January 7 – Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Scriptures: Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-10
Growing up, our family drove to Florida at least once a year to visit my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson. The first day of driving wasn’t so bad. For one thing, we had adrenalin working for us. But mostly, during that first day, we always seemed to be flying as we made it through four states—Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee—and then stopping in a fifth, Georgia. Ticking off five states in one drive felt like we were making really good time.
But then came the second day. The initial excitement we felt on day one had subsided, and both Georgia and Florida are very long states. It seemed like we were in Georgia forever. However, once we finally crossed into Florida and stopped at the welcome station, it felt like we were nearly there. But we weren’t. Not even close! We still had half of Florida to get through before we finally arrived in Lakeland. That second day of driving was torturous—at least, it was for us kids. And maybe it was for our parents as well, as no doubt us kids pommeled them all that second day with “Are we there yet?…Are we there yet?”
Of course, it’s not just children who can feel this way. When we lived in Millington, which is located off of I75 at the Birch Run exit, and near Frankenmuth, Caroline and I would often ask ourselves a variation of that question whenever we were driving home after dark from Ann Arbor, where our families lived. It’s always been our experience that driving in the dark makes whatever trip we’re on seem longer. And if you factor in being somewhat tired because it’s the end of the day, that hour and a half drive often felt like 3 hours. So, we’d frequently ask out loud, “Shouldn’t we be home already? Aren’t we there yet?”
In today’s reading from Acts, the Apostle Paul had arrived in the city of Ephesus where, on a previous mission trip, he’d established a church. Now, when I say, “church,” I don’t mean a church like ours or any typical church these days. The Ephesian church was really a small congregation, probably the size of an extended family, which probably few under the radar and met in someone’s home. At that point in time, the organizational structure of the church was in its infancy and leadership was somewhat sparse. Pastors were being trained, but that, of course, took time. And people were being taught the gospel, but it certainly wasn’t being done in any systematic way. All of this meant that within a large city like Ephesus, there could easily have been small pockets of Christian “churches” scattered here and there, each of whom had no knowledge of the anothers. It’s within this environment that Paul “found some disciples” (Acts 19:1) after he arrived in Ephesus.
According to Luke, the author of the book of Acts, Paul’s first question to them was “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?” (v. 2). That was his ‘are we there yet?’ question. Or, more fittingly, are YOU there yet? Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?
They responded that they’d not been taught that there’s a Holy Spirit, so they were unaware such a thing existed. Paul quickly realized that their catechism, shall we say, was incomplete.
In verse 1, Luke referred to this group of people as “disciples” and also recorded that Paul referenced a time when they came to “believe.” Those two factors could indicate that they’d previously learned something about Jesus, and maybe had even intellectually subscribed to the teaching that Jesus is Lord and Savior. But the fact was, up until that point in time, they’d only been baptized by one of John’s disciples, a baptism probably done “in the name of John.” Paul’s response? That’s an important baptism for sure, but it’s since been replaced by baptism in the name of Jesus—who John was ultimately pointing to when he was alive and baptizing people. It was only after Paul laid his hands on each of them and baptized them into Jesus that they finally received the Holy Spirit.
Is receiving the Holy Spirit the destination, or is it just the beginning of the journey?
To Paul’s question, Are you there yet? their answer was shown to be No, not yet; that is, if the destination in question was being filled with the Holy Spirit. If that was the case, then obviously their baptism into Jesus brought them to that destination. Before they parted ways that day, they could say “We’ve arrived! We’re now there!”
Or were they? Is receiving the Holy Spirit the destination, or is it just the beginning of the journey?
By now, you probably know my answer to that question. I’d say it’s just the beginning. It’s an important beginning. A vital beginning. In fact, it’s a beginning without which there really is no journey which leads to the ultimate destination, which is spending eternity with our Creator. So, yes, receiving the Holy Spirit through having saving faith in Jesus Christ is an important step on the pathway to Life, but it’s only the first step on that pathway.
Walking that pathway—also called discipleship—is a lifelong journey. The big churchy word for that is sanctification. Sanctification is the lifelong process of growing in faith and becoming more like Christ. Let me say it another way. It’s the lifelong process of growing in God’s grace wherein, over time, we learn to apply the truth of the gospel to our thinking and our believing with the effect that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our outward living reflects the righteousness ascribed to us when we first said yes to Jesus. In essence, sanctification is the lifelong process of becoming like Jesus in our believing (heart), our thinking (head), and in our actions and behaviors and responses to the things of this world. In this sense, when it comes to everyday living, it’s more about the journey than the destination. Once the destination has been determined—we know and accept that we’ve been given the gift of eternal life—then the rest of our lives is about being the light of Jesus Christ. That’s the call of each of us from God. Our purpose in this life is to reflect Jesus Christ to everyone we meet and know.
