The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      12th January 2020
Baptism of Christ
Jan Rushton

In the pattern of the Church Year, after Christmas, we continue through the season of Epiphany, the unfolding of the extraordinary revelation of God's purposes in the Child of Bethlehem and all that this means.  If last week we celebrated with the magi, and thought about the gifts we have received, the talents we have to offer others, if last week we celebrated this second epiphany, the first epiphany of course - being the epiphany to the shepherds called to the stable from the hills,today we remember the third  'epiphany' of God’s infinite love, the third revealing of God incarnate, the revelation of the adult Jesus, as the Christ, God's Beloved Son.  An epiphany in Matthew’s gospel to those who watch Jesus’ baptism.  John the Baptist’s disciples and followers that is.
Jesus’ baptism is an important historical event - told, more or less, in all four gospels.   It is an event which the gospel writers cannot avoid acknowledging - try as John’s gospel does! 
The evangelist John will only allude to it! For the significanat movement which grew around John the Baptist continued after his death, and in the early years of the Chuch was bigger than the Jesus’ movement.  Reading between the lines, even as John himself asserts Jesus the greater prophet, it must have been widely known that Jesus’ ministry begins, is set in motion, through Jesus’ own time as a disciple of the Baptist. 
Jesus, disciple of John the Baptist, as John’s gospel also tells us were Peter and his brother Andrew. It is here with the Baptist that Jesus encounters them. All this, the story which is the gospel for next Sunday morning!
John was baptising out in the desert in the shallow muddy waters of the river Jordan upstream from Jericho.  A wild figure living in the wilds: terrifying - and yet magnetic too.  He comes with fierce words of judgement.  But also with the promise that the coming Messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit, empower with the Holy Spirit.  Empower his followers - to live those commands which demand so much of us: 
To love God, to love our neighbour - as we love ourselves.
To live with mercy filled hearts, to seek justice in society.
And now, the day arrives when Jesus himself comes forward for baptism.  In his humanity this is an important step, a vital step for Jesus. A life-changing step.  And he knows it.  The Baptist is reluctant, but Jesus presses him.   He adamantly knows how important this is.
I find it profound, and beautiful, to note Jesus’ humility here.  He does not, as ever he did not, assert himself over or above others.
In Matthew’s gospel, the voice from heaven is for those who witness this baptism.  In Mark and Luke, the epiphany is for Jesus himself: 
As the Spirit descends like a dove upon him, the voice addresses not the crowd but Jesus:
‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.’
Whatever it was that happened at that moment, this event turned Jesus’ life upside down.  As so often is true, an epiphany is both a wonderful uplifting experience, and, overwhelming, appalling.
Thus this divine affirmation of Jesus’ growing self-understanding is such that he is driven out, in an agony it would seem, driven out into the wilderness.  How difficult it must have been 
for Jesus to live with such growing inner convictions.  And now this climactic experience.  Alone he must wrestle with what this assurance means for his life. How will he use the power, power over man and nature, man and woman and nature; the new power he experiences coursing through his being.  Out in the desert he will reflect and pray - and struggle, struggle with temptation.
There are not a few around in our society who believe themselves to be God.  Usually, we consider them to have some sort of psychiatric disorder.  Yet Jesus is a lucid, mature, highly attractive man.  Forty days and forty nights, where he is ‘tempted’, where his new certainty about who he is, about his mission, is sorely put to the test.  Jesus is tempted to fulfil God’s purposes for his life by using his miraculous power to dazzle his people into submission, to draw a following through practising magic.  To relinquish the hard work of choosing always to live embracing love and mercy, and the suffering which is the inevitable companion of love.  Baptism opens no easy road for the man from Nazareth.  I have always been strangely struck in a way I cannot explain, by Jesus’ reply, as recorded in Mark’s gospel, to James and John’s request to have the highest places of honour when Jesus comes into his kingdom: He tells them: `You do not know what you are asking for! Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, 
or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?' They blythely reply, `We are able.' Then Jesus says to them, 'The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized also;   but, to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant.' These words of Jesus are enigmatic, ambiguous, mysterious.  What is he saying in them?  He affirms James and John.  He does not decry their ambition.  And, he warns them, that to follow him, to be his disciple, will always be challenging, costly.
In his baptism Jesus is empowered for the task ahead, as he sets out to reveal a revolutionary world view, a new, bigger understanding of God’s love, a task that will ultimately take him to death on a cross. Filled with the Spirit, in him the very Kingdom of God is breaking into our world!  For us to accept, receive, the baptism of Christ for ourselves is likewise an epiphany, an affirmation and a joy.  It may also, as Jesus, plunge us into doubt and difficulty.  It will lead us on a journey into fullness of life - often through hard choices to be made.  There may be times when our very life feels spent for nothing.  It is not.  I would recommend as New Year reading, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl’s small spiritual classic: Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he explains the freedom deep within us, always to choose love, choose to respond with love no matter our circumstances, and the life-giving power of that choice.
My guess is, all of us here do want to make that daily choice to walk with Christ, to walk that path of love and forgiveness, for ourselves, for our neighbour.  Working out what this means in our individual lives will be unique for each one of us.  How we live with courage will be unique to each one of us.
I recently saw the film ‘The Two Popes’.  It is quite extraordinary.  And very moving.   I wondered if it could be true to the reality of this unique situation of two popes in the Vatican- 
and presume it is, as the real persons of the popes, and not their actor alter-egos, appear at the end. It is an amazing story of unexpected redemption!  Be inspired! Out on Netflix!  And pray for Francis as he diligently seeks to reform the Roman Catholic Church - in the face of immense opposition, a task for which God has equipped him in equally startling ways.  Enjoy! 
If in life we choose to walk with love, we shall also walk with pain and grief.  If we want to reach for the heights, then we shall only attain our goal as we are willing to also walk with the low tides in our life.  If we seek justice for all in our communities, then we shall be persecuted - as surely as was Jesus.  But as for Jesus, our baptisms are also the assurance of God’s love, that we too, are beloved sons and daughters, that God will bless our lives, in the good times we surely enjoy, and in the times and places where the choices before us are hard to make.  Amen.  

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