Sermon Baptism of Jesus January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 3:13-17
May these words and our thoughts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Baptism is a Rite of Passage. Rites of Passage exist throughout the world, they signify that the person, boy or girl, has become an adult, but more meaningfully that they have passed into manhood or womanhood, with all the responsibilities, powers and pleasures of both estates. Reflecting on those three words it seems to me that being an adult is just like being included in a category, like being a book. Books are either hardcover or paperback or electronic. They contain the same words and they can be picked-up and read, or left on the shelf or in the hard drive, and ignored. Of course some books inspire and they all have their own story, each in its own way has meaning. We say we can read some people like a book, meaning we know what to expect from them – ho hum. That’s how the word ‘adult’ works for me – as a passive condition, a category in a catalogue.
But ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ are completely different. They are visceral words, they have flesh and blood, ambitions, wants and needs, a life to live, they are packed with energy and desire. Tell me which one do you prefer ? Would you want to sip the near-beer of adulthood, or quaff the ale of man’s and woman’s estate ?
It’s so easy to read stories, especially stories in the Bible and assume we know what is going on. When we open the pages of the Good Book, most of the time we have run across the stories before, skimmed over them and then gone on to other stuff, without breathing in the life that they have. When we do we act like an adult when we should act like a man or a woman.
So to today’s story. The Gospel years were troubled times for the Jews, with the Roman occupation of Palestine, and all the troubles caused by foreign rule. The religious leaders were trying to preserve peace and at the same time accommodate the dictatorship of the stronger military power, a power that brought peace, the ‘Pax Romana’. A peace preserved at the expense of peoples’ freedom, a dictatorship in any language, subjugating and sucking the life out of the Jews, they were neutered.
The Jews were tied much more closely to their religion than we are, we support various political parties to express our civic life, the Jews had religious sects to do it for them. And as with us there were many factions to support across the spectrum from left to right, and beyond. There were the Temple priests who said salvation came from doing the traditional sacrificial rituals and doing them perfectly. There were the Pharisees who said salvation went beyond the Temple sacrifices and could only be obtained through precise adherence to the Law in all aspects of life, it wasn’t sufficient to just show-up make an offering then go home and sin again. Then there were the Sadducees, they were punctilious too but believed that this life was all there was, so let’s make the best of it, they were favoured by the landowners and the merchant class for obvious reasons. There were the Essenes who said life was corrupt and the only way to fix it was to go into isolation from the wicked world and live a pure separated life under what we would call monastic rule. Then there were the likes of John the Baptist, a latter day Moses, who led people out into the desert to rediscover the Promised Land. John saw that his society and his religion, Jewish theocracy, had got it all wrong, what was needed was true repentance and he wanted people to signify that by baptism, the ancient Jewish practice of physical cleanliness signifying spiritual cleanliness – a Sacrament. For John and his Exodus he went to the sacred River Jordan, which the Israelites had crossed over when they first entered the Promised Land, what better place to repent and start over ? And who started over ? Sinners of course. Pharisees also came to see him as their competition and were rejected by John, because they were not sincere in repentance. Although Jesus was to take up the same repentance message as John He did not reject the Pharisees, He was critical of them, He spoke with many and met closely with at least Nicodemus and Simon, both Pharisees. Nicodemus become a convert; Jesus does not reject !
John had come into his manhood, physically and spiritually, he had turned thirty, the age at which a man was permitted to preach. He had decided on his own way. He came from a line of Temple Priests, he was a PK, but he had rejected the ways he no doubt heard about around the supper table and saw every Sabbath. He took up the mantle God had given him, which was to prepare the way of the Lord and that was no mean feat ! He laid the groundwork of repentance and baptism for Jesus to build on.
When Jesus got to man’s estate, six months after John, He too began to preach not confining Himself to the wilderness, although from time to time He took solace there. He journeyed throughout Palestine, the wilderness yes, the city and the country, the coast and the lakes. He was an itinerant preacher. So if He was itinerant and His own Man, why did He go to John ? Well first of all, John was to prepare His Way. It was therefore proper that Jesus go to John. Then why receive baptism from John ? John’s baptism was for repentance but what did Jesus have to repent ? He was without Sin. So why ? Two immediate reasons; to validate John’s baptism, so the crowds who had been baptised would not have felt cheated, or conned into something less than the real thing. People have that let down when they realise that most of our televangelists are nothing but hot air. Jesus didn’t want that to happen to John and his important work. The second reason; baptism led to the priesthood. Jesus took up His mantle as High Priest and received His validation from His Father and the Holy Spirit on that day, from baptism on He is not just a story in a book. He came out of the water on a mission, a new life of sacrifice and triumph, a real man and the Son of God in His own self-determined Way. And that is where we should be too as we rise up from our own Baptisms into mature Faith and Ministry. I hope that you will ask to be guided to more Faith and Ministry in your prayers this week. Amen.