Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 12 January 2014: Year A, Baptism of the Lord
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Back in October there was lots in the news about a baptism. The christening of Prince George made for lots of pictures in the papers and royal gossip. In an age when fewer and fewer families think about having their children baptised, it’s commendable that the royal family still goes ahead with the ceremony. Today, however, we are remembering another baptism- what would call, in a sense, the first ever Christian baptism. It was a very different event than the private service in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace, presided over by a bishop and an archbishop, and attended by royalty. Today we are thinking about a ritual carried out by a man in animal skins, baptising a carpenter, in a muddy river in front of a large crowd.
For me, John the Baptist frames the New Year. We meet him in Advent, preaching repentance and God’s judgement. But he says he’s not the main man. For he speaks of ‘the one who will come after me’ who, he says, ‘will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. John makes the one who will come after him sound pretty scary- he says of him: ‘He is much greater than I am. He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out’ (Matthew 3.12).
But God has a way of surprising people. Today, in the New Year, we hear about what happens when then one who is to come after him actually turns up. For nearly thirty years, he’s worked away in the obscurity of the father’s carpenter’s shop. But now Jesus comes to John, and John for some reason recognises Jesus was the one he’d foretold. And Jesus has a surprise for John- he asks John to baptise him, just as he’d been baptising everyone else in the River Jordan.
At first John won’t do it. For baptism was a sign of repentance, of turning away from sins and turning to God. John cannot see why Jesus would need all this. ‘I ought to be baptized by you’ he says, very logically. But Jesus tells him that it is what God requires, and makes John carry on.
We cannot live our lives and not be untouched, unsullied, by sin and evil. Do you remember the ‘Occupy Movement’ a few years ago? In 2011, after protests by young people in Spain and Portugal, left unemployed by the global financial crash, tented cities began to appear in cities around the world- including, briefly in Glasgow’s George Square. They were a disparate group of protesters, but their anger was directed against a financial system which had let them down.
The protest in London was embarrassing for the Church of England, for it was set up outside St Paul’s Cathedral, which is in the heart of the City, London’s financial district. Very often the media coverage of it all was fairly hostile. I recall one journalist pointing out that the tent dwellers were buying their refreshments from a nearby coffee shop. It was a Starbucks shop- a symbol of global capitalism if ever there was one. How could these young radicals protest against the capitalist system while at the same time take advantage of it? They were part of the system they said they hated.
For this journalist, the sight of these supposed radicals drinking from Starbucks cups made it hard for him to think they had much integrity. But for me, that’s a good image of what theologians mean when they talk about ‘original sin’. None of us can escape sin. Being human means that we live in a world where, even if we try, we can never entirely live virtuous lives. I have been running my own personal boycott of Starbucks for a while now, because I think it’s disgusting that they refuse to pay their taxes like all the other coffee shops in town. But my mobile phone contract is with Vodafone, who are another crowd who refuse to make their fair contribution to society by funnelling all their profits through Luxembourg. So I’m not unsullied. None of us are. Being human means we are all dirty, soiled, tainted. We stand in need of God’s forgiveness. We all need repentance and the washing which away of sin which baptism represents.
But Jesus didn’t need that, said John. He didn’t need to turn from his sins, for he was the one who was going to deal with everyone else’s sins. But Jesus insists on being baptised, for he’s human like the rest of us. Last Sunday I talked about how we had to watch we didn’t imagine Jesus as a kind of demigod, God in human form, but not quite human. By choosing to be baptized, Jesus complete immerses himself, not just in water, but in the human experience. He is one of us. And he is offering himself for the rest of humanity
The water is important. Jesus goes into the water, and it’s a ritual about cleaning and renewal. But as he comes out of the water, there’s a sense among the spectators that the Spirit of God is powerfully present. Matthew the Gospel writer imagines it like a dove from heaven alighting on Jesus. Whatever happened, the Spirit is here.
Again, I’m reminded of something from last Sunday. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, Christ is referred to as ‘The Word’ which was with God right at the beginning. So John takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, to the creation story from Genesis. In today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel, is there not also a reference to Genesis? The very first verse of Genesis tells us that ‘In the beginning’ there was no land. Raging waters covered everything. But, we are told, ‘the Spirit of God was moving over the water’. Once the Spirit begins to move, creation can begin. The water retreats, land appears, and soon after come plants, animals and finally human beings.
