Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
What we`ve seen so far today concerning Baptism is what we see at the Baptism ceremony. We see a small group of people gathered around water and a baby or an adult supported by family, godparents and friends. It`s a gathering, just like this one, in which, more than usually, we become aware that we are in the presence of God, and God is loving us. Like John the Baptist we say, `I need to be baptised by you.`
The Baptism of Jesus is a major milestone in the life and mission of Jesus. Both the gospels of Mark and Luke indicate that Jesus finally leaves mum in Nazareth and settles in Capernaum. Matthew says, `then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan`. The first thing Jesus does is to leave his new base in Galilee and walks to the Jordan River for baptism by John. That suggests his life and teaching is dedicated not only to the Jews but to the gentiles as well. And this is the intention of the lectionary and our Services (liturgies) in January. We celebrate together Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus to all peoples, represented by the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
The first reading today is from Isaiah 42, 1-9. When I read passages like this one in Isaiah I think that there is within the godhead itself, what we would broadly describe God`s will, a dogged drive for salvation. Despite everything apparently to the contrary, these verses seem to have been written in the midst of the Babylonian exile, the very time when Israel lost everything, nation, land, royal family, the cream of the Hebrew society, the educated, the leaders, the tradespeople, the young. They lost Jerusalem itself and they lost their temple. It seems that God`s own work is destroyed. The exodus, the Mosaic community formed at Mt Sinai, the promised land, the memories of liberation from Pharaoh`s slavery in Egypt, have all been to no avail. Yet, here is this dogged drive for salvation, God`s use of human agency itself to overcome the destruction of Jerusalem,
`Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights, I have put my spirit within him. He will bring forth justice ... a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice in the earth.`
All that history from exile to the fall of Jerusalem is not so much one of a remote, stern God and a submissive people, one of an all-powerful God to a powerless wandering people. It is rather one of a connected, familiar relationship in which God sets a task for human beings. The task of reordering social life and social power where widows and orphans and foreigners may live a life of security acceptance and well-being. This way of living will never be Pharaoh`s Egypt or that of Babylon.
It is in this sense that both Christian people can hope for this in Christ and Jewish people can hope for this in faithfulness to their Covenant with God.
The second reading today is an early descriptive sermon about the events of Christ`s life and death from St Peter. The Gospel is Matthew`s description of Jesus` baptism.
St Gregory Nazianzen (d.390) says to us of the feast of Christ`s Baptism, `Be cleansed, so that you may be like lights in the world, a life-giving force to others. And stand as perfect lights beside that great light and learn the mystery of the illumination of heaven enlightened by the Trinity more purely and clearly...` And the Uniting in Worship Leaders Book prays that baptism will raise us to new life and strengthen us to serve God in this world. (P.41); to rely on our baptism to maintain the life of service (p.44). It prays that through baptism we uphold one another in prayer and encourage one another in service. And this is where I want to gather a few thoughts now...
Baptism is not a membership card marking us off from everyone else. It confers nothing which sets you apart from other persons. Quite the contrary. To be baptised is to claim a new level of solidarity with other persons. Everything we`ve said so far today about God`s love has deep implications. Remember the opening words of Mark`s Gospel? Verse 1: `the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God`. Jesus is God`s beloved Son. Jesus knew in the depths of his being that he is loved. By verse 9, Mark describes the baptism of Jesus. Straight after the baptism of Jesus, Mark writes, `At once the Spirit drove him into the desert.` So this realisation of love was an assignment, an engagement, a life-long love affair. (In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoievsky said, `Love-in-action is a harsh and dreadful thing.`). So too, our baptism, this sacramental act of love, results in the Spirit driving us into the desert. It pushes us into human situations that are messy, tough and hurtful; into predicaments that will not leave us squeaky clean, will not leave us unaffected.
In this sense all baptisms are both prophetic and, along with confirmation, a real initiation. Because you will be involved more than you think. You will get hurt, you will get dirty. In Baptism, far from exclusions, exemptions. Far from privileges. Far from exceptionalism, you will be embedded in humanity. As Rohan Williams has said, `Jesus did not go down into the waters of the Jordan to be baptised without stirring up a great deal of mud.`
Baptism confirms our human birthright and drives us further. We`re baptised by water and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the outflowing open-heartedness of the love between God, the Father beyond all fathers, and the Son beyond all sons, or as John`s Gospel puts it, `the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father` (Jn 1:18).
If baptism opens us more profoundly to the riddle of human beings, it also provides the means necessary to achieve this, namely, the action of the Holy Spirit. While embedded in human need, we`re also embedded in the dynamic life and love of God.
The old Shakers dancing song of the USA has wonderful lyrics,
`Tis the gift to be simple, `tis the gift to be free,
`Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
`Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan`t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning turning we come round right.
The valley of love and delight ie. the new creation in the bosom of God? Baptism for the early Christians is the new creation. And if human beings, are part of creation, baptism is the making of a new humanity in the new heaven and the new earth in which God will be all in all. But until that time in God`s good time, we ask for the gift to come down where we ought to be ie. in the middle of a troubled world, specifically in beautiful messy Australia. In the enigma of suffering and discovery.
Yes, it`s clear that the Gospels want us to understand that Jesus was baptised and that, in following Christ we follow him in baptism. The sacrament that effects what it signifies: human beings open to the world, letting the world be world, and open to God, letting God be God. Exposed to the hopes and pains of the world, open to the love and delight of the Holy Spirit. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, `The Cost of Discipleship`.