THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
10 January 2021 St Dunstan’s Camberwell
Isa 42. 1 – 7, Ps 29, Acts 10.34 – 43, Mk 1. 1 – 11
THE GREEK ORTHODOX PICNIC
During the week, I saw in the paper that the annual picnic that the Greek Orthodox communities around Australia hold every year at this time in January, has been cancelled for Melbourne and Brisbane. Because of the COVID restrictions. But it’s going ahead in Adelaide and Wollongong. The picnic is always held on this Sunday in the church’s year – the Sunday that celebrates the baptism of our Lord. We’ve just heard Saint Mark’s account of this baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in our gospel reading this morning.
The Greek Orthodox Feast of the baptism of our Lord always celebrated where there is a long pier and water. All the young Greek men who fancy themselves as good swimmers line up and the bishop throws a crucifix into the water. They all dive in for it and the one who successfully gets it and swims back to the pier is treated with great honour.
Casting the cross into the sea is seen as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s descent into the depths of the cosmos, into death if you will, when he was baptised by John in the river Jordan. When the cross is brought up above the sea again, it symbolises Jesus’ rising from the waters of baptism to new life, marked out as God’s son.
For the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, is the most important feast for celebrating the birth of Jesus (it’s more important really than Christmas) and then the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord is seen as closely linked with the Feast of the Epiphany. What both those feasts have in common is that they reveal Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, as God. By contrast, in the Anglican Church we tend to think of the Baptism of the Lord as coming after Christmas and Epiphany have finished, and being more about marking the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, now that he is a grown man aged about thirty.
THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
So, why exactly was Jesus baptised by John in the river Jordan?
Something we tend to forget is that baptism was a part of the Jewish religion at the time, in first century Palestine, but it was only used for gentiles, that is, for non-Jews who were converting to Judaism. For those people, baptism was a ritual that marked repentance and a washing clean of their sins.
John the Baptist was doing quite a revolutionary thing by baptising all sorts of people who were already Jewish. What he was doing was preparing God’s chosen people for the Last Days, when the Lord himself would come. Remember how we heard in Advent that John the Baptist was preaching that the `Last Days’, which were so much longed for by the Jewish people, were now definitely breaking in upon the world. The end of time was upon us all. So now it was absolutely the time to repent and make a new start, ready to greet the Lord. The Messiah was coming. John was teaching that the Judgment Day was coming and very soon, so people should put themselves among the righteous, certainly not leave themselves among those who were sinful and had not repented.
Into all this, Jesus placed himself. What was he doing there? He certainly hadn’t sinned and he didn’t need to repent. He didn’t need John and the waters of the Jordan River to symbolically wash him clean. After all, if Jesus is who we believe he is, this is the Son of God who is ‘in every way as we are, except without sin,’ as we say.
The answer to what Jesus was doing there is found in the words of Saint Paul, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself…,’ [2 Cor.5:19]. To put this in another way: in everything that Jesus says and does, God is at work, showing us how closely and intimately God relates to human beings however they are, including those who sin, and who need to repent and turn again to God. Jesus is at the Jordan River, just as he was in the stable as a baby, just as he will die on the Cross, because God is in Christ, identifying himself with us in every aspect of our lives, our birth, and death, and all that is in between.
At his baptism, Jesus is committing himself to a life of service, and of self-sacrifice—a life which truly did herald the end-times which John proclaimed and which truly did make all things new for all people. Was Jesus being anointed for his life’s work by John’s baptism? Yes, he was in a way, and again, his anointing was not like a king’s, with oil, and fine clothes and feasting. Rather, it was simply with water, surrounded by ordinary people, and with the promise not of wealth and power, but of service and suffering.
And the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon Jesus at his baptism, just as he was coming up out of the water. What are we to make of that?
Where else in the Bible do we hear of a dove?
If I might return to the Greek Orthodox church for a moment here. In the Orthodox church, there is a tradition that this dove that hovered over Jesus is the very same one that brought the olive branch in its beak to Noah. This, you will remember, was to show that the great flood that had almost destroyed humankind had receded. There was now dry land again. God was making a promise to us that he would never again seek to destroy the earth. He was making a promise of love and commitment to humankind – this promise of love and commitment is sometimes called the covenant of God. It is unbreakable.
So again at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God appears with the sign of the dove. A voice from heaven accompanies the dove and the voice says, ‘You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’. The creating, renewing, saving Spirit of God goes forth in this new way as Jesus commences his public ministry.
The baptism of Jesus reminds us of our own baptism, and what it means for us in our lives. It’s easy for us to think of it as just something that happened a long time and that, by some magic, made us Christians or maybe Anglicans.
Rather we should see our baptism as the beginning of our relationship with Christ, a relationship where going to nurture and develop all through our life.
The beginning of this new year is a very good time to ponder on what we think we are called to do and to be, springing from the fact of our baptism. As the new year starts, are we being called, as Jesus was, to new areas, new horizons, new directions in your life as a Christian.
Things are overall a bit quieter at the beginning of the year and its worth pondering and praying this question. Listening for the voice of God.
The Lord be with you.
Bishop Alison Taylor