LADY MACBETH SYNDROME
ACTS 19: 1 – 7; MARK 1: 4 – 11
In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, a prediction is made that Macbeth will become King of Scotland. His wife, Lady Macbeth, likes the idea of being Queen – a lot; so when King Duncan swings by their castle for a visit, Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill him off. She drugs the guards, Macbeth knifes the King in his sleep and they frame his best friend’s sons. Macbeth is crowned but in his anxiety to protect his life and throne he takes drastic measures to rid the land of any possible rivals; before long people are being murdered left, right and centre stage. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth is so racked with the memory of Duncan’s blood and with the weight of the blood bath she’s put in motion, she has a psychotic break hallucinating there is actual blood on her hands. Tormented, she walks in her sleep, scrubbing at her hands and crying “Out, out damn spot!” Her hallucinations increase but the blood, along with her guilt, cannot be cleansed. Eventually, her sin pushes her to suicide. The play ends with bodies all over the stage. A new King is crowned which is a pretty easy job as all other Scots are dead.
Part of the power of this play comes from our ability to relate to the guilt of Lady Macbeth. We may not have plotted murder but there are things in our past that create deep remorse – sins we cannot fix or undo; sins we want to wash away; sins that rise up to haunt us. It may be a dreadful sin which violated something in the 10 Commandments or it may be more subtle; like the time when we purposely hit our child too hard or betrayed a friend’s confidence or lied to cover our own derriere or hated someone with our whole being. Blatant or subtle, we feel guilt and shame. You may be thinking “not me” but I guarantee it’s true of all of us. I know this because Scripture tells us the human condition is one of sin. If we had one of those special lights they use police shows to find blood at a crime scene, only ours detected sin, it would reveal that, like Lady Macbeth, our souls are splattered with enough proof to condemn us. Usually our solution is to try to counterbalance our sinful deeds with goodness. Yet no matter how good we are the stains remain. Just as no amount of bleach can fully remove blood stains from a floor, no amount of good behavior removes the “blood” or guilt on our spirits. Even if our sin is years old and we think of it as a cold case, God shines his light and sees it all. Trying to remove our sin by our own goodness is a hopeless act that leads to despair and torment; just ask Lady Macbeth.
Because of this hopeless condition God sent a man named John to call people to confess their sin, be washed through “baptism” and then to change their ways. This act of confession, cleansing and repentance was God’s ritual for extending mercy. Needless to say, people flocked to John in the hope of having relief from guilt and a new beginning. One day Jesus came to John to be baptized. This was perplexing to John and it’s perplexing to us. If John offered “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (Mark 1: 4) why had Jesus come to him for baptism? Jesus’ Divinity – his God nature – exempted him of our sinful, human condition. Jesus had no sin, guilt or shame. He didn’t need to repent. So why did he insist John baptize him for the forgiveness of sins? Mark gives us a clue in John’s statement; speaking of Jesus, John said, “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.”(vs. 7 & 8) Someone greater than John had arrived on the scene to do something greater than John was doing. John was offering forgiveness, but Jesus baptism offers of an even deeper grace.
Jesus’ baptism allowed him to identify himself with the rest of humanity. Jesus united himself with our human condition. He was baptized not for his own sin, but for ours. Jesus’ baptism foreshadowed the cross where he would bear our sins completely. As we identify with Jesus through our baptism, we’re united with his holiness. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him “like a dove”. Jesus’ baptism went beyond water to Spirit. John’s baptism took away something – sin; Jesus baptism brought something – the Holy Spirit. Along with the Holy Spirit came a Divine declaration that Jesus’ was God’s Son; not just a son, but a beloved son – one with whom God was pleased. Jesus’ baptism revealed that he belonged to God; they shared the same DNA. He was united with God in character; like Father, like Son. And if Jesus was united with God in character, he also shared God’s will. So baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ mission. From this point in time, Jesus began to fulfill his calling. While John’s baptism washed away sin and guilt, Jesus baptism brought new life and power.
This distinction is highlighted in the book of Acts. Paul was on his third missionary tour when he stopped at Ephesus where he worked with another Christian leader named Apollos. Acts 18: 25 tells us that Apollos, “taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.” This became very obvious when Paul met 12 of Apollos’ converts. Paul asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we haven’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2) They said they “were baptized into John’s baptism” (vs. 3). These people were good people with a solid belief in Jesus, but they were living out of their own strength, relying on their own ability and striving to overcome sin by themselves – an impossible task. Paul proceeded to explain the difference to them before baptizing them in Jesus’ name and laying hands on them. After this “the Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues and prophecy.” (vs. 5 & 6)
Christians often make four vital mistakes when it comes to baptism. Instead of tapping into the fullness of our baptism in Christ, we live as people who have only received the baptism of John. We continue in the cycle of repentance, forgiveness and cleansing without drawing on God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. So our first mistake is to receive only part of our baptism and ignore the rest. It’s like having a cup that’s dirty, used and stained. You wash it out so it’s clean. It has the potential now to be used in a fresh way. That’s the baptism John offered. But an empty cup’s not much better than a dirty one. But if we pour fresh water into that cup then the cup becomes useful because it contains water that’s refreshing and life giving. That’s more like the baptism of Jesus, except Jesus supplies an inexhaustible flow of water; our cup is never empty. So our second mistake is to believe we don’t really have the Holy Spirit alive in us now through our baptism in Christ; that somehow we need a “second” Spiritual baptism – this was true of the people in Ephesus because they had only been baptized into John’s baptism; it’s not true of us. The third error is to think the Holy Spirit lives outside of us; when we do we feel the need to ask God to “fill us” again and again with something we already have in all its fullness. Our fourth mistake is negligence. We ignore the Spirit, sometimes out of fear of its power – Will the Spirit make us weird? Or give us a power we can’t control? Or force us to do something we fear? The Spirit within needs to be nourished and we nourish it by paying attention to Jesus – doing the things that keep us aware of God which includes reading scripture and praying, using our gifts and serving, being out in God’s creation, etc. If we’re not nourishing the Spirit within then we’re quenching it. The Holy Spirit is often depicted as fire – a fire needs to be fed to continue to burn, make energy and stay hot. When we neglect the Spirit within we allow it to fade down to embers. It’s much more difficult to rekindle an ember than it is to keep a flame blazing. So while we don’t need to ask to be “refilled” with the Spirit, we do need to pray that God will keep us open to the Spirit within us in all its fullness; that we will live by the power of the Spirit, rather than our own strength; and that we’ll nurture the Spirit and allow it to pour out through us in all its fullness and might.
All Christians today are baptized with the baptism of Jesus so we’ve all received the Holy Spirit. Everyone here who was baptized, whether as an infant, a child or an adult, was baptized into Christ. We share Jesus’ death to sin and his resurrection life. We’re forgiven and cleansed from sin – the things that haunt us are wiped off the slate. We have a new beginning. We are beloved sons and daughters of God, each one precious in his sight. We now share Jesus’ character. Our hearts our changed so we want what God wants, and we’re ready to go out and do what God calls us to do. By the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ alive within us we’re empowered to act like Jesus and to live with Spiritual depth and vigour. So as Paul exhorted us, “If we are living now by the Holy Spirit’s power, let us follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives” (Galatians 5:15)