BAPTISM IS A PIVOTAL MOMENT – a sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s on 12 January 2020.
If you are going to announce the arrival of someone important then you will ensure that special people are invited, the place has some grandeur, the best furniture and carpet is put out, flags are flown, people put on their best clothes, fine food is prepared, music is played, and so on. And yet in the gospel we have just heard, we are told that a river in the middle of a wilderness has been chosen for the arrival of someoneimportant, almost certainly amongst a crowd of ordinary people whoprobably know little about the person who has just arrived, or why. The biblical accounts indicate that God does not go in for grand announcements to important people. God prefers to arrive in unexpected places and in unpredictable ways. Thus, the first people to hear of the birth of Jesus were shepherds. And before that Isaiah tells us in our first reading that God’s servant will not cry out or make himself known in the street. There is no opening fanfare. Maybe instead we can follow the Benedictine way by listening and watching carefully for what will happen.
Each of our readings this morning takes us to moments of sudden and pivotal change for those involved. These are moments when suddenly people begin to grasp what God’s unexpected presence means for them, and for us in turn. Maybe you too have had such a pivotal moment which may need to be revisited.
In our second reading Simon Peter, who is in the house of Cornelius, finds that he is suddenly aware that Gentiles as well as Jews can receive the joy of the grace of God: God shows no partiality. Simon Peter is just beginning to realise the significance of his recent and extraordinary vision on a roof top. He is now in an entirely new theological framework and has to think carefully about how he responds to what is going on around him with Cornelius and his companions. Peter has been with Jesus throughout his ministry, his crucifixion, and resurrection. Now he brings Jesus close to those present with an extraordinary warmth. We hear that God is delighted and the Gentile people are baptised anddrawn into the fast-growing fellowship of those who follow Jesus. The Spirit of God moves where it chooses. Unlike today, these Gentilepeople do not have to complete a lengthy course of instruction before God’s blessing upon them.
John the Baptist has also come to a pivotal moment. He is confused by Jesus arriving for baptism. It is striking to see how John rejects Pharisees and Sadducees who speak proudly of their Abrahamic descent. He appears to ignore their own need of repentance, judgement, and forgiveness. Likewise, John initially refuses to baptise Jesus, a person he holds in awe, a person who he sees as having power, and who, as Son of God, appears to have no need of baptism. Jesus’ reply is that “it is proper for us…….to fulfil all righteousness”. Righteousness implies that there is a divine requirement to be fulfilled. It implies that Jesus is joining with all fellow Christians in carrying out all that God requires. These first quoted words of Jesus revel to us hisprincipal function throughout his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem. He is the obedient Son carrying out the will of the Father. He is to teach the divine will, and also to be the divine will, as an example to all his followers, including you and me. Put another way, in telling John to fulfil all righteousness Jesus is grounding God’s new acts in God’s past acts. Isaiah tells us that God is doing new things, and John does so too. And we also are called to live in a new and unfolding way, in the light of the past.
In today’s world, at the beginning of a new job or a new ministry, we might expect a blueprint, or a plan of action for what is to come. Nowadays even clergy are given a usually completely unattainable blueprint when they begin ministry in a new parish. We might thus expect that the Holy Spirit descending from heaven would say something about the huge and tough task ahead. But instead Jesus is simply told about who he is. He is a Son. He is deeply and dearly loved. The Father takes great delight in Him. This is the pivotal moment for Jesus. Jesus’ baptism is public, and it starts his public ministry, his public witness, his public healing, and his journey to Jerusalem. This is also a pivotal time in the churches of the Orthodox tradition. For them it ranks in importance with Christmas and Easter: they understand that this moment of baptism is the central focus of the epiphany, the season marking the manifestation of the glory of Christ.
As we reflect on Jesus’ baptism it is good for us to link it with our own baptism, our own repentance, our own going down into the water, our turning to Christ, our gift of the Holy Spirit for our life, witness and ministry. And if you have not yet been baptised, today is a day to look at the possibility of being baptised. Everything we do in the name of Christ flows from his knowledge of being loved by God. This love is offered to us without boundary or limit. Equally those who are baptised are called to offer this love without reserve to others. Whatever the challenges we face we need to return to the words received from God: “you are my daughter; you are my son. You are dearly and deeply loved. I take great delight in you”. Put another way, everything we do in God’s name flows from the pivotal moment of our own baptism.
May we be faithful to our calling as God’s baptised children, wherever we may be in this New Year, and in whatever pivotal positions or moments we may find ourselves in. Amen.