The Baptism of Christ - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Baptism of Christ

Matthew 3: 13-end

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13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We have very definitely entered that period of the year when in the world around us the secular markers of Christmas have been expunged.  Those who most enthusiastically welcomed decorations and embraced entirely unmoderated consumption appear to have undergone a form of aversion therapy.  Those unaccustomed to the Christian seasons will find it increasingly odd in the days and weeks to come to find a nativity scene as they enter a church. 

Just as during Advent it requires some effort to recognise the penitential calling of that season, an effort is required today to lift ourselves from the wider malaise.  In one of his poems, David Scott speaks of our tendency to 'narrow down the glory' of God, to contain it within comfortable and acceptable boundaries.

It is our duty once again, brothers and sisters, to be counter-cultural!  We maintain our celebration of the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our focus today is on his baptism.  From its earliest days the church has afforded the baptism of Christ enormous significance and indeed long before we began to celebrate the nativity, the baptism of Christ was the major of focus of Christian celebrations in the winter seasons, particularly in the Eastern church.

Let's take some time, then, to make sure that we recognise the significance of this day.  As we look to our Gospel reading we might find ourselves, with John the Baptist, wondering what it's all for:

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'  But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.'

Now ritual cleansing was very much part of Jewish tradition.  It might take place in Mikvah, ritual bathing pools, or in natural bodies of water, be that the sea, rivers or lakes.  It was an ongoing part of faithful observance of the faith.  Water was also used as part of the initiation of a convert to Judaism. 

John's call is different though, to a baptism of repentance - a recognition of our sinfulness in preparation for Christ's coming. 'I baptise you with water for repentance', he says, 'but after me comes one who is more powerful than I... He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'

Jesus requires this baptism of repentance.  The crucial significance of which is that Jesus chooses to identify himself with sinful humanity.  This is the moment when his ministry begins.  'It is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,' he says.  John baptises Jesus, God's spirit descends from heaven and a voice proclaims 'this is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'

Our lectionary today connects these words with the prophetic announcement of God's servant in Isaiah.  These words are offered at a time when the kingdom of Judah finds itself in exile with the temple in ruins and kingship at an end.  Jerusalem has been sacked and many of its people forced into servitude in Babylonia.  The future of the nation is greatly uncertain and it is into this difficult political and religious situation, that the prophet speaks of God's servant.   The figure is spoken of in individual terms here: 'Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations'.  Later, though, the prophecy explicitly names the servant as Israel: 'And [God] said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'

Whilst Jews would traditionally understand this passage in corporate terms, Christians have typically identified the servant as Jesus but it can carry a corporate dimension for us too.  Similarly Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism can be read with attention to its corporate significance.  Christ identifies with sinful humanity so that we might come to share in his divinity individually and collectively.  We are invited to see ourselves in this baptism experience and to recognise that we all share in Christ's mission.

The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry on earth and so, as we hear that story again, we may ask how do we take up the mission of God's servant and live out our baptismal vows? 

In our epistle we see how Peter came to understand the scope of this calling.  His experience showed him that the Gospel message does not stop at the boundaries of Judea and Jerusalem.  'I truly understand that God shows no partiality,' he says, 'but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.' 

Peter summarises the Gospel message as preaching peace by Jesus Christ.  This peace includes a struggle against evil - he went about 'healing all who were oppressed by the devil', he says.  It's important then that we recognise that the peace that comes from being in a right relationship with God is not the peace of this world.  The world's peace depends on having favourable circumstances: if things are going well, then we feel peaceful; when things go awry, the peace quickly dissipates.  This is not Christ's peace - 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,' he said.  'I do not give to you as the world gives.'

God's peace surpasses our understanding as we hear in the final blessing at the end of our service each week.  It is a peace that keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his son, Jesus Christ.  Whatever the challenges of the future, may it be with you always.  We are together the sons and daughters of God, with whom he is well pleased.  Amen.

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