The Baptism of Christ
Readings: Isaiah 42. 1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10. 34-43; Matthew 3. 13-17 (view all)
This week I had the pleasure of spending time delivering training to some of the teachers in one of our Church Schools.
The reason they’d asked me to come along was, I suppose, within my skill set — they wanted to talk about prayer spaces. But, even so, it still felt strange and actually a bit nerve-racking, to be offering ‘training’ for a group of teachers, who are, after all, the real experts in how children learn and develop.
Perhaps John the Baptist felt something similar to my own nerves when, in this morning’s gospel passage, he was approached by Jesus to be baptised. He responds, ‘Surely it should be the other way ‘round, and Jesus, you should be the one baptising me?’
I wonder, as we reflect on this encounter, and on Christ’s baptism itself, what we might learn about who he is, and the outworking of our own baptism in our lives today?
In each Lectionary year at the beginning of the Epiphany season, we reflect on Jesus’ baptism through the words of a different ‘evangelist’ — a different gospel writer. And what makes today’s account from Matthew unique is this intriguing exchange between Jesus and John, detailed in just a few sentences.
The reason for their inclusion by Matthew is perhaps to address a deeper theological question which could be asked: If Jesus really were the perfect, sinless son of God, and if baptism is about being cleansed from sin, then why did Jesus need to be baptised?
And a deeper question follows on: What, then, is the ‘epiphany’ here? What is it that God is revealing to us about who Jesus is?
Put simply, in his baptism we see once again, front and centre, that Jesus is fully human. His humanity isn’t just a veil, a disguise, to enable him to come to earth, while still really being separate and keeping his distance. He really is human, and he really does understand all of the joy and the struggle of the human condition.
In being immersed in the squalid, murky waters of the Jordan river, the perfect, sinless Messiah chooses to immerse himself in all the brokenness — the ‘sin’ — of our lives. And he emerges as the beloved child, as the heavens burst open to proclaim that something truly significant is happening here!
And something truly significant is happening, not just for Jesus, but for us as well. For all of us who will have followed him into the waters of baptism, those squalid, murky waters have become the waters of healing and renewal.
In his baptism in the Jordan river, Christ identifies himself with our humanity, healing the great divide and uniting what is human with what is divine. This is a first glimpse of his whole life’s work, the great ministry of his life, death and resurrection, which Peter sums up to those he is about to baptise in our New Testament passage from the book of Acts.
This is the greater spiritual reality of baptism. Whether you can remember your baptism or not. Whether it has had significance your whole life or you’re only just beginning to think about it now as I’m speaking.
Through the physical sign of the water sprinkled on your head, your humanity is now indelibly identified with the divine, and united with God in Christ.
For the vast majority of people today, and perhaps many of us here, baptism has become primarily a naming ritual and a service of blessing or dedication for a new child. The transcendental, sacramental nature of this act has given way to its practical purpose as a family celebration.
But even for those of us for whom our baptism was many years, even many decades ago, there is a greater spiritual reality which we can access even now. It may be a one-time event, but God doesn’t intend baptism to be a one-time reality in our lives, done once then forgotten.
The small handful of water, which was sprinkled over your head as an infant, points towards the infinite spring of living water, on which you are now invited to draw whenever you need it. In the words of our reading from Isaiah, something new is ‘springing forth’.
This is a spring for healing, when are wounded and broken, even by those we love and most care about.
A spring to revive us, when we are parched and dry, at the end of ourselves and our ability to continue.
A spring for enrichment, which infuses our encounters and our experiences with the ability to see beyond the physical into a glimpse of the spiritual and eternal.
A spring which is welling up, bringing healing and revival, and enriching not just us, but the life of the whole world.
So, this morning as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, will we let its significance pass us by, or will we embrace the great spiritual reality to which we are ushered?
Are you broken or hurting this morning, whether physically, mentally or spiritually? Come to Jesus for your own healing and the healing of those you love.
Have you come to the end of yourself, left tired and dry by all that is going on in your life? Come to Jesus for the strength to keep going even when you are at your wit’s end.
Are you stuck in the mundane, bored by the endless cycle of one day after the next? Come to Jesus, and ask him to infuse your everyday with the joy of his presence with you in all you do.
Writing about the wonder of baptism, the great Rowan Williams puts it like this:
In the life of baptised people, there is a constant rediscovering, re-enacting of the Father’s embrace of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. The baptised person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle, but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian.Being Christian, p.7
So as we remember Christ’s baptism this morning, may we be renewed in living out the reality of our own baptism, and drawn ever deeper into the love and delight of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.