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Baptism of Christ (Epiphany 1), 10.01.10. Yr C
Isaiah 43.1-7: fear not, O Israel....I will be with you when you pass through the waters
Ps 29: The voice of the Lord is upon the waters
Acts 8.14-17: baptized Samaritans receive Spirit through hands laid by Peter and John
Lk 3.15-17, 21-22: Jesus’ baptism (1042)

Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.  

(As in the baptism, Luke emphasizes Jesus as depending on the Father through prayer.)

          Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ, and all four of our readings concern either water or baptism or both.  The reading from Isaiah alludes to the crossing of the Red Sea , which is one of the two great baptismal types, the other being the flood narrative.  Psalm 29 speaks of the voice of the Lord being upon the waters, while the reading from Acts talks about Samaritans who have been baptized in Jesus’ name subsequently receiving the Spirit through the laying on the hands of Peter and John.  But, it is worth saying that in another story in Acts baptism is told as coming after the Spirit, for Luke is not a stickler for protocol.   He allows for diversity; in fact, he even seems to revel in it.  And our Gospel today is a slightly shortened version of Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist.

          You may wonder why was Jesus baptized?  To answer that let’s look at the Jewish practice of baptism in Jesus’ day.  As you know, there was the customary washing as a ritual cleansing from impurity, but baptism was also associated with becoming a Jew, the so-called proselyte baptism.  Male converts to Judaism obviously underwent circumcision.  However, in order to join in the Passover meal all converts, both male and female, had to undergo baptism before they could enter the Temple and make an offering. Only after they had done these things could they take part in the Passover meal.

          So when John comes preaching a baptism of repentance, he is calling the Jews to admit the need to start over, that is to admit that they have, so to speak, no leg of their own to stand on.  Thus when Jesus comes to be baptized by John he is joining in this, he is putting himself wholly in God’s hands.  In effect, it is the opposite of the person who proudly boasts that he is a self-made man.  To which the reply is that at least he does not blame God for it.  Therefore, we might well say that it is only because Jesus submits to John’s baptism that we can call him sinless. 

           Matthew, Mark and Luke all have the story of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John.  The Fourth Gospel, John, omits the story but alludes to it by repeating the Baptist’s witness to Jesus.

          We have heard Luke’s version this morning, and Luke makes a very significant addition.  He adds that Jesus is ‘praying’ as the Spirit descends ‘in bodily form’ like a dove.   And all through his Gospel Luke specifies that Jesus prays before every major step, and this is followed by the Spirit empowering or guiding Jesus in what follows.

          We meet Jesus praying for the first time at his baptism, when God acknowledges him as Son (3.13).  Later he spends the night in prayer on a mountain (6.12), and then in the morning he calls the disciples and chooses the 12 whom he calls ‘apostles’.  And again he prays (9.18) before asking the question: ’Whom do people say that I am?’  Subsequently he takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray (9,28f.), and it is there that he is transfigured.  He is praying (11.1) when the disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Just before the beginning of the passion (22.32) he says to Simon that he has prayed for him that his faith may not fail, and then he says to the disciples: ‘pray that you may not come into the time of trial’ (22.40). Furthermore, Luke adds a parable (18.1) on the need to pray always and not lose heart,

          We can see Luke’s emphasis on Jesus praying, and on Jesus urging the disciples to pray.  As we might expect, Luke continues this emphasis on prayer throughout the Book of acts as well.   But it is striking that the only times that Luke tells us what Jesus is praying the first word is always ‘Father’:  I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, when in the Holy Spirit, he rejoices in the Father – Son relationship (10. 21); In Gethsemane, it is, “Father, if it be your will, remove this cup from me” (22.42).  On the cross it is, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (23.34).  And at the end it is, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23.46).  And those who follow him he has called to the same intimacy with God, for when he teaches the disciples how to pray, he starts out, “Father, hallowed be your name’ (11.2). 

          If Luke has strongly emphasized Jesus’ closeness to the Father, it may seem surprising that in the whole of the Book of Acts Jesus is only proclaimed to be Son of God twice, both times by Paul and also significantly both times in synagogue, that is, by a Jew to fellow Jews, who would understand it in scriptural terms as one who shows forth the character of the Father through his total submission to God’s will and way.

          This is to be our way as well as those who have been baptized into Christ.  This is how we will recognize Jesus as our Lord and know ourselves to be, with him, sons and daughters of God our Father.

          Some forty years ago I read a small softback book on prayer by Fr Mark Gibbard of the Cowley Fathers.  It was titled Why Pray?  In it he made what to me was a very convincing case, as to why agnostics should pray, for prayer helps to sort things out, to get them in perspective, it helps to calm us down so that we can think straight without distraction, and therefore prayer readies us to take action, with the desired action seen more clearly.  By placing ourselves, our concerns, our hopes and our fears, and all that happens to us, in the hands of our loving Father we become ready to do his will with widened horizons and better vision.  Thus encouraged, equipped and guided by his Holy Spirit we may better serve our fellow human beings to our Father’s praise and glory in and through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.