Epiphany 1 -Baptism of Christ
Matt 3. 13-17
Epiphany - as you know - refers to the showing, the manifestation
of God to and in the world. Hence the association with the visit
of the Magi - the outsiders, the Gentiles, and the importance
of placing them close to the birth of the Christ-child.
It has been said that the scarce
resource about which humanity is most likely to fight in future
is a substance that most of us in this country take pretty much
for granted - Water. And more particularly, clean, drinkable
There is nothing that human
beings need more - for life itself. For our health and wellbeing
and to support the various life-forms, vegetable and animal -
on which we feed. We need water to clean ourselves and our clothes
- to maintain the public health of our cities and settlements.
We need water to cool our industrial processes and to turn into
steam to power our turbines and generators.
Nothing is more precious than
Nothing - as we have seen all
too clearly in the storms and floods battering our coastlines
and river valleys - is more dangerous and deadly than water.
"In the beginning",
we read in the book of Genesis, "the earth was formless
and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the
Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." That was how
the ancient Israelites imagined the story of creation. Not for
nothing was the ocean in Hebrew thought, associated with the
word for 'chaos'. The waters were without form - without order
- without organisation or pattern
and we human beings are
lost without some element of order, and organisation and pattern
in our little lives. But there the Spirit of God hovers - like
a dove - over the waters, over the chaos - waiting to introduce
some sort of order into the world that God is in the process
The ancient Israelites lived
in fear that one day God would remove the limits that he had
set upon the waters of the deep and chaos would return - snuffing
out life - putting Creation into reverse.
So water is something that
humans on the one had crave and need for our existence - while
on the other it engenders a deep and primordial fear in us. Just
think back to the awful images that came from the 2005 Tsunami.
Water is something we seek
to tame -all the while knowing that ultimately, we cannot control
it. We can learn to swim - but eventually the strongest swimmer
will tire and drown. We can sail upon it - harness the strength
of its currents and waves - but never totally trust it. We can
fly above it in our machines of steel and plastics - but we know
that, in the end, we are defenceless against the full force of
it. We can acknowledge its power and life-giving force, and ability
to cleanse, by making it holy - we can sacralise it, consecrate
it and use it in our rituals of baptism to welcome new life into
our world, to welcome new Christians into God's Church. And when
we do that - we call it Baptism.
At the time of Jesus' birth,
Jews - although they would bathe in the Mikhva before entering
the Temple to ensure their ritual purity, did not believe in
baptism, as such, for themselves or their children -
They did recognise it for those converting to Judaism - Baptism
was a practice known in many other cultures and which they adopted
for cleansing of the sin that stained, unclean Gentiles!!!- but,
as the chosen people of God, they did not need it as they were
already assured of God's salvation and therefore did not need
to be cleansed symbolically through baptism.
That is why, when Jews came
to John to be baptised in recognition of their need for repentance
of sin, the authorities - the priests and Pharisees were both
shocked and outraged and very unsettled. It seems the authorities
(then as much as now) had failed to catch the mood of the people,
for Jews were voluntarily going to this wild preacher in their
droves - what was going on??
John preached that he was the
herald of the Messiah - a new order was coming, the old ways
and traditions were about to be put up for scrutiny and challenge.
This Messiah was to be very different from the one the Temple
authorities expected or even wanted.
And it all began to take shape at the Jordan as Jesus comes to
John at the start of his public ministry. It begins as Jesus
shows himself to John and to the crowds coming for Baptism.
He comes alongside and among the people in all the messy chaos
of their lives- he identifies with ordinary people, with humanity,
and was himself fully human.
Jesus was the embodiment of all that it means to be FULLY human
- he lived his life in knowledge and awareness of the presence
of God in all he did - showing us the way to full relationship
In his humanity, he showed us our divinity. As he emerges dripping
from the waters of baptism, so God is made manifest in our world
Yet Jesus was the sinless one
- meaning that nothing separated him from God. The sin he came
to 'take away' was / is humanity's estrangement from God - going
our own way and not that of our faithful loving God - not loving
God and consequently not our neighbour as we should.
So let's think for a moment
of the scene that day at the Jordan. There was John in full swing
- baptising the crowds that came despite the words of the religious
But something moved the people to come, something resonated in
their hearts that drew them to the Jordan. Something they probably
couldn't express - just as many of the families who seek baptism
for their children today, can't fully express their reasons.
God's Spirit is ever active despite what 'organisation / governments
or other authorities' might say!
Anyway,- there now before John,
kneeling in the water is the Messiah - the Lamb of God who takes
away the sin of the WORLD - asking for baptism -Surely it should
be the other way round and John doesn't want to do it, how can
he baptise the Messiah?
But Jesus insists that it must be so
For here, right at the start of his ministry, as I've said, Jesus
chose to walk the same path as us, to identify with our very
nature, not standing at a distance from messed-up, chaotic humanity
but choosing to share our suffering, temptations and pain - choosing
to be totally involved in our world. And in entering into that
water - going under and emerging spluttering and gasping for
breath, Jesus is also taking a step towards his death - taking
our sins and pain to the Cross, making it possible for us to
have a closer relationship with God.