This period of Christmas through Epiphany to Candlemas provides us with an opportunity to reflect more fully on what it means for Jesus to be God among us, the heart of the the Christmas message. This is known as the ‘Incarnation’: the mystery of God coming into human life and sharing that life so that we may come to share in the divine life. It is mind bending, but then when we consider the wonder of the universe and all creation, so is the fact that there is anything rather than nothing. From that perspective the incarnation, God among us in human life, becomes a deeply profound statement about that nature of existence and everything. Rather than sitting outside of the created sphere, keeping distance and being remote, there is a deep presence at the heart of life, of existence, and that means nothing is outside of God’s concern. Everything we do, everything which touches human living and our impact on others, is brought directly into the presence of God. God interferes and makes our business his business and so should we. Faith and life go together at a deep level.
So as we move from the magi to think about God being present and making that presence known in Jesus’ baptism we have to let him grow up. Today we have an adult Jesus being baptized (Luke 3:15-22) and Luke helpfully pins this down as taking place at around the age of 30. Our awe and wonder has to move beyond the cute and star-lit, quaint crib scene. Jesus can walk into the desert, to the riverbank and find John. There has been a tendency over recent years to keep the crib scene on display in churches for this period, but I’m actually keen that we remove it precisely because we need to think about the incarnation beyond the safety of a baby’s gurgles and swaddled slumbers. We need to let Jesus grow up and with that deal with things as an adult.
There are three great themes for Epiphany, when we think about Jesus being made known as God present among us. They are the first ways the three gospel traditions present this and they are not the same. For Matthew it is the coming of the Magi – the wise men and their gifts. We thought about that last week. For John it is the changing of the Water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. That is next week’s gospel. Today it is how Mark and Luke present it, with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. This is the beginning of his ministry and it is his great entry on the scene in those gospels (though Luke has already given him a bit of a starring role when wandering off at the age of 12 and after causing his parents grief being found debating with the scholars in the temple; an early indication of promise, but not a full making known). The hymn ‘Songs of Thankfulness and Praise’ sets out these three ways of Jesus being made known, being manifest.
There are many layers to Jesus’ baptism. It takes place at the Jordan, the place the ancient people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. By taking place there, we are taken back to the title deeds of what it means to be chosen people, people of God, people who live in a covenant relationship with God. That means, people who belong to God and whose identity is bound up with this relationship with God. A new covenant is being brought about and it comes through Jesus Christ, through his life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Entering into the waters of the river, being almost drowned in them, means that symbolically he passes through death and brings new life. Later on the cross and through the resurrection he will do this for real.
It is the coming of the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, that makes this known, makes known who he is. There is the voice that proclaims him as being God’s Son. The dove image may take us to another water story, the dove which returned with the olive branch to Noah on his floating zoo. The olive branch was a sign of there being dry land and a new start opened up. Here in baptism we have a new start with God, with hope. The purpose of life is found in God and we are saved from the ultimate threat that there is to us, that of futility and life just being accidental, some kind of biologically conscious illusion. It is possible that there is nothing beyond death and to be honest it’s not much of a threat. We know the end will come, so if it does just run out of sand then there is nothing we can do about it. The amazing message of Jesus, of God being made known in him, is that there is a bonus. Beyond this life there is a new one on offer to us, held for us, and this one is blessed with so much more value. Being made, being alive, is itself a gift and in that gifting there is a purpose and a point that has a trajectory way beyond our imagining, even if we could travel to the farthest corner of the universe.
The dove moving therefore also takes us to the movement of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The origins of everything that there is, in this mythical story, lies in and with God. So Luke is making it clear that in Jesus this purpose is both present and to be taken notice of. He is the beloved and so by implication we are to listen to him. At the Transfiguration a voice is heard again and this time it spells this out quite directly: we are to listen to the beloved. What is made known in Jesus is not just some kind of high-level tourist, but God on a mission with a purpose. He is made known as being present so we are to sit up and take notice.
There is so much that we are to pay attention to and it takes a life-time, probably longer, to fully grasp this. But there is hope: life is not futile and so matters. That means everyone’s life matters and so is to be respected and honoured as such. We’ve reminded of this recently with appeals to ‘play nice’ over Brexit and when we disagree. We are to honour lives so that we behave with justice and there are some significant social policy challenges at the moment. I don’t think those who have created the universal credits mess actually understand how the poorest live. There seems to be no understanding of what it means to be without a financial cushion of savings to cover fluctuations in income, to be expected to manage money on a monthly budget when you are used and only have the resources to think weekly or even daily, to take account of changes when income fluctuates, to cope when you can’t cope and so a loan is really not the solution. There is more to this than just teething troubles and The briefing room on Radio 4 on Thursday spelt this out in the clearest way my simple brain has heard. The High Court has agreed.
The more I think about those who are sleeping rough on our streets, the more I think there is a perfect storm of a number of factors coming together which have made this crisis. They fall under the headlines of benefits challenges, mental health issues, landlords and housing, drug and alcohol dependency, people just not being able to access or entitled to certain things and therefore falling off the edge. It is highly complex but I think there is a collection of conditions that have made this crisis worse. I would really like to find a way to test this out, but this is how it is sounding to me talking with those in this area. A faith which is rooted in a child in a manger, in God who comes among us and is made known to us in the thick of life, makes tackling this crisis an obligation. We have to struggle with it and keep going until we get to the heart of it. It should disturb us because God is present in this and honours all lives equally. The challenge is laid before us.
Today we remember Jesus being baptized. He is made known in the waters of baptism as the beloved, in the Spirit coming upon him and we are to sit up and take notice, and we are to sit up and take notice. Human life, all creation, has its origin in the purpose of God. Faith and life go together at a deep level. When we are disturbed by the cry for justice, we touch and are touched by the presence of God, who is made known in the thick of life.
Sermon for Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th January 2019