The liturgical year is a strange and wonderful thing. It's not even 3 weeks since we celebrated the birth of Jesus: today we fast forward 30 years to the start of his adult ministry. It’s as if the Gospel writers were focussing on a series of snapshots from the family album. The opening pages show us the new baby and his first visitors; now we have another family photo frozen in time. When we say the Creed, we’d almost be forgiven for thinking that nothing of note happened between the stable and the cross, but today is a moment of no less public importance, and it’s appropriate that we celebrate it just one week after the Epiphany. Last Sunday, after all, we rejoiced that the glory of God in Jesus Christ was made clear, shown forth, to all the nations…for that is what “epiphany” means. Today is another celebration of the public revelation of Christ’s nature
“this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
It’s a dramatic scene. John the Baptiser, who has so confidently proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, is confronted by the living reality….but…oh goodness!…it turns out to be his cousin. I wonder how that felt – though John seems to grasp straight away just who stands before him – hence his shock at the idea that he, John, with all his human faults and failings, should presume to baptise the longed-for Messiah. You have to sympathise with his reservations…the baptism he has offered is one of repentance…a washing away of the sins we all struggle with….yet now, Jesus, the sinless one, is seeking baptism for himself. Why??
How can you Christen the Christ – the source of all baptism? How do you graft him into a Church that has yet to be born?
It just doesn't make sense – and his response to John's query is not much help either.
“It’s necessary to fulfil all righteousness”
Actually, on second thoughts, that response is oddly similar to that which so many parents give when they are asked why they seek baptism for their baby
“It’s the right thing to do….”
But surely, you say, the baptism of Jesus must be a very different thing from that of a baby in Cainscross in 2014?
I thought that too when I started work on this sermon, but now I’m less convinced.
When Jesus was baptised, nothing essential changed in his relationship with God.
He did nothing extra to deserve that approval which is made explicit here…this was, after all, the start of his adult ministry. God was not applauding his teaching of multitudes, his healings, signs and wonders, for these still lay ahead. At the moment, there is seems nothing remarkable to report, except, perhaps, for obedience.
“to fulfil all righteousness” means, above all, to exist in a right relationship to God, a relationship based on loving humility.
Just as Jesus began his life by emptying himself of his heavenly glory, so he now begins his ministry by submitting humbly to baptism.
And as he does so he is proclaimed
“my Son..the beloved..”
Here a pre-existing truth is made clear – a truth which holds good for each one of us…we too are beloved of God, without any need to earn that love.
Though baptism is an initiation, it is not an initiation into a relationship with our heavenly Father, as if, when the baptismal water flows over us, God should suddenly exclaim
“Oh look! It’s Kathryn. Now I recognise her!”
Baptism changes nothing on God’s side. Rather it clarifies for our benefit something that has always, incredibly, been there, beyond our wildest dreams or deserts.
We are, each of us, God’s beloved, with whom he is well pleased.
Yes…but….surely Baptism demands something of us too?? After all, Jesus came to baptism immediately before he began his public ministry…it acted as a kind of commissioning, almost an ordination. A friend told me about a church in America where a new priest arrived and, wishing to make his parish office his own, positioned his ordination certificate prominently over the desk. The parish secretary, seeing this, said proudly “I have one of those too” and produced from her own desk her baptism certificate. She recognised the truth that baptism, far from being a one-off event is part of a process by which we each become more Christ-like. Not “I was baptised” but “I AM baptised”
the ordination of each of us into the royal priesthood of all believers…
That's our fundamental, lifelong calling. For us, baptism is the beginning of a journey with and towards God…Though it doesn’t depend in any way upon us and our fitness for the task, it does lay obligations upon us : to live the lives of those who have been baptised into Christ’s death so that we may share in his resurrection.
There's been a lot of water in the news in the past couple of weeks...dangerous, destructive, sweeping sea walls away, covering low lying ground, even claiming lives...I'm sure many would currently sympathise with the ancient Israelites, for whom the sea was the emblem of chaos, and who looked forward to the time when it would have no more influence on their world. We know that water is essential to life – but we know too that all waters can be dangerous, and those of baptism perhaps most of all.
Baptism is, truly, a kind of death…of self…of the old order…of anything that rebels against God’s rule of love. We cannot expect to go down into those waters and emerge unchanged…
When we are baptised, the cross is traced on our foreheads…it remains there as an invisible sign of the event that has taken place and a reminder of the shape that our lives should take from then on. Each of us is commissioned to make that sign visible once more, in the way that we live out our baptism. The way in which Jesus lived his life from this defining moment of initiation into his ministry led him inexorably to the cross….but beyond the cross, for him as for us, the Resurrection beckons.
“this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”
That is the stupendous message of grace that is available to each of us…
A son, for the Biblical writers, is one who inherits not just the family name and estate, but all the honour due to the father. Sharing his father's name, a good son can act in that name and with that authority. The family honour -- or the family shame -- is his. The family business is his business.
Thus, when we say that Jesus is God's son, we are making a claim for and about Jesus. We're asserting that Jesus has authority to act in God's name, that God is honoured when we honour Jesus, that all that Jesus did represents him simply going about the family business.
"Like father, like son,".
It works both ways,too.
When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we're not just saying that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus. We are saying that what Jesus did – his championship of those on the edge, his refusal to play by the world's rules, his overwhelming sacrificial love -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behaviour.
In other words, God's business on earth is "Yahweh and Sons" (and daughters, of course!). As God's children, we are co-heirs with Christ. God's business is our business, and carrying out that business in the style of our elder brother Jesus is what we are FOR. As God's children, God's compassion and God's mission are at the core of our identity. It is this to which we are commissioned at baptism…this which makes baptism not a one off…a snap shot in the album of our lives…but the very centre of our beings as Christians.
“this is my beloved Son…”
God’s words are heard by the crowd, so that their impact is unmissable.
From now on, there is to be no doubt about the primary relationship in Jesus’ life.
He is to be seen, supremely, as God’s Son and his whole life is defined in terms of that relationship.
That is our calling too...as we seek to live out our baptism vows so that
the invisible sign of the cross becomes clear, and we too can be recognised by our family likeness “this is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”