There is a new creation happening when Jesus is baptised. Once more, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. For through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we and all the world can be renewed, recreated. Genesis tells us that everything God created was good. Now, as his own dear Son rises from the waters, a voice from heaven speaks: ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased’. It’s the start of the recreation of the world, in its pristine state, a world cleansed of sin and evil. For in Christ, God has entered into his creation, beginning a process of renewal and redemption.
The words from heaven: ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased’ echo the opening of our Old Testament reading. These words from the prophet Isaiah speak of a servant of God, chosen of God to bring justice to the world:
The Lord says,
“Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—
the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased.
I have filled him with my Spirit,
and he will bring justice to every nation.
He will not shout or raise his voice
or make loud speeches in the streets.
He will not break off a bent reed
nor put out a flickering lamp.
He will bring lasting justice to all.
He will not lose hope or courage;
he will establish justice on the earth.
Distant lands eagerly wait for his teaching.”
This servant has something important to say. He is for justice, yet is he is also gentle: ‘He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp’. Lenin supposedly justified the violence of the Russian Revolution with the words, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’. The servant of God leads a revolution, for he has a passion for justice. But he will not even break off a bent reed. Healing also comes in his wake.
There has been much speculation about who this mysterious ‘servant of God’ in Isaiah is supposed to be. But it is not surprising that Christian, reflecting on this passage, have seen in it a prophesy of Christ. John the Baptist a man with a winnowing shovel, threshing the grain and throwing the useless stuff into a fire. Christ is not always gentle with his language. He speaks clearly about what is right and what is wrong. For the sake of justice, Christ can be angry. He has a sharp tongue for those he regards as hypocrites. He turns over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. But he never, as far as we know, lifted a violent hand against anyone. He tends the bruised reeds, and doesn’t break them.
The servant was told in Isaiah:
“I, the Lord, have called you and given you power
to see that justice is done on earth.
Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples;
through you I will bring light to the nations.
You will open the eyes of the blind
and set free those who sit in dark prisons.”
This is a call from God, and a commissioning by God. God gives the servant power, and sets him a task- to bring light, sight and freedom. In the same way, Christ’s baptism is his commissioning. Now God sends him out to bring light, sight and freedom, to bring in justice, to help people know that there is a God. That’s also what our baptism was supposed to be. Sometimes people bring children to the Church to be baptised, or sometimes adults come themselves to be baptised or for confirmation of their baptism vows, and we never see them again. It’s as if they feel that the baptism or confirmation is the end of it all. But it’s not. It’s really the start of something new.
You can think of Jesus’ baptism as being a bit like his graduation. After thirty years, he is ready. Like a graduating student, his time of preparation is over, and it’s time to put those years of preparation into practice. Like all good rites of passage, a graduation is both an end and a beginning. Graduation day is the end of student days. But it is also the beginning of something new-usually the world of full-time work. You’re ready to move on, and so you’re commissioned and will go on.
In a few weeks time, our friend Jonathan will be commissioned as a Reader in the Church of Scotland. It’s a service which marks the end of his time as a student (although I’m sure he’ll never stop learning!). And the Presbytery will acknowledge that he was right to think that God had said to him, ‘Here is my servant, whom I strengthen- the one I have chosen, with whom I’m pleased’. Commissioned with the Spirit of God, Jonathon will now be sent on to preach, teach, and lead God’s people in prayer.
In our tradition, we do not refer to the commissioning of readers, or the ordination of ministers, or any other service where we set someone apart for a special role in the church, as a sacrament. Baptism is a sacrament, and it’s the first of the sacraments. Indeed, every time we ask someone to take on such a role in the church, it’s our baptism which we should be thinking of. Just as Jesus was commissioned at his baptism, so our baptism is our original commissioning. Our baptism reminds us that each of us has been chosen, each of us has been offered the Spirit of God. Our baptism isn’t the end of our life with God. Now we have been commissioned to speak the truth, struggle for justice, bring light and freedom through our lives- and care for the bent reeds and flickering lamps.
So we go from here, Sunday by Sunday, to live out our baptisms. Jonathan and you and me, we have all been called by God to take part in Christ’s work in the world. That’s what our baptism means- we have all graduate into being followers of Christ. And has leads the way for us: he came into our world, fully taking part in the struggle of what it means to be human. But for each of us, the Word from heaven is the word Jesus heard- a word of affirmation: ‘You are my own dear sons and daughters- in you I am well pleased!’
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo