Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sunday 12 January 2014, Baptism of Christ, Matthew 3: 13-17, Bruce

We still display the star and the crib during this season of Epiphany.  They remind us that God has made himself known.  The crib reminds us that God’s radiance has shone forth in a special baby.  The star reminds us that learned strangers from afar have come to proclaim his that he is unique and royal.  As Anne reminded us last week, it is a revelation, an unveiling.

In Isaiah 42 we read 1‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,   my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.’

We have been waiting for long generations for the arrival of the promised one, God’s servant, who would bring in the kingdom.  Matthew has told us of his birth, of the visit of the Magi, of the escape to Egypt and the return to Nazareth.  And then John has appeared to announce that people need to repent and get ready, because the kingdom is near, and the promised deliverer is here.  Then Jesus came from Galilee to be baptised by John.

What questions are we to ask?

In the ancient church it seems to have been “Why did John baptise Jesus and not the other way round?”  If Jesus is the greater and John the lesser, then Jesus should have been the one doing the baptising.  It appears that John thought so, as he tries to deter Jesus.  We can wonder what Jesus was thinking.  The main answer that he gives is that it is necessary.  Jesus feels sure that it is God’s will for him to be baptised.  We get a glimpse straight away that this newly arrived deliverer is going to be a surprise, that he will not fit in with expectations, that the first is willing to become the last.

In today’s church the question seems to be “Why did Jesus need to be baptised?” 

What is baptism and why do we do it?  Is it to wash away sins?  Is Jesus identifying with the sinners who will soon become his followers?  Why is the sinless one being baptized?  What happens when someone is baptized?  How is this relevant to me?

Baptism is a communal act.  John has been recalling people to the true faith of Israel.  The response has been to come and join the throng and be immersed.  Jesus cannot baptize himself and so he appeals to John to work with him: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness”.  "The primary point of baptism is not so much that it does something to the individual, but that it defines the community."  -N.T. Wright

So the water is not special.  The words and the person doing the baptism are not of themselves special.  Rather, baptism is dying, and re-emerging into new life.  We used to be part of a community of individuals dedicated to living our own lives in our own way.  Now we have proclaimed that we are part of a new community of individuals who have heard the call to follow Jesus and we have responded.  It is not just about us, or our local church, but the world-wide community.

This is why we baptize infants.  We celebrate that they are members with us of a community that follows Jesus.  It is a public service where parents and supporters make promises, and where the whole church community is present and we also make promises to support and encourage these new members of our family.  In the Thanksgiving Service that leads us to baptism, the whole church prays:

God our creator,                       
we thank you for the gift of these children,                    
entrusted to our care.               
May we be patient and understanding,               
ready to guide and to forgive, so that through our love              
they may come to know your love;                    
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.    

Baptism is a personal act.  Did you notice that the way Matthew tells the story; it is only Jesus who sees the Holy Spirit? 

So I wonder, is the epiphany to Jesus?  Is he the only one to hear the words “This is my Son …. ?  (In the other gospels it definitely appears that others also were witnesses to these events, but Matthew has been careful in the way that he makes his point.)  At our first encounter with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel as an adult, we are privileged to witness this intimate moment of strength and affirmation.  One writer has described it as a selfie  A selfie has been defined as a personal image that one can choose to share later with others.  Jesus receives this personal gift, a wash of the Holy Spirit, a breath of the Father’s love.  I wonder if that is why his parable of the prodigal is so special – Jesus knows something of a father’s love.  It will carry him through all the trials and difficulties, the conflicts and the betrayals that he will endure.  His very identity is that of the son of God.  Harry Potter was sustained by his knowledge that he was the son of James and Lily – it defined him.  In the film, Philomena, a biographical account, a woman travels across an ocean to say to a child she bore fifty years ago, that he is her beloved child.  And the miracle of her own pyschic survival, after horrible shame and mistreatment, is rooted in her deep sense of herself as Beloved by God.

So, is the epiphany to us?  When we are baptized, what is happening?  Do we believe that the Holy Spirit rests upon the one baptized.  Do we hear the voice of God claiming “This is my beloved?”   Who sees the Holy Spirit?  Who hears the voice?  How can we remember our baptism, even if we cannot remember our baptism?

One way is to remember the command of Jesus that we should observe two ceremonies, two sacraments.  One is baptism where we pledge ourselves to his service.  As adults we take these promises on ourselves at our confirmation.  The other sacrament is communion, where we come week by week to renew those vows and that commitment.  In each one we take ordinary everyday things, water, bread, wine, and invest them with significance as they help us as a community celebrate our connectedness with Jesus.  There is an analogy with the Big Promise.

The BIG Promise is about re-affirming, not renewing, marriage vows. Certainly some couples hold ceremonies to renew their marriage vows when they have been broken, perhaps in the same way as we would renew a broken appliance or car.  However “Re-affirming” is something we do to celebrate the importance of a promise. It is a way of saying “this promise is still really important to me”.

As we come to communion, we are proclaiming and reaffirming to the whole world, just as we did at our baptism and confirmation, that we are each immersed in the love and grace of God, as individuals who have made our unique response, and as a community.

Baptism is a hopeful act.
Our reading from the Acts has Peter out of his comfort zone, preaching to Gentiles about Jesus.  He says ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”  “All the prophets testify about him (Jesus) that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”  For home study, as you read on in Acts 10, you see that as Peter utters these words about acceptance, belief and forgiveness, the Holy Spirit comes upon the hearers, just as he did on Jesus at his baptism.  Peter has them immersed in water to complete the job.

Instead of focusing on our sinfulness and need to be cleansed, can we reclaim our worthy-ness from being claimed by God?  If you have not been baptised, or perhaps feel that in some way you have never fully entered into the promises made at your baptism, Jesus calls you today to respond to him.  The Spirit longs to shine upon you and fill you.  Your Father longs for you to hear his words of comfort and acceptance.

Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.   Amen.

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