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Epiphany 1, Yr A, 1.9.2008  (Baptism of Christ)
Isa 42.1-9:  Servant song

Ps 29: God’s mighty works by voice, ending w. ‘strength to his people...blessing of peace’

Acts 10.34-43: ‘all the prophets testify about him’
Mt 3.13-17: ‘proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’ –almost as if apologetic for Mark’s account (1432)

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.

(Like Jesus, we as God's Beloved are called to be lovers)

          Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist.  Matthew, Mark and Luke, all have the story of the baptism, while the Gospel of John omits the story but alludes to it by having the Baptist witness to Jesus with the words, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him’ (1.32).  This morning we have heard Matthew’s version which he has repeated from Mark with a few changes.

          You may wonder why was Jesus baptized?  The answer lies in 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. It was only after they had done these things that they could they take part in the Passover meal, the great meal of the covenant.

          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.  This also explains Matthew’s addition to Mark of the conversation between John and Jesus, with John claiming the need to be baptized by Jesus, to which Jesus replies, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,’ -- for real righteousness lies in obedient dependence upon God. 

          Another way that Matthew changes the story is that in Mark’s account the heavenly voice speaks privately to Jesus alone: ‘You are my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased’, but in Matthew the voice publicly proclaims to all: ‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased’.  Why do you think Matthew has done this?  In Mark Jesus’ sonship is not openly revealed until the Centurion’s confession at the cross.  But in Matthew the disciples acclaim Jesus as God’s son early on.  In Mark the disciples are an obtuse lot, who will only learn who Jesus truly is by following him in the way of the cross.  But in Matthew the disciples know who he is, but what they are lacking is full trusting obedience, as when Peter, seeing Jesus walking on the water, is invited by Jesus to walk to him on the water.  He starts to do this and then his faith fails and he starts to drown.  When Jesus raises him up again, he admonishes Peter with the words, ‘Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?’  And in Matthew’s Gospel it is only disciples who are ever said to doubt.  And it is always when they see the Lord.  Seeing is not believing.  Only trusting obedience is true believing.

          Thus, if Mark’s baptismal story fits his insistence that the only way to know Jesus is by following him, then Matthew’s version fits his warning that to know about Jesus isn’t enough.

          We may well recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday, but Matthew and Mark would agree that it is what we do on Monday that shows whether or not we truly intend to be disciples of Jesus of Nazareth as Christ and Lord.

          So, on what are we to base this trusting obedience?

          At his baptism Jesus is called the Beloved, which not only marks out Jesus but also tells us that God is a lover.   As the Beloved Jesus shows us love.

          It is striking that in both the letters of Paul and of  other writers in the NT frequently those bring written to are addressed as ‘beloved’, for that is what we are.

                    Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah is one of the so-called Servant Songs.  In these songs in the book of Isaiah the servant of the LORD is most likely envisaged as being God’s covenanted people, Israel.  Our reading from Acts includes the words, ‘all the prophets testify about him’, and it is Luke alone among the gospel writers who clearly applies the Servant Songs to Jesus, as, e.g., in the Book of Acts,  in the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  The eunuch has been reading one of the servant songs, and Phillip tells him it applies to Jesus.  We are called to follow in Jesus’ steps, and so we, too, are called to be the servants of the Lord.  

          The impact of Jesus on those around him changed their lives, for it had been this tremendous sense of being loved and enabled to love.  It was, and can be today, so intense that when they came to write of it, the Fourth Evangelist expressed it as Jesus saying, ‘A new commandment I give you: that you love one another as I have loved you’.  In the same gospel, when Philip says, ‘Show us the Father’, Jesus’ reply is ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’  In the same community the author of 1 John puts it even more boldly as ‘God is love’.  And they are all agreed that Jesus on the cross is the full embodiment of this love. 

          Paul not only says in 1 Cor that ‘I would know nothing among you save Christ Jesus and him crucified, spelling out the content of that in 1 Cor 13, the spelling out of love.        

          In the OT we find the figure of Wisdom.  Wisdom is spoken of as a person, a person next to God, God’s agent, through whom God brings all things into being.  In short, we may say that Wisdom is God’s will and way.  Our psalm today speaks of God’s word being effective, and so Word and Wisdom are combined.  The NT witness to Jesus in effect says that Jesus is God’s Wisdom, the Word of God.  And that Word is Love. 

          I believe we are on the right track when we substitute the word ‘Love’ for ‘Word’ when we read the beginning of John’s Gospel:  In the beginning was Love, and Love was with God and Love was God. Love was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Love, and without Love not one thing came into being.

          So what we know of Jesus is love unbounded; what we know of the Father is love unbounded, and the guidance and power of the Spirit is, again, the urgings and guidance of love unbounded.

          It was this same intense conviction of love that Charles Wesley experienced when his heart was strangely warmed.  I believe it is also the deep experience of those who suddenly find themselves accepting Jesus at the centre of their lives, even if the rest of us grow into it more slowly.

          How do you express this impact?  Only by almost breaking the boundaries of human language, by speaking in metaphor and poetic language.  I believe it was such a tremendous sense of release, of a new start in life, that it was natural in a Jewish context to express it as forgiveness.  Thus  Paul speaks in terms of dying to one’s old self and now living a new life freed from one’s old life, which very often in the NT is spoken of in terms of forgiveness of sin.

          But I think we can look at this from another angle.  If God is love, then he has always loved us.  So God’s love has always been there and when we accept that, then we know ourselves to be given a new start, with our sins forgiven.  In other words, God does not forgive us in Jesus Christ; rather in Jesus he supremely makes his forgiveness known. 

          Now we, as the Beloved, are those who have been enabled to show forth that love, the divine love, in all that happens.  In the words of our Prayer for Today, let us know ourselves to be God’s beloved children, and go forth with confidence in his love.