Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Baptism of Jesus.

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

So Christmas is over. I wonder how many of us breathed a slightly guilty sigh of relief! For many, of course, it may be a rather sad time. Gone are the brilliant lights that added warmth and light heartedness to our lives, gone the pleasant aromas of holly and pine, cinnamon and mulled wine (or in my mother's house, gin), gone the greetings of love, peace and joy. It is time to go back to ordinary life, although most of us did that some time back. (I'm always slightly in awe of those with the staying power to see it through to the bitter end.) But we don’t go back the same as we were before. We now have new gifts to enjoy, new clothes to wear. I, for instance, have cornered the market in blue socks. We may have made new relationships or strengthened old ones. We may have made New Year resolutions that call for change. While in some ways today may be an end, it is also a beginning.

Today is also the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus. In some parts of the ancient church this was a time of year when people entered into Jesus’ baptism by being baptized themselves.

Hang on. Aren’t we in Epiphany? Isn’t this the feast of the “Three Wise Men”, the Magi? Well yes, but the well ordered progress of the liturgical year and the lectionary are punctuated by events in which the divine becomes manifest in our midst and they deserve special attention, which if they don’t fall on a Sunday they all too often run the risk of not getting. Today’s gospel is one of those moments and it’s a mini Epiphany within the Season of Epiphany.

Now I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence here but I am reminded of an occasion in the classroom when I was talking about Epiphany and as the lesson was drawing to a close I thought to myself: “That was a pretty good lesson. I’m pleased with that.” So we moved into the plenary and I asked if there were any questions.
“Sir. Sir. What does Epiphany mean?”

According to the dictionary Epiphany is “a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the revealing of Christ to the gentiles as represented by the Magi.” However it is also listed as “a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or spiritual experience.”

So what is this mini Epiphany within the wider Epiphany? Today is the day when we move from one beginning to another as we jump in time from the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, to the baptism of the adult Jesus at the start of his ministry. The Gospel account describes extraordinary occurrences. The heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove; a voice from heaven identifies Jesus as “beloved Son.”

This was the same voice that stilled the unruly waters of chaos referred to in today’s other readings. Out of those primeval waters emerged an ordered universe, one that would produce much life. Out of the waters of the Jordan stepped an unpretentious man who would transform the world.

All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan river. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wants to be baptized by him. Remember too that John’s baptism was “for the repentance of sins.” So we might well wonder why Jesus would submit himself to it unless Jesus’ baptism was for him a kind of ritual entry into his ministry to which God gave divine approval: “I am well pleased.”

The words attributed to God call to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah found in today’s first reading. They not only identify Jesus as the chosen servant of God; they also lay bear the character of his ministry. He will bring justice, but he will accomplish this with gentleness rather than through the strength of arms. He will be particularly sensitive to the weak and vulnerable, and his example will be “a light for the nations” to follow and of course we Christians recognize in this description of the servant the profile of Jesus.

The story also reveals that John knew that he was destined to be the one who goes ahead “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” Both men must have been told they were chosen by God for a specific ministry and these cousins never wavered from their chosen path. John grows up and chooses the difficult way of the desert and an ascetic way of life—he becomes a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering. John’s choice involves enormous humility. He says clearly, “I am not the one you are waiting for, there is one greater than I coming after me.” Jesus’ choice involves servant-hood, a ministry of healing and of teaching, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in the midst of an occupation by the greatest earthly power, the Roman Empire.

John’s life is filled with courage. Some would call it madness, to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, had no choice but to call sin by its name and to stand up to a king and his family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, his ministry is cut short in violent death.

Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. What courage! He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body.

John and Jesus: both of their ways lead to violent death at the hands of the political and religious vested interest of the day: one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life.

What does this story say to us? If it is, indeed, a mini Epiphany, “a sudden intuitive insight” as a result of God’s manifestation, what response is required of us?

We too emerged from the waters at the time of our baptism, waters that had been transformed by Jesus. At that time, we were commissioned to continue the ministry that he began.

Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. Maybe that's the learning point: it's never too late for any of us to say “yes” to God.

The reading from Acts demonstrates the fruits of that commission. Peter, representative of the entire church, moves out of the safety of the believing community, the Jewish-Christian community, into the unfamiliar realm of the gentiles. He points to Jesus’ baptism and anointing by God as the beginning of the marvellous spread of the Gospel. The baptism of the household of the non-Jewish Cornelius is an example of its universal scope. The Gospel must be preached in every nation. And look around at this congregation as an example of the outcome: British, South African, German, Estonian, New Zealanders, Tanzanian, Latvian, American, Zimbabwean, Finnish and Namibian. But that work is still to be continued in our own families, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

As he came forth from the waters of the Jordan, his life took a new direction. As his followers, we emerge from the waters of baptism as new people, who with God’s help are willing to counter the chaos of our world and to take on the commission to share our own Epiphanies.