Sunday, 8 January 2017

Commitment, manifestation and mission: a sermon on the baptism of Jesus

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 8th January 2017. Main texts: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9.

As a family we’ve been a number of times to a set of gardens in Devon by the name of Escot, complete with family-friendly animals and play equipment. One of their attractions is a birds of prey display – hawks, owls and the like. They care for and handle their birds well, but at one point in the display they’ve trained the hawks to fly out from the keeper and then swoop in low, just above the visitors’ heads, before coming back to the keeper. A few years ago we were there and they had a young bird doing this, and it came in very close to the top of my wife Becky’s head, almost touching her. None of us have seen birds of prey quite the same way since.

I tell this story not just as an easy introduction, but because it comes close to part of Jesus’ experience at his baptism. Given the long history of doves as a symbol of peace and of the spirit of God, it’s easy to think of their flight as something soft and calm. But their landing is not [see Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A]. Doves aren’t birds of prey, but they swoop down and land with a bump, rather like birds of prey. So the dove of the Spirit would have landed on Jesus’ head quite hard.
The experience of being baptised, of being named publically as God’s son, of becoming committed to a mission that would inevitably put him up against the state and would ultimately lead to his death, was not a comfortable one for Jesus. He was marked. He was chosen, and he had little choice in the matter. His calling landed on him with a bump.
Image: The Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio
Two days ago was the festival of Epiphany, and in many ways this is a story about epiphany. The day is often associated with wise men and gifts, but the word simply means manifestation – of God being made known. The heavens are opened, which is a poetic way of saying that the gap between the earthly realm and the divine realm was reduced to nothing. God was experienced in that place on that river-bank. As the Biblical commentator Karoline Lewis puts it, “Epiphanies are not subtle. We can look for God in all kinds of people and places, but sometimes God comes crashing through the clouds and stops you dead in your tracks.”

This doesn’t mean we can’t experience God in other ways. When we pray, when we sing in worship, when we live out the gospel through serving others, when we see the works of God in nature, or in music, or through the love of others – these are all ways of experiencing God, among many others. But a sudden breaking-through of the gap between earth and heaven, a sudden and complete experience of God – that comes as more of a surprise.

This kind of epiphany, this experience of God’s complete love and presence, is an act of grace. It seeks us out, and is freely given to us. But we can make ourselves ready and available for it. That’s the nature of grace – it’s a two-way process, something offered that has to be accepted willingly.

And we see Jesus willingly going to his baptism here, freely taking up the offer of God’s grace, and freely taking on the mission which followed from it. One of the great questions that people have asked about Jesus’ baptism was why it was necessary. John baptised for repentance, for people to confess their wrong-doing and be transformed through the water into a new life. But Jesus was without sin, the eternal word of the Father made into a human being. And he chose to go into a muddy pool by the Jordan river to accept repentance and washing-away of sins from a radical preacher living on the edge of society. As some commentators have observed, it was something that the early church found really scandalous, almost embarrassing. Why did Jesus do it?

By the sounds of things, John the Baptist asked a similar question to Jesus. He was a bit scandalized at having the one he’d been preaching about coming to him to be baptised. But Jesus gives him a strong response. The language of the standard Bible translations here isn’t very helpful – the NIV says “it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” which sounds like something from a legal contract or a memo by a particularly dull civil servant. The Message translation that I read at the start of the children’s talk is a lot livelier but not hugely more insightful: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism”. The Greek word we have here as ‘righteousness’ appears a lot in the gospels, and it usually means ‘doing the right thing’, but specifically the right thing in God’s eyes. It’s about fulfilling God’s will.

So Jesus is saying: I need to be baptised, because it fulfils God’s will. It has long been the belief of the church that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human at once, though that is a sufficiently perplexing statement that trying to explain it rationally does your head in. How can someone be 100% of two things at once? Nonetheless that is what Jesus was. As one who was fully divine, he didn’t need baptism, but as one who was fully human, he needed to go through all the same things that we ordinary humans need to do.

Being baptised was a sign of Jesus’ commitment to humanity, just as much as was his birth and his death. It was also a very public way to make a commitment to his mission. There was no going back. The wonderful words that he heard, about being God’s son & beloved, were deeply affirming to Jesus. But here in the gospel of Matthew they are also a quotation, and they recur twice more in the gospel.

The words of God come from the passage we heard in Isaiah – “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight”. They are the first of the four servant songs, written to the people of Israel to show their vocation as a people who exist to serve others, although they are read by Christians as referring to Jesus. Isaiah gives an amazing mission to the servant described here – to bring forth justice, to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to release prisoners from darkness.

That is the mission of Jesus – to bring justice to a world that sorely needs it, but in ways that they wouldn’t expect. Not through domination, but through service. Not through power, but through weakness. Not through violence, but through love. Matthew quotes a longer passage from Isaiah 42 when discussing the many people Jesus had cured, and the conflict which arose from it because it was seen as inappropriate by the religious establishment. And again we hear Isaiah in Matthew’s account of the scene on the mountaintop known as the Transfiguration, when Jesus shone like the sun and was joined by Moses and Elijah; then too the voice of God said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. These words from Isaiah echo throughout the gospel of Matthew, just as Jesus’ mission echoes through the gospel of Matthew.

Indeed, the gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus calling his disciples in turn to make disciples of all nations, to baptise them just as Jesus had been baptised, and to teach them to obey all of Jesus’ commandments. In other words, to take on the mission of being God’s beloved one, sent as a servant to bring forth justice and to be a light to a nations. And that call is passed down from one follower to another, so that we too are called to take on Jesus’ mission, to be ourselves a light to the nations and to be bringers of justice.

We might each of us bring light and justice in different ways – some of us through our work, some through our service to others, some in campaigning, some in charities, some in our families, some in the way we treat others around us. But the gospel is clear. If we are followers of Jesus, we are bringers of justice and light in everyday life.

Because there is one more thing to be said about epiphany. It’s something we can practice, and it’s something that breaks through in ordinary life. When people are baptised, whether as babies or adults, there’s nothing special about the water. It’s just the ordinary stuff from the tap. But it’s made sacred by it being the channel through which we are accepted by God. In the same way, when we celebrate communion, there’s nothing special about the bread and the wine (or grape juice). They are ordinary things made special by the way we encounter God through them.

As the American author Debie Thomas writes, “Epiphany is deep water — you can't stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.” We need to work at finding God, at hearing his voice, at encountering the divine presence. It reminds me of Peter walking on water. The bravest thing he did was not the walking, but leaving the boat and trusting Jesus that he would be ok.

Peter needed faith that if he let go, he would be ok. We all need faith that if we let go of our excuses, our world-weariness, our reluctance, then we will be ok, that we will then encounter God.

Because we have a mission, to follow Jesus in bringing forth justice and being a light to the nations. We can be reassured that we too are the beloved ones of God, given new life through his grace, but we need to be willing to accept that grace, to step forward in faith, and to follow Jesus in committing ourselves to God just as he did. Then truly we will fulfil the meaning of his and our baptisms.


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