On the Baptism of the Holy Spirit
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeffrey Smith on Sunday, January 2, 2022
John said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Today is the Sunday before Theophany. Today, we prepare the way of the Lord to be revealed in his glory to John the Baptist as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity, from the voice of the Father, who proclaims, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, and the baptism of the Christ, the Son of God who submits to be baptized by John, and the revelation of the Holy Spirit who descends in the form of a dove.
Mark begins his Gospel pointedly, “This is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is the beginning of the Gospel. And if Jesus is a king, he is preceded by his herald whose function is to prepare the way for his Lord and King, to proclaim his arrival. The role of one who prepares the way of the Lord is timeless and universal. It is our role. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger who shall prepare the way. A voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.” And we can make these paths straight when we bring God’s creative word to a dying world.
And so, John came. He appeared in the wilderness baptizing in the desert region, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him, all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem. The whole Judean countryside went out to meet him, and they were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
John’s baptism of repentance is much more than remorse or simply admitting our mistakes. Repentance is more than just being sorry. Instead, it is a moral and spiritual revolution. The baptism of repentance which the Forerunner offers, indicates a radical change of heart and mind, leading to a complete turnaround of our lives. Genuine repentance is one of the hardest things in the world to embrace, to confess and repent of our repetitive sins, and yet it is basic to all spiritual change. There is nothing to fear, because forgiveness has already occurred. When the people were baptized by John, they all confessed their sins. And their change of heart is the same as ours. If you read the news today, things are not looking all that good for us, and it’s been that way for a very, very long time. We are still living today in a wilderness, still crying out, and we still need people to prepare the way for the Lord. Clearly, we all are a part of creation, called to be shepherds and stewards, not users and exploiters of our beautiful world. But nothing less than full repentance and change of heart can lead our world from disasters sure to come.
John the Baptist himself lived as a protest against all self-indulgence, in his camel’s hair and wild honey. He said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.” We can think of the Gift of the Holy Spirit is an inner transformation, cleansing and energizing our hearts. It reaches into the secret places of our heart, our hard places, releasing the springs of life. As Origen wrote, “The way of the Lord must be prepared within our hearts, for so great and spacious is our heart, it is as if it were the whole world.”
The Baptism of the Holy Spirit is an obvious reference to Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, it is written, “For John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts ch. 2) On the day of Pentecost, Christ’s followers were enriched with illumination, their wills were strengthened, and their hearts were flooded with affection for the world.
Allow me to share a couple of other quotes from scripture: And Jesus said, in John chapter 3 “Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Or First Corinthians, “No man can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ apart from the Holy Spirit.” These are all references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Today, we still baptize with water which is given as a sacrament for the remission of sins, as it was to the Forerunner and Baptist John, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit is for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom and understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 (7-12):
"The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the Spirit gives knowledge. To others the same Spirit gives faith. And to others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. To others he gives the power to do miracles. And to others he gives the ability to prophesy. All these gifts are produced by the one and same Holy Spirit."
Gregory of Nazianzus notes that Moses baptized with water in the cloud and the sea. John also baptized with water for the remission of sins. But Jesus baptized in the Holy Spirit which is perfection. Saint Gregory then mentions a fourth baptism, wrought by martyrdom and blood, with which Jesus himself was also baptized. And then there is a fifth: the baptism of tears, by which David bedewed his bed, and by which our hearts can be enlightened.
And St. Basil writes, “The baptism of the Holy Spirit surpasses all powers of comprehension. It contains a glory beyond all that we can hope or pray for, which exceeds everything as the sun outshines the stars. Using the Lord Jesus Christ as our guide, we grope along the way as with a mirror, or through the maze of an enigma. We speak as we are made in weakness. But we must speak to magnify the benevolence of our God who tolerates our attempts to speak about his love and his grace.”
The world is alive in Christ, and we have been filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not demand; he gives, saying, “come, receive the light.” Today, we join the Lord in the Eucharist, absorbed by his love, and knowing that all is already accomplished. Thanks be to God.