Choral Evensong 8th January 2017
The Baptism of Christ 2017
The Baptism of Christ 2017
There is something a little odd about the baptism of Christ. Baptism for John, at least was a washing away of sins, but the traditional view hardly admits of Jesus having any sin, either the sort of which he might be conscious and repent, or that rather more hazy original sin. I don’t think the concept of original sin was known to the Gospel writers and I can't help thinking that it's full development has more to do with justifying the practice of infant baptism than anything more significant. The strange stories around his conception may be intended to show that he had not inherited any sort of primordial guilt. I think it makes more sense to see them as putting Jesus’ birth in line with the heroes and prophets of the past. So, if he did not need to repent, why should Jesus seek out baptism? In part I suppose to emphasise his humanity, despite those miraculous stories around his birth. But more importantly I think his baptism in the Jordan was to be an epiphany; his first showing of what he was and what his message was to be.
Our reading from Joshua may help with an explanation, as the compilers of the Common Lectionary are right to see echoes of the Israelites' crossing the Jordan into Canaan in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
Like the similar but even more stupendous crossing of the Red Sea, the Jordan crossing marks a crucial turn in the story of God’s people, and symbolically, the story of mankind. The crossing of the Red Sea marks the release from slavery in Egypt, although the fullness of that salvation is delayed a whole generation as the Israelites wander in the wilderness coming to know their God. Only when Moses is dead are they ready for the next stage and again it means crossing water while God holds the torrent back.
In the Red Sea it was the strong wind sent by God which blew back the tide. Crossing the Jordan it is again the breath of God but now articulated into words and recorded as the Law and written on the scrolls contained in the Ark, which the priests hold in the middle of the river bed as the people pass by in safety. Both events are reminiscent of the very first acts of creation when the breath, or spirit, or wind moves over the face of the chaotic waters to divide them, control them, order them and eventually make life out of them. These are liminal events, scene changes for the next act in God’s great story, in which we ourselves pay a part.
So is the Baptism of Christ. For John and Mark, it is the first epiphany, the first time that Jesus reveals his nature, or rather has it revealed for him as God opens the heavens and proclaims his son. This is perhaps a topsy turvy reflection of his opening of the waters; heavenly life is revealed as the mortal waters are divided. Matthew and Luke have recalled the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth, but for them too this is the moment of heavenly recognition as his spirit descends like a dove. That is the same spirit that moved over the chaotic waters, that blew back the Red Sea and, as the Law, checked the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism is another such event which changes the scene and after which the world will never be the same again.
Baptism itself is premonition of what that change will be. It’s said so often, that you’ll tired of being reminded how our own infant baptism is a pale a shadow of John’s baptising in Jordan, which entailed entering the deep and dangerous stream, to be pushed under. It was a terrifying, and not entirely symbolic, encounter with death by drowning. It was as frightening as no doubt the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan had been, and like them it was followed by new life, in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. Again and again in the Old Testament, we hear of water as a symbol of death, essentially because it is the opposite of air and breath. Water drowns but breath brings life as God breathes into the nostrils of Adam and Eve and they become living things, and Noah’s flood extinguishes life in the airless water. In being baptised Jesus, like all candidates is moving through death into a new life, and surely it is significant that this moment, when Jesus submits to this very human experience, is also the moment that God in heaven recognises him so dramatically and emphatically. Similarly it is through the ultimately mortal experience of death that Jesus can reveal his nature and life in its fullest, resurrected, form.
Baptism then is a turning point in our lives, although one we experience more tamely and more often vicariously now as few can remember being baptised as babies. Nevertheless, we can see it as a step from mortality to a new life, an existence shared with the risen Jesus. Our baptism is in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost- the life giving qualities of the last are an essential element. It’s equally a revelation of salvation, of the Promised Land and the kingdom of heaven. It is no coincidence that the Jesus who stands in the Jordan, is actually Joshua which means saviour of his people.
That does not of course mean that it is all easy going from baptism on (any more that the wilderness or Canaan were a bed of roses) There are challenges, there is pain and disappointment and the nature of salvation will change as we ourselves change and grow and decay. We are however assured that we have come through death and however strange or unexpected or long awaited it may be, we shall see life.
I believe we have too much of a tendency to see Christian living as a pilgrimage or journey. It is of course a progression, we change and move on and life has an apparent ending. As baptised Christians we should, I suggest, be more conscious of arrival; the task is to recognise the salvation we have been given, rather than to seek it somewhere else.
After the rigours of Lent, the early Christian candidate was baptised on Easter morning and was at last invited to the Eucharistic feast; he or she had arrived and so have we. Life may continue to be a struggle but it is also a feast. The struggle may disguise this, and the enormous truth may make it hard to comprehend but this surely is the good news that the Gospel brings. We have crossed the Dead Sea and Jordan and have arrived in the Promised Land; there is still work to do and there will be opposition but we know that we shall succeed, not perhaps entirely, possibly not even perceptibly to our senses, but if we try to live that same new life that Jesus experienced and expressed as he emerged from the river Jordan, we shall have the power to create our heaven, for ourselves and for those around us. Amen