Readings for Baptism of the Lord 13 January 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Baptism of Christ, January 13, 2008 Textweek

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

The baptism of our Lord: what is it all about, and why now? We’ve just had the wonderful story of the divine birth and we’ve just had another wonderful story of the Epiphany, the revelation, the recognition of the Christ child, so why now do we move on to the baptism narrative? And why did Jesus need to be baptised anyway? He didn’t need to become a member of the church and he didn’t need to qualify for a private church-school education. So why, why was he baptised? And if - big ‘if’ - if we can find any purpose in baptism, surely it’s Jesus who should have been baptising John. They are perhaps questions we ask or have asked, but they are also perhaps questions that are born out of church baggage, out of the past teaching that really didn’t and still doesn’t add up.

The baptism of Jesus is so important that it makes it into all four gospels; none of the gospel writers could leave it out. Not only that, it’s given a festival in the church calendar, a special Sunday, a focus: this Sunday we focus on the Baptism of our Lord. So maybe it’s worth looking at again and as we explore our questions what we see is the Baptism of our Lord holds the key to every other narrative about Jesus, and if that’s the case then it also holds the key to our own self-realisation. Liturgically we’re in the season of Epiphanies, manifestations of Jesus’ identity in the world, that’s what this season is about - the revelation that we find and see in Christ. It is therefore the season of the church, for are we not the body that makes Christ manifest? And it is also the season of life’s unfolding – the season of Epiphany is quite crucial to our on-going journey.

So in answer to the ‘Why now, why the Baptism of our Lord now?’, it is perhaps so that we have the opportunity to reflect on birth and baptism. Those of us that didn’t pack away the Nativity with all the Christmas decorations, those of us that have still got the Nativity scene alive within, are now asked to look again at birth in the light of baptism. And what we find is that the birth narrative, that beautiful story of the little babe in the manger, that is now re-created, it’s reframed, re-formed into the ritual of baptism, a process that’s referred to by some as being ‘born again’. And to appreciate the process we take a step back to Christmas and we just remind ourselves Christmas was not about the birth of Jesus; it was not about the birth of a man in the past; it was not about the birth of a beautiful little baby; it was not about the birth of the Messiah, who people had been waiting for and will continue to wait for; it was about much, much more. The Christmas narrative was and is about divinity made manifest in humanity. It is about you and me and God – the divine, the holy trinity. Now we may not have realised our divine nature at our birth – I’m sure I didn’t - and kings may not have brought gifts to our maternity ward. What we find today is that it is never too late. Always and forever, in each and every moment, we can realise our baptism; always and forever the divine spirit descends like a dove on you, on me and on all people. The baptism texts narrate an adult epiphany; the reason that we find them as baptism texts is that they’re illustrated by what would have been well-understood ritual of purification and renewal - this is not the invention of baptism, this is saying you will understand what I’m talking about if I take this ritual of purification and renewal, that we all know what that means, and now bring that to life in order to bring to life the process of our relationship with the divine. So we have a narrative about a ritual about a process. The church has adopted the ritual, and sadly, has even ritualised it, but have we understood the process of what it represents?

The Baptism of our Lord opens for us the possibility of our epiphany; it also speaks of the intimate relationship between the divine and you and me, a relationship which is most often characterised in the church by terms such as ‘father and son’, but we see that much more fully in today’s texts, and hopefully all of us have at least discovered that there is not a bloke in the sky called Dad. When we say that we are God’s children again we’re using an illustration that tries to speak of the relationship that we have with the divine. I think it’s more fully visible in today’s texts because we start with Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’. That’s echoed in the story that we had from Matthew: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." There’s a repetition there and the repetition is of ‘my’ and ‘I’: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. That repetition emphasises the personal and intimate voice of God. And then we have the words ‘chosen’, beloved’, and ‘delight’, ‘well pleased’, which name the intimate relationship as the source of divine joy. It’s getting difficult to understand now because we’re so used to either being put down or putting ourselves down. Entertain the possibility that you could be the source of divine joy; the source of divine joy is within you. The parallels between Isaiah and Matthew really do illustrate that this is not just a Christ event. Isaiah was aware of this divine process long before the gospels were written, and if we read on, and we only have to read a couple more verses in Isaiah, we find that what follows the baptism of Isaiah’s servant is a call for all creation to ‘sing to the Lord a new song’. It was quite delightful, the opening hymn this morning was new words to the tune of a carol – we actually sang to the Lord a new song as our opening hymn. Again it’s illustrative, it speaks of a new creation.

The same call that Isaiah spoke of, that same process of baptism that leads to singing a new song to the Lord, we find in the gospels in the life and work of Christ, following his baptism. At the baptism of Christ there is then an unfolding, and so too the same story, the same process is true of our own possibility and potential. Baptism is the process of divine birth, the process of renewal, the process of re-creation. Interestingly that’s also its outcome - divine birth, renewal and re-creation are the outcome. Baptism is a process rather than an event.

The re-creative process of baptism is then evidenced in that little story we get about Peter; it’s a process that challenges his nationalism, his culture and his religion, it challenges his very being. Peter opens his eyes to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. His eyes are opened like Paul’s eyes were opened, and he proclaims that everyone, everyone who follows Christ, everyone who knows ‘God with Us’, is acceptable to God. We’re given the illustration of Peter just like we’ll be given the illustration of Paul, so that we can take these texts and bring them into ourselves.

There’s another important variation in Matthew’s gospel if we compare it to the gospels of Mark and Luke; those three very much tell the same story of the baptism of Christ. The interesting variation that we hear today is that in Matthew’s words the divine is addressed to the community: Matthew says, ‘This is my beloved son’. Mark and Luke address the divine word to Jesus, the one being baptised – ‘You are my beloved son’. We can listen for both voices – the inner voice, the divine acknowledging you, in person, in self as ‘the beloved with whom I am well pleased.’ The same voice can also be heard in the community – you acknowledged in the sight of those around you as making manifest the divine.

Today’s texts call us – do not write off your birth and your baptism as past events, rather see them as the process of life in which you are called to be participants. If we contemplate it, it is amazingly obvious – we celebrate our birthday. It’s ridiculous really - is that when you were fully made and fully completed, on that day? ‘I knew you when I formed you in the womb’ - your birth began before that day. You continue to grow into the fullness that is the promise of that day. Birth is a process, it is not in the past, baptism is the same - ‘Oh I was baptized, can I get a copy of my baptism certificate? It was such and such a year?’ No, it’s a process. The spirit that descends like a dove is not like a pigeon coming down for some food. It is an eternal, an eternal gift of the divine to you.

Soon we will move into Lent, and Lent is an opportunity for us to go back into the womb, into the process of our becoming, to re-engage it, to participate in it and to find another baptism, another dying and rising, another ‘into the water and being lifted up’. All of these narratives are the story of the process of our life, and all of them identify a process that is underlined by the divine seeing you as ‘my beloved in whom I am well pleased’.

Peter Humphris