Epiphany 1 (8th January 2023) – Janet Spence, Chaplain

Today’s gospel opens with what we might call a disagreement between Jesus and John the Baptist. John has been baptising many people. His message has been a call to turn around your life, and be baptised, because the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus comes from Galilee and today’s gospel tells us that John is reluctant to baptise him. And we could say, with good reason!

As I pondered today’s gospel this disagreement niggled at me. My niggle seemed to have two different aspects:

What was John the Baptist’s baptism offering that drew so many crowds? What was he preaching? And how did that fit in with Jewish practices and teaching of the time?

And secondly, what was Jesus drawn to in John’s baptism? What was his intention in going to be baptised by John? What was he hoping for? And what on earth happened when he was baptised?!

From well before the 1st Century of the Common Era and indeed up to the present, a significant Jewish practice is that of ritual immersion in order to be cleansed of ‘ritual impurity’. Such impurity is simply a consequence of living embodied physical lives and is not in any way shameful, nor does it impede daily life.

Nevertheless, in Jewish law it is necessary to be ritually purified before any interaction with the sacred, and so the practice of ritual immersion provides the necessary purification.

But John’s teaching around baptism was concerned with moral impurity which is something quite different, requiring a different response – a response of repentance and then atonement. Moral impurity results from what are considered to be immoral acts, many of them stipulated in Jewish books of the law.

This is why John does not welcome the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism. They are not interested in inner change not recognising themselves as morally impure. But John insists that ancestry is not sufficient; they (as with all people) must first repent – turn to God – in order to receive forgiveness. Moral impurity required a change of heart, and the baptism John offered was an outward public sign of this inner change.

There was also an eschatological dimension to John’s teaching; the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven was imminent, heralding God’s judgement in which , in v.12, ‘the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire’.

And so, the crowds came, and John baptised many.

Until Jesus also arrived, seeking baptism.

Why? What was Jesus seeking? Did Jesus need to ‘Repent’? Did Jesus need to be morally cleansed? Did Jesus need to prepare for judgement day? John clearly didn’t think so, and, in Matthew’s gospel, tries to prevent him, arguing that he, John, needed to be baptised by Jesus rather than the other way round.

How does this ‘conflict situation’ become resolved? Jesus does not get drawn into the argument with John about their relative positions hierarchically or before God. Instead through Jesus’ reply ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’ – John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus, and his argument are dispersed.

Jesus doesn’t really argue against John, but acknowledges John’s position, reassuring him, this is ok for now. Until this point the focus of John’s teaching has been sin, repentance, and judgement. Jesus turns this around, yes, shining a light on these issues, but reframing so that the focus is ‘righteousness’. So, what does he mean by this?

Righteousness in Scripture is commonly about being in right relation with God (and indeed with one another). It seems significant that Jesus’ baptism is an act that fulfills righteousness in a very public way extending beyond Jesus’ relationship with God, and embracing all people.

How? Well, through his baptism Jesus enters into the waters of the River Jordan with the people … in other words, with us. He literally steps into the river of life with us.

Jesus is a physical incarnate being … with us. Jesus enters into the sorrow of repentance, AND into the joy of new life … with us.

And then, the absolute surprise (perhaps a surprise to Jesus as well as to all the others who were witnesses, we don’t know) is what happens next.

‘Suddenly the heavens were opened to Jesus and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In this extraordinary event:

God’s voice is heard; and

the dove, the symbol of peace, of new life, of the Holy Spirit, descends.

This event happens in Matthew’s gospel before Jesus’ public ministry has begun. This is Jesus’ first appearance after the birth and flight to Egypt narratives. And what is proclaimed?

He is God’s son (he belongs).

He is beloved (he is precious and desirable). And

God is well pleased in him (he is delightful to God).

What has Jesus achieved at this point that might have earned God’s pronouncement?

Jesus has been born – well … that’s a good start!

Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, have fled Herod, and have lived as refugees in Egypt.

They then returned to Nazareth, and now at this point Jesus seeks out John the Baptist.

His public ministry has not yet begun.

We could say, if we wanted to be provocative, that he’s just been hanging about, not doing anything worthy of mention so far because … well … Matthew doesn’t bother to mention it.

And yet… and yet … what does God say? ‘I am very pleased with him’, ‘I delight in him’, ‘Look at him – he is the apple of my eye’.

Don’t we all long for such a pronouncement to be made about us? To know that about ourselves? And even if we are told it by those who love us, are we really able to believe it?

I think that this struggle to believe that God might call us ‘beloved child’; might say of us ‘with you I am well pleased’ is the meaning of sin. That sin is…

Our inability to truly believe we have a place as a child of God.

Our struggle to really believe ourselves precious to God.

The challenge to believe that God delights in us.

Sin – our inability to accept this truth – is what makes right relationship, or righteousness, with God so difficult; and thereby what makes right relationship with others difficult.

Yet our Scriptures tell us repeatedly, that God gazes at every one of us, as though nothing else was as important, and whispers to each of us ‘You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.’

And what can happen when we begin to believe this? Then we are nurturing right relationship with God.

When we begin to believe this, then we are nurturing right relationship with one another (because we suddenly are able unequivocally to recognise that others too are beloved children of God, and to delight with God in that).

When we begin to believe this, then we come a little closer to being the child of God that the Holy Spirit calls us to be in all parts of our lives – with ourselves, with God, with one another, and with all creation.

Let us celebrate that, and maybe today hear God’s voice – for you are a beloved child of God, in whom God is well pleased.