The beginning of January brings with it the joy of preparing the annual statistical returns for the Parish about attendance and Sacraments for the last year, which then need to be forwarded to the Diocesan Office. To say that this task of working through the numbers is underwhelming following the great festivities of Christmas is an understatement. In comparison to our Christmas celebrations, the collating of statistics has not been a joy.
Over the last twelve months we have welcomed ninety-one babies, children and adults to baptism here with their families and friends in this church.We could wish that it had been several more hundred given the growing number of people who live within our parish boundaries, but at least the numbers of baptisms (like the overall attendance at worship) has been going up each year over the last few years rather than down. I was interested as I worked through the figures that the number of baptisms last year was over double the number of baptisms here ten years ago. Good news, but nevertheless, we are all aware that we have much more to do.
This weekend we focus our attention on one baptism that has created the possibility of all of the baptisms that have followed it throughout history: the baptism of Jesus, baptised as he was by his cousin Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
The baptism that John was offering, not only to Jesus but to the crowds who gathered at the waters edge in expectation is something of a mystery. While there were a number of differing purification rites and ceremonies in Judaism and in sects springing from it, it is hard to find a direct precedent. What we do know is that, as the Jews looked forward in hope to the coming of the Messiah, there was a sense that the messianic age would come with God’s purifying judgment, and the people who had caught this vision wanted to do all that they could to be ready.
Certainly, as we have reflected on before, John the Baptist stands in the great line of the prophets, the last of the prophets to look forward to and anticipate the coming of the Messiah. The messianic age is about to dawn, and we hear John calling to those who will listen, “come and be washed, come and repent, come and be forgiven, prepare your hearts and amend your lives, for the day of God’s visitation is close at hand.”
What is clear is that John’s work of baptising, and the teaching that came with it is absolutely daring and radical. John, the prophet in the wilderness, not very far from Jerusalem itself, administers a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, and in doing so he drives a sledge-hammer through the whole religious system in Jerusalem: because everyone knew that it was only in the Temple, through priesthood and sacrifice, that atonement could be made. Indeed, to tell those within the covenant, God’s chosen people the Jews, that they were dirty and needed washing struck at the root of all that the Temple stood for. It was the Gentiles who were dirty: the tax collectors and sinners were dirty; but not the people of the Temple and Law – they were clean.
We hear echoes of the contest around these very different understandings throughout the Gospel. The Jews on the one hand trying to work out why Jesus spends time with those who they see as undesirable, and Jesus on the other, reframing their world-view, reminding them that all of us need the mercy of God, and that no one is beyond receiving that mercy.
Here is John, in the wilderness, preparing the way, teaching that it is not through the sacrifices of the Temple that we are made one with God; anticipating the New Temple who was about to appear, a temple of flesh and blood: the Temple who is Jesus himself, where the divine presence would be seen and where forgiveness would be mediated: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’. A Living Temple who would, by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, transform our bodies so that they too would be Temples for his glory.
Jesus willingly submits to John’s baptism of repentance as a sign of his messianic vocation to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, identifying himself with us in our sinfulness, in our need, though he himself was without sin. But we have to be clear. John’s baptism was limited. It was preparatory; it was concerned solely with cleansing and forgiveness. It was pointing forward. It was as if John with Moses had climbed the mountain and had seen the Promised Land from afar- but a fulfillment was still to come. That is why John’s baptism is not Christian baptism. That is why in the Acts of the Apostles, John’s disciples (who had already been baptised by John) have also to be baptised into the name of Jesus.
So what changes things? How does the baptism that John is offering grow into Christian baptism? The answer is simply the presence of the dove. Here as Jesus comes to be baptised, there is the dove, there is the descent of the Holy Spirit, there is the voice proclaiming divine Sonship: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. From this, baptism is no longer just about cleansing from sin, it is about taking on the identity that God desires for us, as his sons and his daughters, within his the Body of Christ, the family of the Church.
For Jesus first, as he takes on the full stature of the ministry that is ahead of him, and for each of us, as we take on the dignity that is ours through Christ. The forgiveness of sins; the gift of the Spirit, the bestowing of a dignity as a beloved son and daughter of God. All of these come to us through Christian baptism.
We are washed, we are filled with the Spirit, and God says to each of us – because of my one and only Son – therefore, you also are my beloved son, you also are my beloved daughter. That is wonderful enough; that is the good news, the Gospel for today. But reflection on Christian baptism in the New Testament does not stop there; image upon image is associated with it.
Being born again – a new spiritual birth from above; being brought from darkness into light or being illumined; being clothed with Christ, and even more radically in the reflections of Saint Paul, being united with Christ in such a mystical way that his death becomes our death, his burial becomes our burial, his rising again becomes our rising again. In other words, Christ’s story becomes our story so that we are re-constituted in him, joined by faith and baptism, to those saving events that bring us to salvation.
Forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, a magnificent dignity as sons and daughters of God, new birth, from darkness to light, and union with Christ’s death and resurrection. If John’s baptism pointed forward to the in-breaking of the kingdom, the messianic age, Christian baptism celebrates our incorporation into the new age, into the new world. The old age is passing away: it is characterised by death and corruption; it is about all that must die if the Kingdom is to come in righteousness and joy. The new age is about what happens when the Lord is King, when Christ reigns.
So in Jesus, the Kingdom comes and the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them: and you and me are part of it. But we are not part of it because of our own choosing, or even because our parents decided that we should be baptised.
At the very heart of the Gospel, and as a fundamental principle of baptism, there is the understanding that God chooses us. ‘A voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ If being joined to Christ hinges on our decision to accept him, then the Gospel is just something else we have to do. In other words, the Gospel is turned into a law, when our decision is what makes or breaks baptism. But the whole point of the Gospel is that we don’t do a thing!
We do not decide to accept Jesus. He decides to choose us. He initiates the relationship. He doesn’t wait for us to do something. He chooses to give us his grace even when we have fallen away from him. In this context, baptism is a beautiful expression of God doing it all.
All of the babies and children who were brought for baptism here in the last year did not decide and choose to come. They were utterly helpless, and God comes to them in their helplessness. He decides to claim them as his own and bestow his dignity upon them, and that’s true for the adults who came as well, whether they knew what they were doing or not. Jesus gives them his Holy Spirit, his intimate friendship that will stay with them and guide them and help them to grow in understanding and faith. God does it all.
Jesus led the way, and transformed baptism forever. Today we celebrate his baptism, the first Christian baptism; because of it God looks at us and he sees Jesus. Those who were baptised here in the last year can never simply be statistics, neither can we. God says to us who are baptised into the life Christ: ‘This is my son, this is my daughter, through Christ you are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased’.
Let us celebrate the Feast.