is regarded as the spiritual equivalent of a rash—if we call the issue “sin” at all: slightly unsightly, but scarcely life-threatening and treatable.
The gospel declares that our sins (small “s’) arises out of the heart condition of Sin (capital ‘S’)—we might speak of this as our sinnership. What the believer knows is that before the all-holy God our sinnership has become a horror to us. Not an acknowledgement that we commit sins from time to time; this would be much too superficial; an acknowledgement, rather, that we have blood-poisoning, a systemic disorder. To acknowledge our sinnership is not admitting that we behave inappropriately now and then, but rather confessing that life-threatening systemic infection is the human condition before God and we know it.
John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He shocked people in his day not because he told sinners they should repent and be baptized; Israel had always invited gentiles to become baptized as a sign of their repentance and new-born faith. Gentiles (known popularly in Israel as “dogs”) upon coming to faith in the holy One of Israel, had always had themselves baptized as a sign that they were washing away pagan impurities. John was shocking not because of what he said; he was shocking because of the people to whom he said it. Israelites, he said, need to repent every bit as much as gentile dogs, since Israelites and gentiles have exactly the same status and standing before God.
John knew that more was needed than a self-reformation; more than a ceremonial event. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” What John understood and what the good news of Jesus declares is that we need a work of God in our lives—he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Humans are confronted by the gospel to think very differently about reality. It is more than an improved management strategy that is needed. We need encounter with God. We need something done for us and in us that only God can do. The believer is one who confesses this need to God and in Baptism it is to make that confession publically.
2. We live in a culture that, in my experience, is increasingly fixated on the material, on matter; as though the material world were ultimate. In the official ideology of our time, for example, our bodies are thought to be machines available to provide us with pleasure and so, sexual relations are limited only by consent.
The gospel witnesses to a very different view of matter. According to the gospel matter matters, but not ultimately so—that would be materialism. Christians would never deny that the material is actual. Trees and mountains, buildings and bridges are not imaginary. Nonetheless, Christians would also insist that there is a spiritual dimension to the creation much deeper than trees and mountains. Some people would argue that the realm of aesthetics is more real than the real of the material. Music that lifts the soul and transcends moments, art that makes it seem you are being drawn into the scene depicted: all of this is oceans deeper than sticks and stones. Oceans deeper that it may be, it is yet not deep enough: the really deep depths everywhere in the creation are not finally aesthetic; they are finally spiritual.
When John speaks of Jesus as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit it witnesses to the gospel’s view of our existence that creation is rich, richer than we have always thought; the creation is profoundly spiritual, pervasively spiritual, finally spiritual.
And so people find that the inner and outer aspects of our beings are intricately woven together. The physical impacts the spiritual and vice versa. From a biblical perspective humans are distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures in that we human beings are the only creatures whom God addresses (speaks with). In all of this what distinguishes us from the animals is spirit. Human beings are primarily creatures of spirit.
To say that we are primarily creatures of spirit is to say that we live, ultimately, in a world of spirit. Which is to say in turn that every experience we have in our physical bodies is ultimately spiritual. Human beings are primarily creatures of spirit; creatures of matter, to be sure, but never merely so.
3. If human beings could by management technique create a happier or strife-free (or stupid-free) existence would we not have done so by now? In many respects, political parties or ideologies propose to be such solution; as do proposals for various kinds of economic order; as do proposals for preferred ethical theories. If we could fix the human situation why haven’t we—there has been plenty of effort expended in that direction.
But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. It is apparent that Jesus believes we need the Spirit of God in our lives. Christians confess that God exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is true that the word “Trinity” is not used in the New Testament. While the word is not used the idea is the New Testament grammar for speaking of God. We see it in Mark’s story of the baptism. The Son (Jesus) is being baptized while we hear the Father’s voice as the Spirit is seen descending like a dove on Jesus. Mark’s gospel is considered the first (historically speaking) of the gospels to be written. We note that this grammar for God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is presented to us right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Clearly the triune nature of God is how they spoke of God from earliest times. (The Trinity is not an invention of the third century council of Nicaea as some say).
To say that he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit is to say that God gives us himself; that God pours himself into our lives. The One who is great enough to embrace the universes is close enough to enter our hearts.
We read today from the Bible’s creation story. (Genesis 1:1-5) We heard of how the earth was a formless voice and of the “wind of God” (Spirit) who sweeps over that formlessness and begins to reshape such that day and night are formed. I shared with you before about what we call black holes in the universe. Black holes are stars that have gone what is described as supernova; they have imploded in on themselves and the gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape its force. Such a star is so dense that one thimble full weighs more that the entire population of humans on earth. If the Spirit of God moves these about in creation forming and reforming then we conceive something of God’s density and power.
When the Holy Spirit is poured upon us why aren’t we crushed? Luke records for us that John the Baptist said Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Saturated in the prophets as John was be is referring to God’s fiery judgement. The people who came to John for baptism welcomed God’s fiery judgement because they knew that the fire would refine them. The Holy Spirit is a refining fire. In baptism we express our gratitude that God’s fire has not consumed us as we deserve but has refined us, thus rendering us useful to him.
Further, the One who does not crush is fully able to carry. Many of you know and treasure that wonderful prayer Footprints. One night I had a dream... I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord, and Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. …. I noticed that many times along the path of my life, There was only one set of footprints. …I don't understand why in times when I needed you the most, you should leave me. To which the Lord replies, “When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”
The Apostle Paul implies as much of the Holy Spirit when he wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
We know those moments when we were carried. Moments when difficulty overwhelmed us and sent life sideways. An accident, a disease, a broken relationship, consumed everything about us such that it was hard to know which end was up. We could barely take a breath let alone recall any management or coping strategy so we could employ it. We wonder how we got through and yet we did. When we look back we know that it wasn’t our alacrity in applying emergency coping strategies that got us through—as helpful as they might be at moments. The believer knows she was carried. And if you are in the middle of what seems an all-encompassing storm know that you are being carried. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
3. In most preaching and teaching of the word of God, the word isn’t addressed to me by name. Yes, I may sense it was as if the sermon were written about me; a work of the Holy Spirit to be sure but my name wasn’t spoken. In baptism we do; in baptism the person is named. Baptism individualizes and personalizes God’s promise. At the font the person is named, then is said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
We also lay hands on the person and say a blessing; this is the “laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit.” This is an act of faith in the one who promised to baptize with the Holy Spirit that he is faithful to do what he promises.
What about when we baptize infants? We might think of the service of baptism for infants like a cheque promising riches which is made out to the child. At this moment the parents are holding the cheque in trust. When the child matures the riches will be his/hers, as long as the person to whom the cheque is made out endorses it. They endorse it by entering upon the way of faith and obedience themselves. At this point (conformation for many) they own the promises which were made on their behalf, and everything which the promises held out they now subscribe to themselves.
‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’