Gen 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11
Yesterday, following the star, we went with the three strangers to offer gifts to the Christ child. Today, we stand beside the Jordan as Jesus comes to be baptised by John. And today is a bit like a crime novel: some dramatic things happen and we, the spectators, are curious to find out what it is all about. Why does this happen? Why is Jesus baptised? We are well aware that baptism is the sacrament by which we are joined to Christ, to his life, his death and his resurrection as Paul explains so clearly in Romans 6. It is the sacrament that draws us into the gracious loving of God by which we are cleansed of sin. Baptism is our access to the fullness of grace that washes and restores us to God. We can say all that – we may struggle to fill out quite what we mean by it, but there is plenty to help us in the texts of the New Testament (and our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is just one example) – the problem is that none of it applies to Jesus. Jesus does not need to be ‘joined to Christ’ – he is the Christ, the incarnate Lord. Jesus does not need to be cleansed of sin – he is the one who ‘knew no sin’. Jesus does not need to be restored to God – he is himself the ‘image of the invisible God’, the ‘only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’. There is something mysterious here, something more going on.
First, let’s see a common thread between today’s celebration of the Baptism of Christ and yesterday’s celebration of the Epiphany. Both are moments when we find that our imagination is being stretched; that the way we had begun to think about the Incarnation is not large enough, not sufficiently faithful to all that God is doing. At Christmas we celebrated Emmanuel, God with us – and it can seem enough to say just that: God is with us without wondering about our neighbours or strangers in far distant lands. We can even think that we don’t need to ask ‘Is God with them?’ But barely had the mystery of God sharing our humanity begun to sink in than we are with those exotic strangers from far away bringing rich gifts to the child. Immediately, we are needing to recognise that Emmanuel, God with us, does not mean ‘us’ in any exclusive sense. Rather, the daring intimacy of the Incarnation that we see in the fragility of the new born baby is an intimacy of endless scope: Christ is born for all, for every person in every place and every age. That alone is quite enough to be going on with, but God’s mysterious loving does not stop there. Today, we watch as Jesus is led into the Jordan to be baptised by John.
Now, we have already seen that Jesus does not need baptism in the way that we do, so something else is happening. There are versions of the Christian story that put all the emphasis on Jesus as the Saviour and Redeemer: he was born to save sinners, he died to save sinners, God raised him from the dead to overcome the death of sin. When it is put like that you can hear the distortion, you are aware that something is missing. The Baptism of Jesus then, is neither emphasising how much like us Jesus is, nor is it emphasising Jesus’ work of redemption. Above all, it is showing us something of God’s unstoppable gift of creation. God is always bringing new life into being, continually shaping and reshaping the created order in generous love. Remember how Genesis talks of the beginning of life on earth: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light…” God creates through his word – the very Word that comes to share our humanity in Jesus. And here today is God’s Word again entering the waters, reminding us that the gift of Jesus is part of God’s continuous act of creation. It is too the declaration that the true end of everything – not just human beings, but the whole created order, is in and with God, as Jesus is in and with God. It’s a bit like discovering that an i-phone X is not just brilliant marketing hype, not just a significant technological advance, but is the real breakthrough: it connects us directly with the source and goal of everything. Of course it isn’t! It is just another small technological development, but Jesus is the real thing. He is both the declaration of what is true and the one who enables us to share in that truth by adoption and grace.
I hope you’ve all seen the Paddington films, especially Paddington 2. Paddington is, of course, a wonderful type of the incarnation: like Jesus, he has two natures, human and bear, and they are perfectly conjoined in one person. It is less subtle than the Incarnation of the Word of God because Paddington is so evidently a bear, even though he behaves in a thoroughly human way. But it is clear that Paddington is a bear under grace, – one in whom sin cannot take root. And the overwhelming power of the stories and the films lies in the seemingly unstoppable gift of new life that keeps bubbling up in the most surprising places.
So then, if yesterday on the feast of the Epiphany we were recognising that the new gift of life in Christ is for all peoples in every place, today we recognise that God’s purposes extend to every particle of creation: nothing and no-one is outside God’s loving attention. And this, in turn, causes us to acknowledge how, disastrously, we so often end up reducing God to a kind of fairy godmother who will do nice things for us when we want them. Part of the temptation to do so lies in the fact that Jesus does indeed share our humanity. We read this all too easily as making us special in God’s creation. This is nonsense. God loves every atom of God’s creation with the same love. It is true that we have a capacity for reflection and thought that gives us particular responsibilities, but not that gives us special status. Even Jesus’ sharing of our humanity is, in one sense, insignificant. What matters is God’s declaration of absolute commitment to God’s creation – and that includes everything that has ever been – and everything that will ever be (including whatever life forms evolve after human beings are themselves extinct).
So, draw near with faith. Enter into this sacramental mystery with wonder, with joy and with curiosity. Pray that we may all be ready to enter again and again into the waters of new life – there to meet Jesus, in whom is all the possibility of God for us and for all creation.