Theme: Passing the baton on
Reading: Matt 3 13 – 17
Talk: The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all give accounts of Jesus’ baptism but Matthew makes much more of it than the others. He seems to perceive it as significant in a number of ways. John Proctor, the URC’s General Secretary, has written an extensive commentary on an event that John’s Gospel vaguely alludes to and Mark’s almost brushes aside as something that ought to be mentioned but is not important. John Proctor, and he is joined by other commentators, feels that Jesus’ baptism, rather than being just another baptism, conveys a number of aspects of Jesus’s ministry.
Before this episode, when talking to the crowd, John the Baptist had hyped Jesus up to be a giant of a man. John was pretty fiery and forceful but he told the crowd that someone was coming whose sandals he was not fit to untie. “I can only baptise you with water” John announced, “but he will baptise you with fire and with the Holy Spirit. He will be someone who will ‘clear out the barn and burn the chaff on the everlasting fire.”
And who then strides onto the stage? Not a giant but a deferential character who asks John to baptise him like any sinner. But that was the point that Jesus was making to all the onlookers. “I’m not coming as a powerful prince or a warlord. I’m coming as one of you.”
So Jesus identified himself with one of the people by being baptised just as they were. He showed his solidarity with them; immersed himself in their hopes and needs.
His baptism also, however, had more to say. As Jesus came up from the water God’s Spirit descended like a dove and a voice was heard: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Now who witnessed this and in what way they experienced it we don’t know but there was some sort of aura that surrounded Jesus. An aura like a dove; a bringer of peace and certainly not associated with a warlord. The voice also echoed words from Isaiah; passages about a Messiah suffering hardship while he made his people whole and finally going to a sacrificial death. …. A lot to read into a few words but we must remember that Matthew was writing with the knowledge of how Jesus’s ministry was to be played out.
Far from being a military figure, Jesus’s ‘weapons’ were to be love and truth.” John’s Gospel makes this very clear. All the Gospels show the actions of Jesus to be loving but John’s also emphasises truth. In John’s Gospel Jesus uses the phrase ‘I am telling you the truth.’ on numerous occasions.
Jesus would not be able to bring about his ‘Kingdom of God’ by means of power or influence or material riches. This is highlighted in his rejection of the temptations which immediately follow this passage. He would not stoop to using dubious practises in order to achieve his aims. The Kingdom would come about by means of sacrifice and appealing to the higher motives of human caring. …pause ..
There was no overt teaching from Jesus at his baptism. The only teaching was by demonstration: his action of joining others in a ritual which was unnecessary for him. He had no need for repentance and to be washed clean. Strangely baptism in our church these days has as its emphasis something much more akin to what Jesus was doing. In the URC we usually bring an infant to be baptised. It also has no need for repentance but we bring him or her into the fold of the church; the child is now one of us just as Jesus was saying ‘I am now one of you.’ His action was quiet and no doubt completely unnoticed by most of the people present but maybe to John the Baptist and a few others present and now to us, it was a portent, a first step. Jesus was introducing himself and quietly declaring that the world was about to be changed. A quiet announcement but with the feeling … that the world was holding its breath for something that would sweep away a power-driven and oppressive order and herald in a regime of care and support.
