Baptism of Christ 12th January 2020 – Isaiah 42, 1-9; Acts 10, 34-43; Matthew 3 13-end.
Revd. Canon Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens
The feast that we celebrate today is the Baptism of Christ. This event in the life of Christ, the initiation of his earthly ministry, is what the Orthodox celebrated on January 6th, and is known as the theophania. While in the western tradition the 6th is when we celebrate the epiphany of Christ to the Magi, in the eastern tradition the epiphany of God in Christ’s baptism is the dominant event. (Those who follow the old Orthodox calendar, of course, celebrate Christmas on this date, but this cannot concern us today).
All four of the sacred gospels record the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. The physical act of the baptism was performed by St. John the Baptist, also known as the Prodromos, the Forerunner. This was his normal practice for those whom he called into a new life after repentance. We know that hundreds, if not thousands, went to John to be washed of their sins in the waters of this river. The Orthodox church celebrate St. John the Baptist the day after the Baptism of Christ.
Our Lord goes to John for baptism, and we know that John is humbled by the approach of the one he points to as ‘The Lamb of God’. However, in this act of baptism, something far more significant occurs, and it is this that gives this event such a place of honour in our faith and celebrated in our liturgical calendars. As our Lord is baptized, there occurs a full revelation of God in Jesus. In the Hebrew biblical tradition this might be called a manifestation of shekinah – the invisible God made visible and real, the transcendent God made immanent.
In terms of our own faith and practice it is in baptism that the same claims are made for each of us. It is through baptism with water, in the name of the Divine Trinity, that we are adopted as the daughters and sons of God; it is through baptism that we are anointed as the royal priesthood of Christ; it is through baptism that we affirm our belief that we are called into the shared life of Christ. We are called to be Christ-like in our lives, sharing with each other and the world the characteristics of the glory of God in Jesus.
This is not only a spiritual phenomenon. After his baptism Christ immediately is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness (as we will soon enter our period of Lent) and returns envisioned by the qualities of God’s righteousness – righteousness that is worked out in the simple realities of justice, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. This is the Kingdom of God.
Insights of this Kingdom are expressed by the prophet Isaiah in this morning’s OT reading. The revolutionary concept that the Christ, the Messiah, is a servant is presented here. Famously in Isaiah 52 we hear the radical statement that we have a suffering Messiah. God’s spirit has been placed upon him; he will be unshakeable in proclaiming the kingdom of justice; he will bring healing and peace; he will release us from those things that hold us in chains.
This prophetic description of the Christ is further developed by Isaiah in words that Jesus himself reads in the synagogue in Nazareth.
‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…’ (Isaiah 61, 1-3)
The relationship between this great Old Testament vision, and the event we celebrate today, does not require a huge leap of imagination. Read the two texts side by side and see how they interact.
Nor does it take a leap of imagination to understand that as Christ’s church we have an obligation to shape our lives individually and together on the pattern of Christ’s life and ministry. Despite all of our human failings and falterings, through baptism we share in the glory of God fully revealed in Jesus. One of the church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, said, ‘the Son of God became son of man so that the sons of men could become the sons of God.’ Of course we need to read human inclusion into this ancient statement.’
The baptism of our Lord initiates his earthly ministry, just as our baptism into Christ’s crucified and risen life, begins our ministry in our own contexts and communities. Together and individually we are called to be compassionate, to be healers and reconcilers, to speak up for the poor, to proclaim justice and the liberty that belongs to the Kingdom of God. This we try to do because we are the children of God, his beloved. May he be well pleased in us.