Baptism of Christ - 10th January 2016
Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 10th January 2016
In our rather cynical world we have because acutely sensitive to clichés, to trite comments. So when losing at a competition, ‘Don’t worry, it’s the taking part that counts’. A well-meaning response to someone who has lost a loved one, ‘Time is the great healer’.
Of course, the thing about such statements is that many of them are actually true. In the baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today we encounter three of the most trivialized words in the English language – words that are nevertheless true: ‘God loves you’. We hear these words so often that we can easily become immune to them – we find it difficult to really hear them.
After living in total obscurity for thirty years, Jesus left his family and joined the movement of his eccentric cousin John. John the Baptist was doing what he was called to do: baptising people for the forgiveness of sin. It must have caused quite a stir, because lots of people came to check out what was going on, including the religious mafia. I imagine that people actually experienced a sense of God’s love and healing, of cleansing, because they were beginning to think that perhaps John was the Messiah, God’s chosen anointed one, come to liberate them from foreign subjugation.
Into this scene comes a shock — Jesus himself comes and asks to be baptized by John. All four of the gospels tell the story of Jesus's baptism – each with their own style and emphasis. Why Jesus asked for John's ‘baptism of repentance’ has cause great puzzlement. The earliest believers asked this question, because in Matthew’s gospel John tried to deter Jesus: ‘Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!’ In other words, John insists that Jesus was not getting baptized for his own sins. There has been ‘acute embarrassment’ (Crossan) about Jesus's baptism on the part of the gospel writers. In the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD), Jesus denies that he needs to repent. He seems to get baptized simply to please his mother – and to be fair, one can be sympathetic with that reason.
Another thought about why Jesus subjected himself to John’s baptism is that he allied himself with the faults and failures, the pains and problems, of all the broken people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively stands with us in our brokenness. Jesus doesn’t stand aloof from the condition of the world and of our lives – he fully enters it.
When Jesus is baptised we are told in pictorial language that ‘the heaven opened’. Jesus hears the voice of God the Father, made visible by the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove in bodily form. Words of the Father’s affirming love for his Son are spoken:
You are my son, my beloved, I am pleased with you, I delight in you.
These are important words of affirmation at the start of Jesus’s public ministry. He hears that by the power of the Spirit, Jesus is to embody his Father’s unconditional love of all people everywhere. It is because Jesus knows he is completely and unconditionally loved by his heavenly Father that he can start on his public ministry of loving service. It was to be a costly vocation that leads to the way of the cross.
One of the best-known paintings of this scene is by Piero della Francesca (1450s), at the National Gallery. In the painting Jesus stands at the centre. His hands are in a prayerful poise, and with our knowledge of eastern traditions, that hand pose is a symbol of respect for another person, a recognition of the divine in them. Perhaps we can see Christ greeting us in that way.
The wonderfully painted dove hovers above Jesus’ head. And if you visit the National Gallery to see it you can just about see very thin golden rays streaming down from above upon Jesus. I know someone who works at the National Gallery and she asked a group of children what they thought these lines were. One child said that they were God speaking to Jesus. My friend asked the child, ‘how do you know it was to Jesus that God was speaking’.
And this child said that Jesus was the only person in the painting with his ears visible – and they are big ears. What a wonderful insight! Next time you visit the National, have a look at it. Jesus has huge ears in the painting.
Jesus is about to embark on his mission – signified by the position of Jesus on the threshold, in a luminal space, between water and land – and the Holy Spirit assures him that he is indeed loved by his Father. And it is the Holy Spirit who keeps the love of the Father as an ever present reality for Jesus.
That’s Jesus’ baptism, but what about ours. Christian baptism is into the loving community of God. And what the Father says to Jesus, he says also to us: we are children that have been adopted into God’s family. You are my dear precious son/ daughter, you are my beloved, I delight in you, I love you.
Words indeed that may seem trite or clichéd because we hear them so often – but words that are profoundly true.
If we could believe – even just a tiny glimpse – in the depths of our being that we are God’s dear child, whom he delights in, that in baptism we are Christ-ened, in Christ, clothed with Christ, if this truth could makes its way from our head to our heart and permeate the whole of our being. It would be unbelievable, our lives would be utterly transformed. It is to know in the core of our being that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more; and there's nothing you can do to make God love you less.
Our tendency is to attempt to attain the presence of God, to work for his love. But that’s completely wrong. Richard Rohr puts it like this: We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness. We have nothing to attain or even learn. We do, however, need to unlearn some things.
To become aware of God’s loving presence in our lives, we have to accept that human culture is in a mass hypnotic trance. We are daily faced with judgement, of assessment by others (based on our looks, where we live, our education, and so on) and we think we need to earn or work to attain God’s loving presence.
All great religious teachers have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see. Religion, for all its weaknesses, and there are many, is meant to teach us how to see and be present to reality. That’s why Jesus and the Buddha say with one voice, ‘Be awake’. Jesus talks about ‘staying watchful’, and ‘Buddha’ actually means ‘I am awake’ in Sanskrit.
And so we are invited to practice spiritual disciplines to get rid of illusions so we can be present to God’s all encompassing love.
‘You are my dear child… I am so pleased with you. I’m so proud of you.’ Like Piero’s Jesus, we need ‘big ears’ to hear this. and at the beginning of each day we need to recall that our primary identity is ‘in Christ’. Or Isaiah's poetry for this week: ‘Fear not for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name; you are mine.’
If this truth takes root, our lives will take an outward direction, just as Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his ministry. Because we are known and cherished by God, we in turn may also become the epiphany of Christ’s presence in our world today, as we encounter Christ present in the elderly, children, and all the vulnerable and defenseless people of our world. Embracing our baptism means wearing the mark of Christ in self-giving and love.
So, today, can I encourage you to grow big ears, to hear God’s word to us: you are my dear child, you are precious to me, I am so pleased with you.
Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 28-31.