John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4–11)
I will always remember Mrs Gasson. I was nine, and to my mind she was aged about a hundred and four. She dominated our classroom, and taught with a reign of terror. Woe betide anyone who spoke in the classroom or left for home without carefully placing their chair on the table. She was one of a small band of teachers before whom I would gently cower, alongside Mr Fyles, Mr Parry and Mr Marchant. These were teachers who had no first names, and were not born as other people were. They were simply delivered to schools, full grown and wearing a frown. As you continue through life from time to time you come across such people in the wild, all short tempers and fixed views. Minds rusted shut. People with power over us.
Is it any wonder, then, that many people imagine God as an angry, over strict teacher? After all, he has power over us, and holds the keys to heaven and hell his hands. He is ever present, with us at all times and knowing every part our lives. And so it is that God is often seen as a sort of transcendental tax inspector, keeping meticulous books on our actions, looking to catch us out, Someone we can never please, a sort of father who always finds fault.
Yet is that really so?
Well, let’s look at the account of Jesus’ baptism, sketched out in today’s passage. Jesus goes to John the Baptist and asks for baptism. John isn't keen: why should I baptise you? Shouldn't you baptise me? But Jesus says no, this is what God wants. Come on, just do it. Then we hear the voice from heaven: “this is my son with whom I am well pleased”.
Did you hear that? “Well pleased”. This is a happy God, a smiling God. A pleased God.
Now those of you with a stern God would have God say nothing, or perhaps grudging “OK, well done, you’ve done your duty”. In reality, however, God is “well pleased”.
You would do well to take this to heart, because when you become a Christian, you become a child of God. As you take those first faltering steps of obedience your heavenly Father smiles. We must be careful not to turn God into a grumpy old man in starched collars and a black suit muttering: “children are to be seen and not heard”. Rather, he is the God who is “well pleased”.
I’ve been labouring this point because I do believe that affirmation is a powerful thing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we all seek affirmation from someone. We all want someone to notice and say “well done”. Preachers stand at the door and hope someone might say “that was good”! When Children rush out school, giving you splodges of paint on paper that is supposed be you, they want you to make fuss and stick it on the fridge. When you work hard at some job, you want your boss (or 'line manager') to say that's good. Thanks.
You see this in society at large. Why are there so many one night stands. So much casual sex? People want to be loved, affirmed. In many places society has broken down to the extent that families have drifted apart, but people still need love from somewhere. Just look at the explosive growth in counselling, which gives you a chance to have someone tell you you're OK really.
With this very human need for affirmation in mind, it is interesting to see how God affirms Jesus in his ministry. Right at the beginning, we have the voice saying “you are my beloved Son”. As Jesus begins to make his final journey to Jerusalem, at the Transfiguration, God speaks again: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). As Jesus wrestled in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his execution we read: “and there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
Here is the pattern of God, a pattern of affirmation.
There are countless stories of countless saints through countless ages who have got through tough lives. They have endured because they felt and know God's affirmation. God sees those things that no-one else does. And he says this is my child with whom I am well pleased.
And let me finish with this.
There is an account in gospels of a party in heaven, a great shindig of all the angels, and it is not caused by Jesus, or by any of the great prophets. It is caused by someone like you. Listen to Jesus: "I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10). When you turn to Christ a party is thrown. When you decided to follow Jesus. When you realised that you couldn't get there by yourself and needed his help. Well they threw a party in heaven. God smiled.
There is something deep within us that needs to know the smile of God. If you are finding that life somehow just does not satisfy you, well then that is because you do not know the smile of God. Babies suffer when starved of love, of cuddles, of affection and you will suffer too. You have a heavenly father. To starve yourself of his live and affection is to spiritually die.
If you have not yet taken that step, that first step of following Jesus, then resolve to do it now and feel the radiant smile of God. If you are living as a Christian in a sort of twilight. If you have a life of compromises and just not really going for it. Well, recommit yourself and bask in God's smile. If you are doggedly going on with Jesus, and it is causing you trouble at work, at home, well look up! See the smile of your God as you seek to follow him.
My friend, you need to experience the smile of God.