For most of us the baptism of Jesus is a fairly well known story. The essentials are easy to call to mind: John the Baptist, the River Jordan, Jesus, dove, voice from heaven. Only when we get past our over familiarity and really look at the story do we see what is there for us to learn and what it means to us.
At the 10.30pm service in the Cathedral on Saturday the readings were Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. The reflection follows below:
I wonder how difficult it would have been to reproduce the story of Jesus’ baptism as recounted by Luke, had we not had the Gospel available to us. I think a fair proportion of Christians would be familiar with the story and could have remembered the main elements: John the Baptist, the River Jordan, the arrival of Jesus, the baptism, a voice from heaven and a dove. We could probably make the story a lot more detailed than Luke who spares us just two verses of his Gospel on this topic and then moves on.
The season in the Church year that we’re in at the moment is Epiphany. On Wednesday we celebrated the Feast of Epiphany and now we have arrived at the first Sunday of Epiphany. The meaning of the word Epiphany is manifestation, revelation or showing. We should expect to be shown something of the nature of Jesus in the verses we have been given to read today. In order to find out what we are being shown, we need to dig deeper, to go beyond the basic story and look for meanings, like mining for precious jewels.
It’s confusing to see Jesus, whom we know to be sinless, undergoing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus may have been supporting John in his mission to prepare people for the coming of the Kingdom of God. There is something even more important that he was doing at the same time – he was representing the new Israel. The prophets had foretold a time when Israel would no longer be in bondage to sin and death. Jesus, as David’s son, the King, represents Israel as a king represented the nation in Israel’s way of thinking. As the people of Israel crossed through the waters of the Reed Sea on their way to escape slavery in Egypt, so Jesus passed through the waters of baptism to bring Israel out of her slavery to sin. After his baptism, Jesus went on to be tempted in the wilderness. The people of Israel were tested in the wilderness and failed but Jesus came through his temptation still sinless. Many times on their journey, Israel turned against God, while Jesus remained faithful right up to death on the cross. In baptism Jesus is revealed as the new Israel.
The dove, the Holy Spirit, rested on Jesus to anoint him for his mission to the world. Isaiah had said: ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’ (Isaiah 61:1-3)
If we turn our attention to what God said when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus like a dove, there is a great deal to find. The message is short enough: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This short sentence is drawn from three passages in the Old Testament and reveals to us who Jesus is. In Psalm 2:7 it says: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” This psalm is a royal psalm and contains the coronation liturgy for the Messiah King. God’s words announce that Jesus is a King.
The second passage is Genesis 22 where the phrase ‘the Beloved’ comes from. At the beginning of that chapter God speaks to Abraham about his son Isaac: “‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” (Genesis 22:1-2). Abraham is being asked by God to offer his only son, the son he loves deeply, as a sacrifice. Paul picks up this link in his letter to the Romans: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32). Not only is Jesus revealed as a king but as a victim ready to be sacrificed.
The third passage is Isaiah 42:1: “in whom my soul delights.” This is very close to “with you I am well pleased” and has been called the ordination liturgy of the Suffering Servant. In Isaiah there are four servant songs which look forward to the coming of the Messiah and this phrase comes at the beginning of the first of those songs. In this song the servant speaks for God and ushers in justice. In Isaiah 53 he suffers a dreadful death which will save the people.
Jesus chose to come out of the humdrum, predictable life of a carpenter and to offer himself to God in the act of baptism. In stepping into the river he was stepping out of obscurity and safety. He was taking the first step on the road that would end at Calvary. Like many of us said at our New Year service, he was saying to God: “I am no longer my own, I am yours.” He was giving everything he had to God and pledging to do God’s will. He was making himself available to God.
Notice that God’s approval didn’t wait until Jesus’ ministry was well underway, until he had fulfilled much of the manifesto which Isaiah had written for him. God’s approval came just because Jesus made himself available, long before he achieved anything of note. God’s love for him was unconditional.
Like Jesus, we have the choice about whether we want to remain in obscurity and safety. We can plod on with what we are doing, make no great impact in the world and hopefully live to a ripe old age and die in our beds. Alternatively we can choose to offer ourselves to God to do with as he wills. As with Jesus, once we do that Satan is likely to become very interested in us indeed. We will have set out on an uncomfortable journey which will be fraught with hazard. Like Jesus, though, we will have the unconditional love and approval of our heavenly Father. We also have the reassurance of our heavenly Father as told to us by Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Martin Luther told people to “Remember your baptism”. That isn’t possible for those of us who were baptised as babies. Perhaps something else he wrote clarifies what he meant: “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” Every day we can remember that we are beloved children of God in whom he is well pleased.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor