75% of the world is covered with water. 97% of the earth’s water is in the oceans. It takes over 2,000 gallons of water to make four new car tyres. It takes about I gallon of water to process a McDonalds quarter pound burger.
You or I could live without food for more than a month (although we would be pretty sick and hungry if we tried) but only a very small number of people would survive without water for more than a week. In the Australian summer, water is a powerful symbol of all that sustain’ s life. We only have to contemplate parched and arid areas of the Upper Hunter to know how important water is for us all.
Water is at the heart of the story which we heard from the Gospel of Mark just a few moments ago. Jesus goes from Galilee out into the desert, out into the wilderness to the river Jordan where John the baptiser (who the Early Church believed was his cousin) has established a holy place to which many are travelling to receive his baptism.
John baptises Jesus, and this event becomes, for the first Christians at least, the pivotal moment in the inauguration of his ministry, the start of his work on earth as God’s chosen one. As Jesus rises from the water he hears a voice from heaven, accompanied by the something like the sight of a dove, as the heavens are torn open — and the voice says, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
It is an account in the life of Jesus which we have probably heard many times (indeed I remember preaching about it here, on this Sunday last year). It is a story with which we are very familiar. But our familiarity with the story may have prevented us from asking a very basic (and yet intriguing) question about it. And that question is this: why was Jesus baptised at all?
We know why we were baptised, we know why we are eager to bring children and adults to new life through baptism in this Church. When we as Anglicans, like those of other Christian traditions, come to bring children or adults for baptism we do so in the faith that those who are baptised become joined with Christ in his death and in his resurrection, assured of God’s love, and given the full membership rights and responsibilities of the Church. But why was Jesus (the Son of God) baptised?
These Sundays of Epiphany — beginning last Sunday, and running for the next few weeks — are Sundays when we focus upon Jesus being revealed to people in new ways. We are going to be caught up over the next few Sundays in Jesus announcing himself to those who will be his first disciples, as he invites them to follow him. Epiphany simply means manifestation. So over these weeks of the Epiphany-tide we are being asked to ponder the question, “what is it that God makes manifest to us through these events which we hear about in the Gospel reading?” What do we come to understand about God in Jesus through these significant moments in his life?
Last week as we looked again at the story of the Magi (the wise men) coming into the presence of the baby Jesus, we were reminded that there is no one outside of God’s love, no journey so far from God’s kingdom which cannot bring people into his presence. Even star-gazing astrologers from a distant place and a foreign religion can come to know the light of Christ.
And at a first glance the manifestation, (the Epiphany), which we find in today’s story of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan is pretty clear. The words that boom from heaven say it all: this Jesus, the one who is being baptised, is the Son of God – God in the form of humanity on earth. Both God and human in a way that the world has never seen before. What an Epiphany, what a realisation, that as we look at this man, we see God. And as we see God in him, we can surely be blessed with hope, for ourselves and for each other.
But why was Jesus baptised at all? Early on in the life of the Church, about two hundred years after Jesus, an account of his life which did not make it into our Bible was published under the title ‘The Gospel of the Nazareans’. One of the things which that account wanted to argue was that Jesus was not baptised at all. The Gospel instead recounts a wonderful story of Mary, his mother, trying to persuade Jesus to go and see John to be baptised like the rest of the family, to which Jesus replies with something like, “don’t be silly mother, I have never sinned why should I need to go and be baptised?” Well that account of Jesus, as I said, is not in our Bible, and the account of him being baptised is.
Jesus’ baptism does remind us that Jesus did not invent baptism himself, because it was already happening before the Church had even been formed. Its roots are much earlier in the Jewish religion in which it was a ceremony which pointed to ritual cleansing for those who took part in it.
It is a very powerful symbolic ritual – you will know that yourselves from when baptisms are celebrated here – because as we watch it, and as we experience it, it is clear what the symbolism means. The water expresses for us what is going on inside, we are being washed clean, we are being transformed and made new with the water of life. In the time of John, men and women were baptised naked, they were fully immersed under the water whilst religious teachers read from the books of instruction from the shore. The baptism which John was offering was not a Christian ritual, it was part of this Jewish ceremony: both John and Jesus, after all, were Jews.
The first Christians borrowed this ritual and made it their own. They continued the practice of baptising in streams and lakes and rivers. (Our present formula for how we do it, owes more to the growth of cities, and the lack of accessible streams and rivers than it does to anything more profoundly theological). So the first Christians, who were also Jews, borrowed baptism from the Jewish religion and made it their own. As Anglicans we miss some of the symbolism because we don’t immerse people under water when they are baptised with us, because we instead put water on their foreheads. The symbolism of going down under the water, and then coming back out of the water would have been enacted each time John (and then Christians) baptised those who were seeking the Lord. The believer would go down under the water, as if they were dead, and then they would rise again back above the water, being raised to new life in Jesus Christ. We cannot do that in our little fonts, but it is worth remembering as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism here during the year, that that is how the symbolism first worked.
So why was Jesus baptised? There have been a number of theories in the Church about this through the ages. One is that Jesus did not know that he was the Son of God until after he was baptised — so this was a sort of revelatory moment for him, a confirmation for him that he was indeed God’s Son. Another idea pondered by the Church throughout the centuries has been that Jesus wanted to be baptised in order to honour John, in order to vindicate all that John had said about being a messenger in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. A third interpretation of the baptism of Jesus has been that, whilst Jesus did not need to be baptised he nevertheless submitted himself to baptism in order to show the way for the rest of us – to be a model for us of what we need to do. Jesus’s baptism was something between a teaching tool for us, and an act of solidarity for humanity.
There are other theories as well, but those three (at least in Western Christianity) are the best known. But one of the possible dangers of our Western Christianity (as I have said here before) is that it can too often be caught up with our heads, at the expense of our hearts. So I want to remind you of the interpretation that is given to this story by a mystical tradition within. The Eastern Orthodox Church.
There is a belief in the Eastern Church that what is going on in this encounter is the opposite of what we might expect, and of what appears to be taking place. Jesus is not receiving at this baptism, no – Jesus is giving. There is a baptism going on, but it is not the baptism of Jesus, it is the baptism of the water of the River Jordan. So this tradition teaches that Jesus, the Son of God, needs no baptism, and so when he is plunged under the water by John in the river Jordan, his presence there blesses the water for all time. And the water from the River Jordan evaporates in the heat of sun, and then later falls again from the clouds in the form of rain into the seas and oceans of the world so that all of the waters of the world are blessed by the presence of Christ. It is a rather similar idea to the one put forward by the Early Church that in his death on the cross, Christ becomes present to all those who had died before him: he enters the place of the dead and he is present there. In this baptismal story, Jesus is present in the water, and the presence of Jesus, the presence of God is a blessing. Through this event the waters of the world are blessed, for all time. It is a beautiful image.
The Christmas story reminds us that this world is a place which God was pleased to live in. God in Jesus found this world a home which was worthy of him. Where Jesus has been, God’s blessing remains. That is one of the most profound realities of the Christian story — that where God is, there is always the hope of another attempt, of another go: there can always be redemption. Baptism is a powerful symbolic ritual because as we watch it, and as we experience it, it is clear what the symbolism means. The water expresses for us what is going on inside – we are being washed clean, we are being transformed and made new with the water of life. Baptism signals the first day in a new life: the life of Christ. Which is why the story of Jesus’ baptism is twinned with that ancient mythical account of the story of creation which we heard read to us this morning. That God saw the world, and it was good. There is a new creation happening here at Jesus’ baptism, what was good at first is being restored back to goodness again. Which is what happens when each one of us was baptised. What has happened to us is happening (in a sense) in this encounter to the waters of the world as well, through the baptism of Jesus.
75% of the earth is covered with water, and that water has experienced the presence of God in Jesus at his baptism: a presence, a blessing, which cannot be removed. Jesus blesses the waters of the earth, and a voice from heaven is heard – “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” So in this Epiphany-tide, when we are asking together, “what is God making known about himself through these stories?” – we find this Epiphany: where God has been there is blessing for all, and the voice in the story reassures us that where Jesus has been, God was there in him.
What do we find out about God, how does God make himself manifest in this Epiphany moment at the baptism of Jesus? We find the reassurance of God’s presence in our world. What God has blessed with his presence in Jesus cannot be unblessed. Which is something for us to celebrate indeed, that the very waters of the earth which sustain us, are blessed by the life of God. A life which each of us who have been baptised in Christ, will share in for eternity.
So as we celebrate this baptismal moment in the life of Jesus this morning, and as we remember our own baptism into the life and death and resurrection of Christ, we pray with thanks ‘Water of life, cleanse and refresh us. Raise us to life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.