Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2016

St.Alban’s Epping,10th January 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver


(Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22)

There are two places along the Jordan River where people go to connect with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The popular site is up to the north, not far from the Sea of Galilee. It is a picturesque location, complete with eucalyptus trees. Sarah and myself were reminded of Australia, when we visited it some years ago, as part of a wonderful course on “The Palestine of Jesus” run by St.George’s College Jerusalem.

This popular pilgrim site is effectively set up so that people can easily step into the water: one part is ankle deep, while the other section is deep enough for people to be baptized by immersion. The account of Jesus’ baptism from Mark’s Gospel is beautifully displayed in dozens of languages on the walls nearby, and of course there are shops selling refreshments and souvenirs.

But this location is unlikely to be authentic. The Gospels do not clearly indicate that John the Baptist worked in this area. The present day advantages of the location are firstly that it is within Israel, and secondly that it is so well set up for visitors.

The site which is much more likely to be authentic is further south, down towards the Dead Sea. Here there are remains of churches with prominent baptistries, going back to the early centuries of Christianity, and there are strong traditions about John’s ministry. In fact this is the area described in the Gospels as where John did his preaching and baptizing. However, the site is much less beautiful, and the site is actually in the country of Jordan, on the eastern side of the river. The river itself here is narrow, muddy and unimpressive, a result of population growth in the region, as well as the demands of Israel for irrigation water. For many years the area was effectively closed to visitors because of the hostilities of the Arab/Israel war.

When Sarah and I were taken there, we noticed that there was now also development happening on the Israel side of the river, and we wondered whether there would soon be a setup for pilgrims and tourists on that side of the river also. Near the site in Jordan churches were being built by both Catholic and Orthodox communities, so that the traditional site was being reclaimed as part of the Christian tradition.

Of course, being sure of the exact site is not the thing that really matters: either location could represent the reality of Jesus’ baptism for us. However, it was a great privilege to visit these sites associated with John and Jesus, to see the famous river Jordan, and to see where Jesus himself might have been baptized.

Today’s Gospel brings us the climax of Luke’s account of the ministry of John. In the leadup to our reading, Luke tells of John’s call to repentance: a new approach to God, and a genuine commitment to obeying and serving him. But this morning we heard what John said about a unique person who was coming, one who was so great that John was not worthy even to untie the thongs of his sandals. This man would not just baptize with water as John was doing: he would baptize with God’s Holy Spirit, and with the purifying fire of God. Of course John was speaking about Jesus.

But John also described Jesus as a great judge, like a farmer who separates the good grain from the chaff, which must be tossed out and burned. John had good news for those who repented, but there was a serious warning for those who refused to respond to his message.

What is striking about Luke’s account here is his comparative lack of interest in the baptism of Jesus. Did you notice that? He writes: “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying..” It’s as if Luke is saying: “Yes, of course Jesus was baptized, but that’s not the important thing!”

Luke wants us to focus on what happened then. The heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down like a dove, and there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Of course Jesus’ baptism does matter. In his baptism Jesus not only identifies himself with the mission of John. He identifies with those who need to be baptized: he purposefully identifies with sinners who need to be forgiven. Later he will in agony identify himself with sinners needing forgiveness, through his death on the cross.

But Jesus also commits himself to God’s purposes for him: his baptism is the launching pad for his ministry. The next thing to happen is that he will face the temptations of Satan as he determines his priorities and his approach to his ministry. Once he has confirmed his commitment to God’s purposes and God’s priorities, he will commence his work of teaching and healing, leading up to his suffering, death and resurrection.

But right now, Luke wants us to see just who Jesus is. The words from heaven echo two passages from the Old Testament. “You are my Son”, says the Lord, echoing words from Psalm 2, a Psalm which pointed to the Messiah, the king chosen by God to lead and rule his people. And then words from Isaiah 42, the chapter before our reading today: words referring to the servant of God, who was faithful to God and who pleased the Lord. Isaiah will go on to present this servant of the Lord suffering and triumphing, bringing forgiveness and salvation to God’s people. The words from heaven make clear just who it was that John baptized.

Jesus was the Son of God, beloved by God, who pleased God: any reader could see this. But to those who recognized the background to these words, Luke was setting forth the deeper significance of who Jesus is. He is the Messiah, the chosen ruler and Saviour of God’s people. He is the Suffering Servant who will sacrifice himself for sinners, to bring them forgiveness and hope, to restore those who have gone astray like lost sheep.

As Jesus by his baptism takes up the role set for him, so God responds by acknowledging him and confirming his relationship and his authority. Jesus’ baptism and the words which follow it express who he is: he is the beloved Son of God, the faithful Servant of God. And it expresses who he belongs to: he is God’s Son, God’s servant, who identifies himself with sinners in need of forgiveness. And it expresses his purpose in life: he will serve the Lord, and sacrificially serve the needs of others. In a sense, Jesus’ baptism was also his commissioning for service.

And what about that mixed bunch baptized by John? John’s baptism spoke of repentance, that change of direction which takes God seriously rather than ignoring his claims and his call: repentance is not perfection, but it makes a real difference to our lives. For those people whose baptism was linked with repentance, however imperfect it might have been, there was indeed the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance by the Lord.

And what about those who have been baptized in Jesus’ name over the past 2000 years? In many ways, our baptism contains echoes of Jesus’ baptism. For our baptism also expresses who we are: how by adoption and grace we are truly God’s children, forgiven and welcomed into his kingdom.

And our baptism also expresses who we belong to: not only are we children of God, but we are members of God’s family, members of his church, with responsibilities not only to the Lord, but responsibilities also to one another as well. And as with Jesus, our baptism also expresses our direction in life: we commit ourselves to following Christ day by day, serving him and serving others, and playing our part in the life of God’s church.

We are eternally thankful that Jesus fulfilled the task and purpose for which he was sent and for which he was commissioned in baptism: but the challenge remains for us to keep remembering the significance of our own baptism. Who are we? Forgiven children of God. To whom do we belong? To God our Father and his beloved Son Jesus the Messiah: but we also belong to each other as members of God’s family. What is our purpose in life? As we begin this new year, let us commit ourselves afresh to following Christ, serving his people and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

With our fellow students and pilgrims, Sarah and I shared in a renewal of our baptismal promises at the popular baptism site. We stood in a few inches of water, echoed our baptismal promises, and water was sprinkled over us: quite similar to our annual renewal of vows on Easter Day here at St.Alban’s. It was celebratory and happy rather than sombre, particularly as we realized that tiny fish were nibbling away at our feet as we shared in the liturgy. But we saw it as a very significant thing to share in. Of course that is the nature of baptism and the nature of faith. It is something to rejoice about, but it is also something serious and very significant.

Most of us do not remember our baptism: but we know that it took place, and perhaps we know some of the details. And we know what it is all about. As followers of Jesus, may we keep taking seriously those great baptismal promises of repentance, faith and loving service, as we follow Jesus along the path of life, and indeed the path of eternal life. Amen.

Paul Weaver