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12th January 2014 - Epiphany - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for Epiphany 1 -Baptism of Christ
Isa 42. 1-9
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 water.

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 water.

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 of creating.

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 with God.

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 once more.

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 authorities.

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.