SERMON: That We Might Live

Rev Andrew McKearney’s Sermon for Sunday 12 January 2014

The Baptism of Christ

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Today we leap 30 years on from where we were last Sunday with the wise men bringing their gifts to the infant Christ, to the adult Jesus now undergoing baptism at the river Jordan at the age of 30!

Until comparatively recently it was the story of the wise men rather than the story of the baptism that was given greater emphasis by the Church and its liturgy. But more recently the emphasis has shifted, with today’s feast of the baptism of Christ going up in the theological and liturgical world, and the wise men going down!

The Church, following the unease in the New Testament itself, has previously found the baptism of Christ more difficult and the wise men more obviously ‘on message’; but now the wise men are cautiously viewed as “working quite well as legend” to quote the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, whereas with Jesus’ baptism we are on more solid ground.

This is a significant reversal of how these two stories were previously thought of.

Then the baptism seemed embarrassing, and you can feel this difficulty even in the pages of the New Testament. In John’s Gospel, for example, it is never said, in so many words, that Jesus was baptised by John. In Luke, the impression is given that John was in prison before the baptism somehow happened!

And Matthew from whom we heard this morning, brings some of this unease out in the open in the conversation that takes place between John and Jesus, where on seeing Jesus coming to be baptised, John says to Jesus: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”

But why was the baptism an embarrassment?

The baptism was an embarrassment because it raised this problem: why was someone who was thought to be without sin baptised for the forgiveness of sins? John the Baptist’s preaching was a summons to repent, to be baptised and to receive the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus think he was doing going forward for such a baptism?

For us, with our interest in questions of history and facts, Jesus’ baptism is far from embarrassing, placing us as it does on solid ground. No one would have invented such an embarrassing story, it is argued – it must have happened. Whereas the best we can say of the wise men is that they work quite well as legend!

It may be worth staying a little longer with the facts and ask, what happened at Jesus baptism?

Christian art tends to show Jesus standing in the river and John pouring water over his head; and most of us will have some such picture in our mind as we hear today’s story read. However the story in the Gospels implies that those who were baptised probably immersed themselves in the presence of John the Baptist. It wasn’t so much that John administered baptism as a priest might at a font, but rather that people immersed themselves in the Jordan and John was there to witness the event.
We also tend to assume that Jesus’ baptism took place as an event between Jesus and John on their own – that’s how it is often portrayed in Christian art – forgetting the fact that Jesus came as part of a crowd of people who flocked to John. This was a renewal movement, and most likely it was as part of a group that Jesus immersed himself in the Jordan at a sign or a call from John – down they went.

Finally, the earliest story, which is probably Mark’s account, says nothing of any conversation taking place between John and Jesus, nor does it give any hint that anybody around Jesus heard or saw anything out of the ordinary. If anything did happen, it happened between Jesus and his heavenly Father. It is as the story develops, both in the pages of the New Testament and later in Christian art, that conversations are held, doves are seen and words from heaven overheard by others.

Originally then Jesus’ baptism probably took place much as the Gospel of Mark tells us:

• That at about the age of 30, during the mission of John the Baptist, Jesus came to the river Jordan as part of a renewal movement.
• Jesus then entered the river along with a whole group of other people, and at a signal from John, they together immersed themselves under the water.
• Afterwards Jesus went on his way and John the Baptist and the rest of the crowd were unaware of anything particular having happened that day.

Those, I suggest, are the likely facts; and particularly because Jesus’ baptism was something of an embarrassment in the early Church we can be confident that with them we are on solid ground.

What then of the meaning of this event?

Here the Gospel writers paint a rich picture, finding in Jesus’ baptism layer upon layer of meaning with the voice from heaven, the dove descending, the heavens opening and the Spirit of God given.

The dove sends us back to the beginning of creation, to the Spirit brooding on the face of the waters; and a little later the dove bears the promise of peace in its beak when, after the flood, the waters recede.

The Spirit settling on Jesus takes us back to all those others before him to whom the Spirit was given: Samson, Gideon, Saul, David.

The voice from heaven announces who Jesus is, using both words from Psalm 2, a royal psalm, in which the anointed king is proclaimed God’s son, and also words from our first reading, in which God’s servant is one in whom God is well pleased.

And what is so striking, is that these layers of meaning which can leave us in no doubt about the theological significance of Jesus, are found in an event which embarrassed the early Church: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Here our glorious Lord and Saviour publicly begins his ministry of redemption. And how does he begin? By identifying with sinful humanity and being baptised himself. Without any hint of embarrassment on his part, he who was without sin became sin for us, and entered the waters of the Jordan.

“By being baptised” one person has written, “Jesus….descends into the darkest depths of our human condition…he lets the cold waters of our sins and sorrows close over him…”

So Jesus’ three-year public ministry begins. And his baptism with which it begins sets the pattern both for his ministry and its culmination on the cross.

“He drowns in our wretchedness” that same author went on to say, “that we might live.”

Jesus’ willingness to take this path, identifying himself totally with all that we are in all our messiness and muddle, confirms the truth of those words spoken from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”