Gwynn and I went to the pantomime, Peter Pan, last week; a harmless bit of fun and quite ridiculous. But pantomime stories need high emotion to get everyone going. The evil Captain Hook had to be put in his place by the forces of innocence. Peter Pan gathered around him his loyal band of … um .. lost boys and Tinkerbell and Tiger Lilly and Wendy (essentially a group of no-hopers) and persuaded them that together, against the odds, they could bring peace and joy to Neverland. And they believed him and set out on a quest to rid Neverland of injustice, selfish behaviour and aggression. And they won! …
Pure fantasy…. But it captures the moment … the moment when you sense that something momentous and far-reaching is going to unfold. Coming back to Jesus at his public encounter; the little baby Jesus, so full of promise, had grown up and was about to deliver. John the Baptist had preached about justice and sharing your riches and he was now passing the baton over to Jesus who would overlay the message with love and joy. Jesus would soon gather his band of ‘lost boys’ and ‘Wendys’ and teach them how to create the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah 42 1 – 7
This prophesy of Isaiah and a number of similar ones speak of God’s servant; someone coming to transform society by love and sacrifice. As I mentioned earlier, they form a link with Jesus’s baptism by means of the words used by the mysterious voice heard at that event: ‘Here is my servant, with whom I am pleased.’ We think of these and other prophesies as pointing to someone coming to people to persuade them to live as God wants. And Jesus came and did just that. This particular passage of Isaiah spells out the agenda that was to be fulfilled:- ‘The Servant’ will bring light to the nations; will open the eyes of the blind; will see that justice is done on earth. But just who this servant was to be is somewhat vague. It might be a Messiah, the Nation of Israel or us – the people of God. We don’t know exactly whom Isaiah had in mind.
What we do know is that the voice of God, spelling out God’s desires, relentlessly rumbled through the OT urging the people to take serious note. Otherwise the consequences would be serious. In OT terms God would bring down catastrophe on his people, all be it reluctantly, and that is what happened. The country was invaded and many people taken into exile with Jerusalem and its temple destroyed.
Our modern thinking is perhaps, not that God intervenes directly, but that poor decisions about our behaviour produce adverse reactions from our fellow humans or from nature. If we exploit people they will eventually fight back and if we plunder the earth, nature fights back. I don’t think it matters which is correct the result of not heeding the voice of God is disaster.
Once Jesus’s ministry got under way, his teaching was essentially plain (apart from a few sayings which cause us a headache): be just, caring, honest, tolerant, unselfish and, above all, loving. He promoted the qualities that we now call Christian.
Unfortunately, the earthly forces of selfishness and a thirst for power were too overwhelming for the earthly Jesus and he paid the price for criticising those in authority. So the earthly Jesus died. He only had time to set out his manifesto and start the process of implementing it. He then passed on the baton to us.
Countless people have grasped the baton over the ages. History is littered with good people who have tried to introduce justice, tolerance, caring and love into a situation but have died at the hands of violent selfishness. Martin Luther King and Gandhi are but two examples. You will think of many more. But love triumphs in the end. At the resurrection Jesus emerged as an unquenchable flame. You cannot kill God that is you cannot kill love; it flows through the universe, mysterious and invincible. Rather like the air. An axe can cut through the air tearing it apart but the air simply reforms behind the axe once it has passed. Incidentally, for those who raised an eyebrow at my use of the word ‘triumphs’ in connection with love, it was a poor choice. ‘Triumph’ implies crushing the opposition which love certainly does not do. I’ll let you come up with a better expression and tell me after the service.
So the baton has passed to us and that is a challenge, particularly at the time of life that most of us are. However, now is perhaps a good time of year to address that challenge. Or maybe in 2 or 3 weeks. We think of ourselves as pretty sophisticated and the poor folk of centuries ago didn’t know anything. However, they weren’t caught up and trapped in commercialism and a frenetic pace of life. In some respects they’d got it right. They moved at the pace of nature; the pace of the seasons and they were in tune with them. It probably helped them to cope better than many of us, judging by the complex mental health issues that seem to multiply in modern living. In Celtic and Medieval times people celebrated the solstices and equinoxes but also what are called the cross quarter days: the times mid-way between solstice and equinox and we do well to take note of these celebrations. In a few
weeks is the cross quarter day of Imbolc, also known in the Christian calendar as Candlemas. The early Church, as you probably know, blended many of the ancient festivals with Christian ones. The best known is Christmas being celebrated at the festival of Yul or Yuletide. Imbolc was significant as it was used to mark the time when winter was passing and the first shoots of spring were evident. It was customary to light a candle in every room of the house. The Earth was waking up. So it is a time when we can take heart in the lengthening days and the emerging Christ Light. So, on Sunday 2nd February, say to yourself ‘Today is Imbolc. Let me grasp the baton and move forward into the Christ Light.