Saturday, January 08, 2011

Baptism of our Lord

I heard a while ago the true story about twins born on different days.  I guess, when you think about it, it must happen fairly often.  One of these boys was born just before midnight, the other 30 or so minutes later, on the next day.  So, year after year, the boys’ birthdays were celebrated on two separate days, they grew up with the family story that they were twins with different birthdays.  But it was only years later, when they were well and truly grown up – as is also often the case, I guess – that the twin born after midnight told his brother how hard it had always been for him to be the younger brother, to be constantly reminded that his twin was older than him, and how he had always felt he lived in his 30 minute older brother’s shadow.  Maybe there was a twinge of guilt there for the older twin, as well, who had grown up with all the little privileges of being the eldest.  But from that point on they decided to celebrate their birthdays, every year, together - at the stroke of midnight.

I’m reminded by this by the story of Jesus and John the Baptist, who according to Luke’s human interest version of the nativity were first cousins – John born to the sister too old to bear children, Jesus to the sister too young and too unmarried to fall pregnant.  And we hear nothing more about their relationship, or even get any idea that they knew each other, until we see them together in today’s story as adults.

This is actually the second time in a few weeks that we have been with scary John the Baptist in the desert.  The first time was during Advent, where we encounter John in his hermit’s gear, fresh from the desert and skinny from a diet of locusts and wild honey, telling off the crowd of excited people who have come to hear him preach and baptising them in the Jordan River.  It was a highly-charged symbolic action, the Jordan of course being the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of ancient Israel, the land that God promised to the people who fled with Moses from slavery in Egypt.  So the Jordan is the river that Joshua had to lead the people across to enter into the promised land, the river whose waters God held back so that they could enter, and it was on the banks of the Jordan that they heaped up 12 stones from the river bank and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.  So when John baptises people in the Jordan, he is making them symbolically clean so they can be worthy of the vocation that God has called them to.  And he doesn’t mince his words, calling them vipers and telling them the time of judgement is coming.  In fact, he says, one is coming – one with a winnowing fork who will really sort them out and whose sandals John himself isn’t even fit to bend down and tie the laces of.  It must have been superb street theatre, because it made headlines not just according to the Bible but also according to the 1st century historian Josephus.  John is joining the line of Jewish prophets who had predicted the coming of the one long expected, the Messiah of God, and going one further, daring to announce that the long-awaited one is coming right about now.  You can imagine the consternation.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t fit the stereotype.  When he finally arrives on the scene – the same river-baptism scene we visited during Advent – he doesn’t in any way fit with the popular conceptions of what a Messiah should be like.  An army, for example, might have been a nice touch.  At least a literal axe and winnowing fork, surely the Messiah should have been even scarier than John the Baptist.  But Jesus isn’t, and the first words he and John say to each other are what reminds me of the story of the twins.

Because the story of John baptising Jesus in the Jordan is embarrassing.  Not to Jesus, perhaps, but certainly to Jesus’ earliest followers, and according to the way Matthew writes it, also a bit of an embarrassment to John.  Jesus might have been born second, his mum might have been a pregnant unmarried teenager, but Jesus is the important one, the Son of God no less – and it was a deep deep embarrassment for the anointed one of God to have to undergo baptism like everybody else.  In fact there is a little heard-of sect around the region of present day Syria called the Mandibeans who continue to believe that is was John, not Jesus, who was the Messiah of God.  But at any rate, John objects, and his younger cousin tells him, ‘it needs to be like this.  We need to do it by the book.’

According to John, baptism is a cleansing, an action by which we claim God’s forgiveness of our human sinfulness.  But Jesus has a different take.  Yes, the receiving of forgiveness is part of it, becoming clean and fresh and entering into a new start is a part of what both Jesus and John understand about baptism, and it’s certainly part of what the Church understands about baptism.  But Jesus demonstrates that baptism is also about entering into a new relationship, and a new self-understanding.  As the baptism service of the Church expresses it, baptism is the sacrament though which God adopts us as children, as heirs of God’s promises, as members of the Church which is the literal body of Christ, the visible, earthly, flesh and blood body of Christ on earth.

So Jesus, by being baptised, is demonstrating his willingness to be counted among God’s people.  As we proclaimed on Christmas morning, the Word of God was content to pitch a tent among human beings and live with us and like us.  At his baptism, Jesus shows that same commitment in action.  As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, by being baptised by John, Jesus is fulfilling all righteousness – not just doing it by the book, actually, but by revealing his basic self-understanding as the one who is with us and for us.  Baptism with fire and Spirit has its unremarkable beginnings in an act of humble solidarity.  There is, of course, a little excitement – the heavens are opened and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice declaring, “This is my Son which whom I am well pleased.”  These words which in Mark’s more succinct account are heard only by Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel are heard by the assembled crowd.  It’s a grand flourish, but the point is simply this: that it is at his baptism that Jesus’ mission and ministry begins.  And so it is also for us.

After this, various scripture passages bring us back to baptism. In the reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus Christ began in Galilee after Christ’s baptism. We know other stories, such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip and the baptism of the prison guard’s whole household by Paul, and of course, the baptism of more than 3,000 after Pentecost. Baptism is critically important to our understanding of who we are as a people of God.

It’s tempting I guess – especially on the day on which Cameron comes to be baptised – for us to compare our own baptism with Jesus’ baptism - and for us to come off looking a bit second-rate.  Jesus after all is anointed with power and the Holy Spirit.  He is, after all, the Son of God – he is in the business of healing and teaching, of getting crucified and rising from the dead.  But our baptism surely doesn’t carry such cosmic implications.  Surely we can get baptised and put the photos in the album and then get back to just being ordinary, maybe even forgetting the day of our baptism until we find the card at the bottom of the drawer years later to remind us.

Well, not really. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That’s the first clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day that we too were baptised with power and the Holy Spirit that Matthew describes as descending on Jesus like a dove.  We actually are just as adopted, just as filled with the Spirit, and given a ministry and mission as Jesus.  Our baptism is and should be understood to be life-changing.

I wonder if you can remember the promises you made at baptism?  You might object that you were too young – but the promises you certainly made for you and on your behalf, and if you have been confirmed you made the same promises for yourself.  We make promises at baptism, we also are tasked with mission and ministry and the telling of the good news of God’s love, we are challenged to care for the poor, to build up the weak, and to spread peace.  Do you remember that?  If not, take home a Prayer Book and read through the baptism service and refresh your memory.  Learn by heart the promises and the challenges of baptism that are nothing short of an act of humble solidarity.  The promises and the commission that constitutes the Church and that, as Christians, are meant to underlie our basic understanding of who we are.

The implications of our baptism, of course, need to be worked out in the way we actually live.  But I think that the Church gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, as a reminder to us to remember our own baptism.  To remember that we are created in the image of God, that we are loved beyond measure, and that, adopted and loved by God we are driven by the Holy Spirit to work in love for the world that God has created and loves.  To celebrate our own baptism with our older brother, Jesus.