Isaiah 42.1-9; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Baptism is the rite that often celebrates, and gives thanks, for the birth of a child; it expresses our hope for that life given to us, celebrates the miracle and promise of that new life. God gives us life, our baptism liturgy announces. In baptism, God calls us to respond, it goes on to say.
And that word, respond, is key. Baptism may (usually) happen to us as a baby – the response takes a lifetime. On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we are invited to reflect, once again, on our ongoing response to the life given in baptism; to reflect, in the light of Jesus’ own baptism.
As we heard in our gospel, baptism appears to have started out as a practise offered to adults, by John on the banks of the Jordan. When Christians continued the practise, it remained only adults who would undergo baptism for a number of centuries. Now I’m quite happy to defend the practise of child baptism, but we certainly shouldn’t forget that baptism is something that continues to engage us as adults. In baptism, God call us to respond.
Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry – we have moved on from the stories of his birth, and early years, and now suddenly meet a grown man, following John, this charismatic preacher, out into the wilderness and to the banks of the Jordan. In Matthew’s account – in the exchange between John and Jesus that only Matthew records – we get the sense that the early Church might have been a bit embarrassed about Jesus’ baptism by John – that it might indicate that Jesus was a follower of John, rather than the one for whom John prepared the way. There also seems a basic a contradiction in Jesus, the one without sin, accepting a baptism of repentance. Why if Jesus is without sin, does he need a baptism of repentance?
There are two important ways through these conundrums, that help shape our own thinking about baptism, our own life-long response. The first is to not that something happens at Jesus’ baptism: it is a moment of epiphany for him and the crowd; a moment of revelation as the voice from heaven declares him Beloved. This epiphany is what drives Jesus into the desert, there to ponder and wrestle. His baptism starts out as a baptism of repentance, he comes to it as a follower of John, caught by this charismatic figure in the desert. But in the baptism more happens: it becomes a commissioning, a call, a giving of purpose and meaning. Here is my beloved son, the voice proclaims – perhaps that reality of being loved, and the world along with him, is the reality that Jesus recognises at that moment more forcefully than ever. And similarly for us – baptism is often talked about as a washing clean, a baptism of repentance. But far more fundamentally, it is about our being loved by God being proclaimed as the primary reality, the reality from which flows the forgiveness of sins. Not because baptism is about a wiping of the dirty slate clean, but because that forgiveness of sins, our sins by God, and our forgiveness of others, that practice of forgiveness is at the heart of the calling, the purpose, who we are, as loved by God. Baptism isn’t just a one off, but an ongoing call – to join in the work of Christ, forgiving, reconciling. In baptism God calls us to respond.
And that brings us to the second understanding of what is happening when Jesus is baptised by John: that this is God’s way of solidarity. This is what links the baptism of Christ to Christmas, the great celebration of Christ’s incarnation, God’s coming among us. For the point of the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness is not about his purity – look how wonderful Jesus is. That simply separates him off from us, makes him unbridgeably different. Rather the whole heart of the Christian proclamation is that God has been met in the midst of human travail and pain – in the midst of our brokenness and sin, and is there redeeming it. But God, met in Jesus, has not in turn been broken by it. Sinlessness (if we want to hold on to that category) only matters in the context of the temptations that Jesus wrestles with in the desert, and throughout his life. Jesus is not broken by the temptations, but navigates a way through them.
In biblical writing, water is not just life-giving. Water, in the bible, always speaks of the unknown, and fearful, the uncontrolled; it is the symbol of chaos and disorder. In Paul it is the symbol, above all, for death. We are plunged in baptism into the waters of death, to rise with Christ in resurrection, in his redeeming work. And that journey into death and destruction, into the suffering and the failure of humanity, begins here, on the banks of the Jordan, as God’s well-beloved Son, plunges in, to rise and begin God’s redeeming work. And so, the story goes on to tell us, he will not be defeated by death and destruction, by the horror and the human failure, but will rise: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights …. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.’
And this moment, this way of incarnation demands our response. For this is God’s way, and no other – turning our hearts, our wills, our action to the way of indestructible love and solidarity. To re-affirm our baptismal promises, as we shall shortly do, is to remind us that we have been called, together with that great community through time and space that is the church, together to incarnate the humble way of Christ, in the midst of life, for that is where God meets us, and calls us, to live out faith, in hope and love. And we renew our baptismal promises, renew our commitment to walk Christ’s way, in the days and weeks, and year ahead; through death, through chaos and the unknown, through our fears, and into resurrection. For in baptism, God calls us to respond. And wherever you and I respond, walk that way of forgiveness and love, God will grant us the faith, hope and love we need and desire. Amen.