SERMON CR Church     8 January, 2012

The Baptism of our Lord

Gen 1.1-5   Acts 19.1-7    Mark 1.4-11

Modern pilgrims to the Holy Land often follow the route Jesus took when he went from Nazareth to be baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. You set off east from Nazareth down the beautiful, wide valley of Jezreel to the Jordan . Perhaps you will see the place close to where the river exits from the lake of Galilee , where modern pilgrims may have a ritual dip in the Jordan because it is not too safe to do this close to Jericho , where according to tradition John baptised. When I saw the river there it was crystal clear so that it was easy to see the swarms of fish in its depths.

From that place the tourist coaches travel in a few hours on good roads down the Jordan valley, passing the Roman remains at Beit She’an and on past irrigated lands to Jericho . Jesus was walking and it would take him a few days.

In his day it was the usual pilgrimage route to Jerusalem for the great feasts but this time the crowd was somewhat different. Not so pious, though there were respectable observers of the Jewish religion including those who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees and a few teachers of the Law who were curious to see what the Baptist was saying. 

There were others, though, who would have been less likely to go on pilgrimage: soldiers from Herod Antipas’s militia and collectors of tolls and customs like St Matthew from Galilee and rough fishermen like Peter and Andrew.  

What drew them to the Baptist?

I suppose it was his strident moral and political denunciation of wickedness in high places and those who screwed taxes out of the poor.

Yet John gave people hope of better times to come as well. A great leader was about to emerge, he said, one far greater than John himself. The one who was about to appear would be endowed with God’s fire and power. John was a mere slave in comparison. John urged everyone to prepare for the coming of this powerful, new leader by repenting, changing behaviour and direction of life. Those who intended to do this should plunge under the waters of the Jordan as a sign of their determination to amend and God would forgive them their sins.

However, if this is what John’s baptism meant why should Jesus come to him for baptism? St Mark’s Gospel doesn’t say.

St Matthew sees that it is a perplexing question and says that John protested that he needed to be baptised by Jesus but the Lord told him to do it because he said ‘It is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’   

The evangelists agree that God the Father praised Jesus at the moment he received baptism. A voice came from heaven ‘You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ Clearly the Lord’s baptism by John was a highly significant action.

Jesus the Word of God, the Son of God, took flesh and identified with humanity. Here in his baptism we see him identifying with sinful humanity no longer clinging to its evil ways but wanting forgiveness, turning to God, desiring to return to God. At the inaugural event of his Mission Jesus says ‘Yes’ to that and makes the salvation of the human race his mission, his goal.

His baptism necessitated his stripping off of his garments. We are reminded of his stripping before his crucifixion.

On the wall of the new St James Chapel above the altar there’s a wooden figure of the naked Christ, truly human in his self-offering to God, with upstretched arms suggesting the victorious rising after the completion of his mission as God’s beloved son. The figure was bought by Fr Aelred and Fr Clifford in a shop in the port of East London in South Africa and was placed in the apse of St Peter’s College, Alice and later taken to our Priory in Johannesburg. I am glad it has found a place here.

We are reliably informed that the figure of the crucified is 15th or 16th century Flemish or Belgian and may have been used in  Holy Week processions to represent the dead Christ. When removed from the cross the arms of the corpus are made to fold down alongside the body as though laid in the grave. The symbolism of Baptism can suggest death and burial as well as resurrection.

St Paul , writing about the redemption Jesus won for us says (2 Cor 5.21) ‘God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.’ We may develop that insight and see that, in accepting baptism alongside sinners hungry for forgiveness, Jesus who knew no sin made himself sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Because he did this the Father declared him to be his royal, beloved Son and the dove-like Spirit and Power of God rushed down on him and through him is poured out on all who believe in him.

Crispin Harrison CR