8 January 2017
Baptism of Christ
- 00 am Communion Hadlow
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matt 3:13 -end
May I speak in the name of God whom we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christmas is now, officially, over and we are in the season of Epiphany.
Epiphany is one of those ‘churchy’ words that it is very possible to get all holy and po-faced about whilst forgetting what it actually means. To have an epiphany, of course, is to have a moment of sudden or great realisation about something. There is another Greek word that means much the same thing: “Eureka!” When Archimedes leapt out of the bath he exclaimed ‘Eureka’ meaning “I’ve found it” or “I’ve got it” or “Now I understand”!
They do say that if you ever feel intimated by public speaking then the best thing to do is to picture your audience with no clothes on. You can make your own jokes up at this point. Perhaps if you feel intimated by epiphany and not quite sure what it is all about just picture everyone in church leaping from the bath and going “Eureka!” But not because they have discovered the principle of displacement – and some of us displace more than others especially after Christmas – but because they have discovered who Jesus is and why he matters.
We could therefore think of the season of epiphany as the church’s season of eureka! That spontaneous expression of joy at having discovered something life-changing, seems a much better way of approaching this season.
Epiphany, or Eureka, actually started last Friday, and that is the day we remember the Magi arriving in Bethlehem and presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus as they recognised that this little baby represented not only the fulfilment of many prophecies but a life-changing moment for the whole world. The fact that the Magi were not only gentiles but had probably come from Babylon, the place were Israel had been held captive, tells us that the message of Jesus did not come to the gentiles solely by the efforts of the later evangelists but was always part of God’s plan, and that nowhere, not Babylon and not Kent, is beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.
That moment of eureka, took place within days of Jesus’ birth. But we now undergo something of a chronological gear change of thirty years or so as we think about a quite different moment as a much wider audience, and indeed perhaps Jesus himself, comes to recognise who he is.
In today’s reading we have a very public moment of eureka when Jesus is baptised in the Jordan, is anointed by the Holy Sprit and is proclaimed to be the Beloved Son of God.
But before John will consent to baptise Jesus we have an exchange between them, which occurs only in Matthew. If you cast your mind back to Advent John had said, only a few verses before today’s reading:
“I baptise with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
So when the person arrives whom John recognises as the messiah, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit, he cannot see why Jesus would need to be baptised by him and says instead that he, John, ought to be baptised by Jesus and, presumably, by the Holy Spirit. John appears to be recognising that the baptism of water that he is offering is but a pale reflection of the baptism that Jesus brings and, therefore, that Jesus can have no need of this immersion.
And yet despite the fact that Jesus did not need repentance in the way that John meant it and despite the fact that being immersed in water would not, on the face of it, change Jesus’ existing relationship with God nonetheless Jesus insists on being baptised by John, for the “fulfilment of all righteousness.”
Matthew’s gospel makes frequent use of the concept of ‘fulfilment’, and the way in which Jesus and all that happened around him was the fulfilment of earlier prophecies and scriptures concerning the coming of God’s anointed one. Looked at from the perspective of fulfilment John is strongly identified as the old testament prophet Elijah who was to return before the messiah came and it was important for the ministry of the forerunner to be fulfilled before the ministry of the messiah is to start. Jesus is making it clear that there is a proper order to be followed here – John must fulfil his ministry of baptism by immersing Jesus who will then be shown forth to the world as the next and final step in God’s plan to bring the world back to righteousness.
And so Jesus entered the Jordan and was immersed in its waters. However, unlike the probably hundreds of others who received the water of baptism at the hands of John, Jesus also receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the audible anointing of God the Father:
“…At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The image of Jesus’ baptism is the image par excellence of the trinity – God the Father sending God the Holy Spirit onto God the Beloved Son. But it is not just an image of the trinity – it is also a reminder of the creative and re-creative work of God. In verses 1 and 2 of Genesis we are told:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The Spirit of God was hovering over the water at the beginning of all things and now the Spirit of God is once again hovering over the waters – the water of the Jordan and the water of baptism. And God is creating a new heaven and a new earth and that act of creation starts with Jesus, and Jesus’ public ministry starts here with his baptism.
It may also be interesting to ponder that Jesus’ acceptance of being pushed under the water by John before emerging to a new life may itself point towards his acceptance of the cross at the hands of others and the death of the tomb before emerging to a new, resurrected and ascended life.
We were also reminded of the original creation and God’s act of re-creation in our reading from Isaiah:
“Thus says God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it…see the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
And that new thing takes the surprising form of a servant, on whom the Spirit rests, who will bring justice and light to the nations, and who will bring out those who sit in darkness like prisoners. Jesus said in the synagogue in Nazareth that the prophecies of Isaiah found their fulfilment in him. God overturns the old order not through the exercise of strength but through the ministry of a servant. Leadership may take many forms in this world, and we see amongst politicians the leadership styles that people think they want, but the leadership that Jesus offers us is of a very different kind.
As followers of Jesus, we seek to go where he has gone before us. At the end of his ministry Jesus had not forgotten his baptism but, rather, he commanded his church to go and baptise all nations in the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit and, of course, the church itself was baptised with fire by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is my great privilege to follow Jesus’ command and baptise those who come here and I always remind the families that baptism does not represent the completion of one’s spiritual life but, rather, is the moment of new spiritual birth and the beginning of an amazing journey.
And those here who are baptised should not forget that in our baptism each of us became a new creation – God started to build a new heaven and a new earth through Jesus and in our baptism we all became part of that work and that creation. At our baptism the Holy Spirit came to dwell with us, and within us, and God calls each of us his beloved children. If you are not yet baptised and want to be a new creation by the power of God then know that God longs for you. God longs for you.
For the remainder of this season we undertake a pilgrimage of discovery. Through the biblical stories of those who came to a greater understanding of who Jesus is, and what he meant for the world, and through thinking about what it means in this world to be his followers I hope and pray that each of us will come into a deeper relationship with God and that, through his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we may even have our own moments of epiphany or leap from the bath crying: “Eureka”!