Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The Baptism of Christ
January 10, 2011, 5:36 pm
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, January 9th 2011

Today we are closing the Christmas Season, and this year there will be eight “green” Sundays before we start Lent and the run-up to Easter. So let me just think aloud a little on the meaning of today’s celebration.

The Baptism of Jesus is one of the three “miracles” associated with the Epiphany, the Manifestation or Showing-forth of Jesus. The other two are the coming of the Wise Men with their gifts and the transformation of water into wine at the wedding-feast. Yet in an important way the whole life of Jesus is a manifestation or showing-forth of God. God is “going public”, we might say. First he revealed himself to Mary and Joseph, then to the poor shepherds, then to the wise men from the Gentile nations. Then for about thirty years he lived in obscurity, reputed to be merely the carpenter’s son of Nazareth. Today, that changes. Jesus will begin his public ministry.

As today’s Gospel begins, John is completing his mission to prepare Israel for the Messiah. He has preached repentance, conversion of heart. We heard that message strongly in the Advent season, and we shall hear it again as Lent begins. To receive God we must open our hearts, turn away from the make-believe ambitions of this world, and accept the discipline of following the way of the cross. We have to make a decision. In a way, it is a bit like new-year resolutions after the excesses of the holiday. We will eat more sensibly, take more exercise and so on. In Latin, the word “salus” means both health and salvation. Spiritually as well as bodily, we need to adopt a “health-regime”.

So then: John was preaching this “health-regime” to the people. “You are unfit,” he was saying. “Pull yourselves together, change your lazy and unhealthy habits.” As a sign of their seriousness, people were washed in the river, ducked under the water to bob up again and start afresh.

Then Jesus appeared, apparently joining the queue just like everyone else. John recognised him at once: the Messiah he was preparing for. At once he protested: this Baptism is not for you! It is to help others prepare for you! You don’t need to change, you are the one who brings health and salvation!

What does Jesus say? “Let it be like this for now. This is the proper way for me to start my mission.” What did he mean? Well, what was his mission? St Paul tells us somewhere that Christ came to reconcile the world to God. The world to God, not God to the world. God has been, is and always will be well-disposed to us. The world, alas, is not always well-disposed to God, in fact it is often quite hostile to God. We have to be turned round, not God.

God’s method of doing this, in Jesus, was to come among as, as one of us, and as it were turn humanity round from the inside. Although, obviously, he could never be hostile to himself, he could place himself in that hostile environment. Of course, the consequence of that was that mankind’s hostility to God was vented on Jesus, hence the Cross.

At the beginning of his ministry, as at the end, Jesus identified himself with sinners. He joined the queue with sinners to be baptised, even though he needed no washing himself. He died a criminal’s death, though he was no criminal himself. And by identifying himself with sinners, he enabled us, sinful as we are, to identify with him. Sinless, he reaches out to embrace sinners. To be saved, all we have to do is accept his embrace, and allow him to turn us back to God.

As we begin a new year, the resolution we need is the resolve to follow Jesus more closely.


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