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The Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Our Lord, Ordinary Sunday 1, 8 January, 2012
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River constitutes the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry in all four of the gospels. In each case, John is baptising and preaching a message of repentance and Messianic expectation. He rejects any identification of himself with the Messiah. Indeed, in his dialogue with the authorities in John's gospel — memorably set by Orlando Gibbons in the great Advent anthem "This is the record of John" — the Baptist evades any attempt to label or identify himself as anything but a "voice crying in the wilderness". But, he says, the Messiah is coming.

And then he encounters Jesus, who according to Luke, is his cousin — although none of the other gospels mention a family relationship. Jesus is baptised and the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove, and a heavenly voice proclaims him as God's son.

So far, so good. But when we look at the different versions of the story in detail some problems emerge. Now, I don't think these are historical problems. The consistency of the accounts, and the unlikelihood that the early church would have invented the story, makes this one of the most historically secure episodes in the gospels. After all, why would Jesus need to be baptised by John — indeed, John's gospel seems to deliberately avoid explicitly saying John baptised Jesus. No, the problem, I think, is what does Jesus' baptism mean?

To begin with, what about the Holy Spirit and the voice declaring Jesus' sonship? Who is God talking to and why? The reading today is from Mark's Gospel. Most scholars — although not all — consider this to be the earliest of the gospel accounts. Mark is characterised by speed and concision. There is no mention of the nativity or childhood of Jesus. Either Mark's community had no traditions about Jesus' birth and infancy or Mark didn't consider it important. No, here John is baptising in the Jordan and Jesus arrives from Nazareth in Galilee for baptism. John doesn't appear to know or recognise him. And when Jesus emerges from the water of the Jordan, he sees the spirit descending on him and the voice of God seems to speak to him alone — 'You are my son the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.'

Straight after this, at the breakneck pace characteristic of Mark's narration, the Spirit 'immediately' drives Jesus into the wilderness.

The details are different in the other gospels. In both Matthew and John the vision of the spirit and the heavenly voice seem to be revealed to John the Baptist. In Luke, they are expressed in the passive voice "the heavens were opened" — so it's ambiguous if everyone around also saw and heard.

Is this important? Well, I rather think it is. Because these details, I believe, are critical to our understanding of what is actually going on here — to what the Lord's baptism actually means and what it might say about our own baptisms. I'd like to look at this from two perspectives.

Firstly, in none of the gospels is the proclamation 'This is my son the beloved' made unambiguously to the whole crowd gathered around the Jordan — although John's Gospel has the Baptist proclaim what he has seen to the people. So Jesus' baptism is not, I suggest, a sign in the sense that the miracles and healings later in Jesus' ministry were signs.

Secondly, in the Marcan version of the story read this morning, there is the ambiguity of what God's words to Jesus: 'You are my son the beloved; with you I am well pleased', mean. It could be argued that this implies what is called an adoptionist Christology, that is, that Jesus becomes the son of God at his baptism. A more orthodox interpretation is that it is God's revelation or confirmation of His relationship with Jesus and of Jesus' ministry.

So what about our own baptism, then? First of all, a reservation: any comparisons between our baptism and Jesus' are always going to be analogies rather than exact parallels. As in the case of those silicone braclets with WWJD — What Would Jesus Do — on them, we run up against the problem that he is God and we aren't.

Nevertheless, I believe a careful consideration of some of the details I have raised today can, perhaps, tell us some important things about our baptism. In particular, there is the possibility that our baptisms are not — as some non-sacramentalist Christians would assert — principally a sign of our Christian commitment. A baptism is akin to a sign, of course — like all sacraments — but if our baptisms reflect Jesus', then the main declaration being made here is not by the believer — or by the parents and godparents — but by God. And that declaration is 'You are my child the beloved; with you I am well pleased.'

You can see the implications. I believe we have here a clear Biblical mandate for our sacramental tradition — for infant baptism and for the catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration — that something really happens at our baptism to transform us.

I wonder what the congregation gathered around John at the Jordan thought on that day. Did they know somehow that something more than usually momentous had occurred? I suspect it may only have seemed particularly significant in retrospect, perhaps. But do we, as we turn around to the font to see another baptism, also not see what is really going on? The declarations and the baby and the water, certainly. But also the Spirit descending like a dove and the declaration from God: 'You are my child the beloved; with you I am well pleased.'

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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