SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALof St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
BAPTISM OF CHRIST
(January 10th) 2016
Isaiah 43: 1-7Psalm 29
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the early Christians set about proclaiming what theologians tend to call the Christ event – that is the entire birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus – they were beset with many problems. One of those, apparently a well-circulated oral tradition, was the Baptism of Jesus. Why was one soon to be described as sinless baptised in a rite that John the Baptiser described as being “for the forgiveness of sins”? The Christians could not wriggle out of the dilemma: it was a well-known fact of Jesus’ life.
The Christians were determined to use the Hebrew scriptures as proof that their crucified Saviour, powerfully known to them in worship and fellowship, was also known to them to in the Hebrew scriptures. As they journeyed through the Hebrew texts of faith they found reference after reference that ignited their sparks of faith and joy. Some of them may seem a little tenuous to a contemporary reader, but they were not to our forebears.
So when they found an Isaian reference to a saviour figure who would journey with believers through waters and fires and flames they had no difficulty in seeing the life of Jesus foreshadowed. It resonated with their experience of the presence of the risen Christ as they grew in faith. It resonated with their stories of Jesus’ own baptism by John. It resonated with their sense that every Christian life is a journey through self-surrender and death to resurrection and eternity. The early Christians glimpsed eternity again and again in their worship and fellowship and study, and no one was going to take it away from them. The Jesus they knew had passed through the waters of the Jordan and the waters of death.
Baptism wasn’t a new thing when John used it, nor was it unique to Judaism. In many religions of the Middle East (and elsewhere) water, preferably but not necessarily running, was a powerful symbol of birth, cleansing and death, not necessarily in that order. John adopted it, but gave it emphasis on cleansing. He linked the rite with God’s apocalyptic wrath, with a powerful critique of corrupt leadership, and with an energy that would soon be a hallmark not only of his ministry but that of his kinsman and protégé Jesus.
Jesus himself saw the power of the symbol and handed it on to his followers. In the hands of the Jesus-followers, not least Paul, it became a symbol of death and resurrection, and, because Jesus himself had undergone the rite, of baptizands’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Whether Paul was the first to see it that way we cannot tell, but his teachings gave that belief powerful impetus, and it has stayed central to Christian beliefs ever since. It became associated, too, with the indwelling of the Spirit, as reflected in the tellings of the story of the baptism of Jesus himself.
The Christians saw clearly that the Baptism of Jesus was no parenthesis, but a central event of cosmic significance in the saving life lived by Jesus. Paul’s language of grafting on, probably borrowed from Jesus in any case, became a powerful tool by which to understand the event. The Incarnation, the “descent” of God into human form, was the grafting of the Jesus-event onto the human story. The Creator, fully yet impossibly present in the Man of Nazareth, enters into the confinement and restriction of human experience: “from heaven you came, helpless babe.” Human experience entered into the heart of Godhead. But the baptism was something else, something more specific still. The experience of human sinfulness, the sense of a need for restoration and reconciliation with the Creator, became a part of the experience of being God. Later the two dimensions, being human and being fallen, would culminate in the utter aloneness of the experience of dereliction and death, when God would cry out in the psalmist’s pain-filled scream “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?” God was grafted on to all human experience, even the experience of God-forsakenness. All that experience was then caught up in the unrepeatable, “unsurrenderable” and incomprehensible event of the Resurrection.
The Baptism of Christ then was about God grafting divine being onto humanity – God entering into and transforming both the existence and the faith-life of God’s people. But it was also about sin. It was about God the logically sinless entering into the murk and degradation of sinfulness. Icons of the Baptism of Christ will often depict him standing in the shallow waters of the Jordan surrounded by the detritus of human existence – today we might depict him standing amidst the syringes and lifejackets and dumped tyres and batteries and sexual apparatus of post-modernity’s webs of sin. It is about entering into the corporate sin of injustice and ecological exploitation, but it is also about the personal sin by which I dehumanise those after whom I might lust, or on whom I might prey, or who’s portion of the world’s resources I might nonchalantly discard. It is about my wearing of sweatshop-manufactured clothing, my consumption of palm-oil exploiting spreads, my participation in the sin that degrades human bodies whether I do personally or just participate in a world that does so. It is about my sin and our sin, and our sin as a handful of people and our sin as all humanity. It is into that degradation that Jesus steps in the Jordan.
But that is not the end of the Baptism-story any more than Good Friday’s cry of dereliction is the end of the Incarnation-story. Jesus emerges from the detritus-ridden waters of the metaphysical Jordan and from the mortality-ridden waters of the “deep waters of death.” Jesus rises – cleansed for us, so that we too might rise, cleansed. Neither greenhouse gasses nor my own propensity for sin is the end of the story: God’s restoration of humanity and of me and of you is the foreshadowed and yet to come never-end, the endless story of God’s love. It is a personal story of our rebirth, and a cosmic story of the new heavens and the new earth yet to be seen, long to be longed for, never to be surrendered. It is the story that my life transcends death, and the story that all life and all love transcends death, even the death of planet Earth.
It is the story that you and I are called to proclaim with our every attitude, our every action, our every fibre: it is the story that we must proclaim with words if necessary but with actions inescapably if we are to be a resurrection people. It is the story that must be our story this year, if we are not to be left behind on the bottom of a murky Jordan River.
Fortunately, though, there is a Spirit hovering above the waters, and by the sid of that Spirit, the invasion of that Spirit, we too may participate in the emergence of Jesus from the detritus of Jordan and Death alike.