Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on The Baptism of Christ: Sunday 9 January 2011
9 January 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Sub-Dean and Canon Theologian
Readings: Is 42: 1-9; Acts 10: 34-43; Mt 3: 13-end
Last Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘showing’. We celebrated the showing of God’s glory, seen in the newborn Jesus, to three non-Jewish wise men who had come from Persia, following a star, bringing symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh to anoint the body of a prophet who is to die. The story is told in just one of the four Gospels, Matthew’s gospel.
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is very different. For him, God’s glory is shown in the newborn Jesus to a group of Jewish shepherds who had been looking after their sheep on the hillside outside Bethlehem. God’s guidance came to them not through the leading of a star but through the message of an angel, a messenger sent from God.
The traditional Christmas story, the story we have been celebrating for the last two weeks, brings together the stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The gospels of Mark and of John on the other hand tell us nothing about the way Jesus was born. John’s Gospel, famously, has a wonderful prologue in which the birth of Jesus is set in a cosmic context - in the context of God’s purposes from the beginning of time. John tells us that God’s eternal word became flesh – was en-fleshed - in Jesus but he tells us nothing about precisely how.
Christmas is a wonderful time. After Easter, it is the greatest feast in our liturgical year. If, though, we were to take the same approach as the New Testament, the greatest feast in the liturgical year after Easter would be the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Today is the Feast of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, the Feast of the beginning of three crucial years in the history of our salvation, the Feast of God’s decisive self-giving in Jesus.
All four gospels tell us in similar terms how Jesus came to John the Baptizer - though the account in John’s Gospel replaces the baptism of Jesus with the Baptist’s recognition that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36). We heard Matthew’s account – so let us follow his words. Matthew has already told us about the ministry of John the Baptist in the Judean desert near Jerusalem, baptizing in the waters of the River Jordan all who came to him and confessed their sins. John was clear that his task was to prepare people: ‘I baptize with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. John knew he was only a herald, a forerunner, whose task was to prepare the way for the one God would send by confronting people with their sins, their need to wash and be spiritually clean. This is the background to the story of the baptism of Jesus.
Jesus came from Galilee in the north of Israel, where he had been brought up, to the south, near Jerusalem, to be baptized by John. John immediately saw in him the one greater than himself. This is why John asked to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus says to him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all justice.’ [I shall say a word more about justice later.] John then agreed to baptize Jesus, and when Jesus came up from under the water, ‘the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him’. We don’t know whether this was an experience for Jesus alone but we are told that a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ From this moment on, Jesus was guided and led by the Holy Spirit in a new way through everything he said and did, throughout his ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem to his death on a cross.
Of course, this raises the question, was Jesus not guided and led by the Holy Spirit before his baptism? Was he not guided to come to John to be baptized? The answer must be ‘yes’. Nevertheless, something distinctive happened at the River Jordan which marked out the beginning of Jesus’s ministry – all four Gospels agree on that. Jesus is adult; he is embarking on his life’s work; he has consciously decided to come to John to seek John’s baptism. For the Church, which believes Jesus was kept from sin from the time of his conception, this is an extraordinary and shocking idea. Wasn’t Jesus the one man who did not need to be baptized? How could Jesus be baptized for the forgiveness of sins? The answer must be: he was baptized not for his own sins, but for the sins of others. At this point Jesus consciously identified himself with us, the lost sons and daughters of Adam who need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and need the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us in God’s way through a corrupt and corrupting world. God in Christ stoops to be cleansed on our behalf that we may be raised to new life in him. God is washed that we may be clean. And God the Father bears witness to God the Son through the presence of God the Holy Spirit that this is well done..
This takes us to the very core of the Christian gospel: that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … For our sake he made him to be sin’ – in baptism Jesus identified with human sin – ‘so that in him we might be made the justice of God’ (2 Cor 5:19). This is a literal translation of Paul’s words – like the literal translation of the words of Jesus, ‘Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all justice.’ The word justice goes to the heart of things. Justice is a matter of right relationships. Broken, corrupt and abusive relationships cannot be restored without painful reconciliation. In his baptism Jesus consciously submitted to the demands of a world of broken, corrupt and abusive relationships. He continued to do so for three years until that submission brought him to a cross for your sake and mine – that we might experience the new life of Easter morning, the life promised to all the baptized, - that we might live in right relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, - and that we might be the agents of God’s restorative justice for others. The voice from heaven, which spoke at the baptism of Jesus, speaks to us all, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Out whole service this morning is an act of thanksgiving for God’s epiphany, for the manifestation to us of God’s glory in the baptism of Jesus Christ.