Friday, 14 January 2011

Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Christ . A sermon by Stephen Snelling

Isaiah 42.1-9, Acts 10.34-43, Matt 3.13-end.

I expect that, like Deborah and me, you took your Christmas decorations down this week. Suddenly it seems a long time since Christmas and a very long time before the next one. Everything looks ordinary again, back to normal. Even Tesco’s in Manchester was reported to be selling Easter eggs on December 30 although I didn’t see any in Riverhead when I was there earlier this week!

And, strangely, though we will still have the crib until Candlemas on February 2, that is where we are liturgically – back to normal. Since Thursday, when we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, 30 years have passed. Jesus is no longer a baby. Instead we meet him today as he begins his ministry. Apart from a brief passage in Luke’s gospel concerning Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at the age of 12, we know nothing at all about the intervening years. We can only assume that he lived a pretty ordinary life, in a normal family, as the carpenter’s son, in Nazareth.

So, after the events surrounding his miraculous birth it is, ‘back to normal’. And Christ’s baptism is a timely reminder of this. Because 90% of Jesus’ life was not spent in the limelight. As John’s gospel reminds us, the Word became flesh, and lived among us – lived among us, for the most part, incognito. These thirty missing years are just as important for us as the bits we know about. Because it makes us realise that Jesus does indeed, really and truly, know what it is like to walk in our shoes in ordinariness of our daily lives. God is with us, really and truly, in the reality of everyday life.

But today we move on to that moment when Jesus, starts his public ministry. When he leaves behind the years of incognito living, to be revealed as the Messiah. Now you will remember that the Jews had certain views of what their Messiah would be like – that he would come at the head of a great army to defeat the Roman invader and to throw out their hangers on. So they were expecting something spectacular.

But Jesus? The Christ. God’s Messiah. The Long-Awaited One, the Saviour, the Holy One of Israel finally arrives, reaches manhood, and begins his ministry by what? An act of power? No. A healing? No. An incredible sermon? No. Confronting the hypocrisy of the establishment? No. Threatening the Roman oppressors? NO. By being the next one with mud squishing through his toes, ready to get washed over. Jesus starts his ministry standing in a river with sinners.

Can you picture it in your mind’s eye?

The line of people stretched down the hill to the banks of the muddy river. One by one the people stepped into the murky water, and voiced their repentance for how they had lived confessing their sins, they longed to be clean.

They wanted it bad enough to put up with an eccentric traveling preacher, John, who smelled bad and roared his displeasure at the insincere. One by one, their toes squished through the mud on the river’s edge and they stood in water until the Baptist pushed them under and the Jordan washed over them, one by one.

One by one the line of people moved forward until the two cousins stood looking at each other, the Baptist and Jesus. And the feistiness and arrogance drained out of John, and he said “No! No, this is all wrong I am the one who needs to be washed clean, not you.”

Why did Jesus come, after all? The divine child is a man now, ready to begin his public ministry. He is a man, the book of Hebrews says “who was tested in every way as we are . . . . but without sin.” Why, then, did he come on this day to the river, if there was no need for him to repent? Why had he come?

“It’s okay,” he says. “Let it go ahead and happen this way now. It needs to start like this.” And so John become the first in a long line of preachers with a healthy inferiority complex: “I’m not worthy to baptize you . . . . I’m just like all these others.” And Jesus might as well have smiled and said, “You’re right.”

It’s not the last time that Jesus will surprise people by coming in submission and humility. Not the last time he will experience the earthiness of human life. Nor the last time he will consent to do what rightfully should fall to others.

You may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised at all. Isn’t baptism a sign of washing away of sins following repentance? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect? If so why should he need baptising? That’s clearly what John the Baptist thought, judging by his reluctance to baptise Jesus. But Jesus’ baptism is about something else. It is certainly for Jesus, as for us, an initiation. In his case a public initiation into his ministry, suffering and death – something which comes with that seal of approval of the heavenly voice. It is also a reflection of his incarnation, which identifies Jesus absolutely with our fallen humanity. But perhaps even more it is the heralding in of a new era, an era about which John speaks when he says: ‘I baptise you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.’ For as Jesus rises up from the river Jordan, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit, appearing like a dove, descends upon him, with the Father’s voice, echoing with those words: ‘You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.

And these are not just any old words. ‘You are my Son’ – reminding the Jews of Psalm 2, which clearly spoke of the coming Messiah. And ‘with you I am well pleased’. Part of the Servant Song from Isaiah 42 – words which give an early indication of the sort of Messiah Jesus was called to be. Not a worldly ruler, but a suffering servant.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, God’s voice comes directly only twice - all the times he speaks through Jesus. It happens only here at Jesus’ baptism, and again at the Transfiguration. If it only happens twice, it must be important, and it IS. It’s like God is saying: This is it! This is the One! This is the one who pleases me, who reflects me, who comes from me! (The transfiguration adds three words: “Listen to him!”) It’s almost as though God is a proud parent, with such investment and expectations for the child, standing a little taller and with obvious deep pleasure saying, “This is MY Son, MY daughter. He belongs to me…She’s in MY family.”

God reminds us that he will speak to us through the words and actions of Jesus and through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes in the most unexpected ways. As part of my training I spent a fortnight with the chaplaincy team at Maidstone Hospital I spent a good deal of time on the wards talking to people – I was supposed to be bringing God to these people but at the end of my time there I found that they had brought God to me.

So in this season of Epiphany, let us celebrate the fact that God has made his home here among us. As we remember Christ’s baptism, let us remember our own baptism and then open ourselves to hear the words we scarcely dare to believe: ‘You are my beloved Son, you are my beloved daughter. You are in my family’

God wants us to be at one with him, he longs for us to do his will. We cannot be rebaptised but we can renew our commitment to him. I was fortunate enough to train with some Methodists and at this time of the year, they hold a covenant service, where they renew their commitment to God's will. Let me read their covenant prayer to you and as you approach God in this Eucharist see if you, too are ready to renew your commitment to God.

" I am no longer my own, but yours. 
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; 
put me to doing, put me to suffering; 
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, 
exalted for you or brought low for you; 
let me be full, let me be empty, 
let me have all things, let me have nothing; 
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. 
And now, glorious and blessed God, 
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. 
So be it. 
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven."


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