But here’s the thing: this particular aspect of salvation—the growing in grace and becoming like Christ—isn’t a once-for-all-time occurrence. What is once-for-all-time is the momentary act being made right in God’s eyes. That happened when you said yes to Jesus. At that point, the Holy Spirit came into you and made you spiritually alive on account of receiving what Jesus accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. In that moment, God declared you to be holy and in right relationship with him. That only happens once. However, from that point on, any growth that’s going to happen is up to us. And although there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth when I say this, the Sunday worship service alone does not provide the spiritual nourishment needed to move beyond being a spiritual toddler. Anyone who relies on attending a one-hour worship service once a week to grow in their knowledge of and relationship with God as well as their ability take up their cross daily will find it incredibly slow-going. And ultimately, it can’t take you very deep spiritually.
Sanctification is the lifelong process of growing in God’s grace wherein, over time, we learn to apply the truth of the gospel to our thinking and our believing with the effect that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our outward living reflects the righteousness ascribed to us when we first said yes to Jesus.
If I practiced my instrument only one hour a week—in a single, one-hour session—how long would it take for me to become a good player? It’d probably never happen. I may eventually get past the point of sounding like a novice, but it won’t go much past that at one hour a week.
If I limited my food intake to one standard-sized meal a week, how well would I be after a month. I’d still be alive, but certainly a lot weaker. How about after two months—8 meals? Three months—12 meals?
How about sending our kids to school for one hour a week?
So, why do we think that playing a relatively passive role in a one hour worship service once a week is going to provide the necessary spiritual nourishment to become like Christ?
Well, I think you understand what I’m saying, so I won’t belabor that matter any longer. My point is this: being a disciple entails an ongoing commitment to moving from believer to follower. If you think about it, simply being a believer requires no commitment to actually follow Jesus. I can believe to be true, and confess as much, that Jesus died for me, that he took the guilt of my sins upon himself, and that I accept his life’s work as that which makes me right with God, and yet never choose to follow him. Receiving the Holy Spirit through faith doesn’t guarantee that I’ll take up my cross and go the distance with him. That’s something I have to choose to do as a believer. Being a disciple entails an unending commitment to moving from believer to follower.
Now, with that said, I want to make one very important point. And this point cannot be overstated—although I’m probably guilty of not stating it enough in my preaching. Any and all spiritual growth on our part, including an underlying desire to grow, is a gift from God. As Christians, we hold fast to the belief that we don’t naturally possess within ourselves the power to become spiritually mature. Even more, we believe that we humans lack a natural predisposition for spiritual growth. Both the desire to grow and the ability to grow in faith and knowledge and relationship with God are only possible by the grace of God!
That being so, if your recognize within yourself even an inkling of a desire to know God better, to be more faithful, to move even a little beyond where you’re at today spiritually, then know that that desire you feel is actually the voice of the Holy Spirit. If you feel such a desire, you’re hearing God talking to you!
Maybe for many of us, our prayer this week simply needs to be this:
God, give me the desire to grow. Stir my heart and make me aware of an increasing yearning within to grow in my discipleship…to know more about you, but more importantly, to know you more. Increase my willingness to put in the effort necessary to better my walk with Jesus. Give me the gumption to do what it takes, even if that means me accepting some amount of leadership in making something happen. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for giving life to my spirit and enabling me to believe. But I’m ready and willing—Lord, increase my willingness—to take the next step on this pathway that I’m on with you. Trusting that you’ve heard this prayer of mine, and that it’s a prayer you want to answer with a resounding “YES!” I commit myself to remaining aware of opportunities that will come along, and that I’ll not automatically resist them though that’ll probably be my initial response. So, I thank you in advance for what you’re doing in me, and for what you will do through me in the year ahead as I intentionally take responsibility for my spiritual well-being. When we gather for worship, bless us with your holy presence and touch our lives in that hour. However, please don’t allow us to feel satisfied with that minimal time with you. Make us want you more! I love you and praise you, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Friends, if that’s a prayer you’d like to offer unto God this week, then you can literally pick up a copy of it on your way out today. There are printed copies of it on the Welcome Desk which you’re more than welcome to take home and pray this week. We’ll also post it on our website this week. With that said, let’s pray….