Happy new year and if you are Orthodox, Merry Christmas to you! It is of course the Orthodox Christmas, though William was most disappointed to learn I have never seen the Orthodox practice that we are going to do today actually put into practice, even though I lived in an Orthodox country!
I did however see people cutting holes in the ice, and going for a swim – in Russian it is called being a морж (walrus!). There was a group of crazy English people in Moscow who did indulge in this ice swimming, but even though I was invited I had the good sense to decline!
As William said, we’ve jumped about thirty years in two days: from the Epiphany – the wise men coming to Jesus in his infancy – to today, with the Baptism of Christ.
But I can’t read today’s text without one big question striking me: why did Jesus need to be baptised? Let’s think this through:
- John the Baptist explicitly provides a baptism of repentance
- We know Jesus is the one who takes our sins. He doesn’t need to repent
- John recognised the problem: when he saw Jesus approaching, he knew full well who should be baptising whom! It’s like me showing off my football skills, and then Lionel Messi walks onto the pitch. I know I’m in deep trouble!
So let’s be clear: the baptism was a baptism of repentance. But the gospel tells us Jesus was not repenting. Indeed, John is the one who is repenting. And Jesus says “Let it happen. Go with it. This fulfils all righteousness”. Now, whatever this answer means, it satisfied John, it satisfied Matthew and it satisfied the first readers of his gospel, the early Christians.
So, what is going on?
First, Matthew places this baptism at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Baptism is about cleansing and rebirth, so in a sense it is launching the ministry of Jesus. It is a launch.
Secondly, this baptism is taking place in the Jordan River. This is where Elijah handed over his ministry to Elisha. This is where Moses handed over to Joshua. This is where John’s ministry is decreasing, and that of Jesus is coming to the fore. This is the change of old to new.
Thirdly, the Jordan is where God’s people crossed into the promised land. And in that crossing, they emulated the crossing of the Reed Sea as they exited Egypt. This was the escape from slavery and tyranny, and the other was grasping the promises and bringing in a new reality. New identities were beginning: you went in on one side a people in a desert, nomads; you came out the other in your homeland, people on a mission. This is commissioning and the giving of identity.
Fourth, Jesus is Lord. In other words, he is the one who heads his people. This means he embodies the people of God. Just as King Charles III will, on 6th May 2023, symbolically die to himself and pick up the mantle of representing all of us, embodying us as a nation into one person before God, so too does Jesus. Jesus takes the people of God, leads us into the waters to be washed and reborn fresh and new. Jesus is not repenting personally, but he is taking us, his people, through the waters of repentance with him.
That is why the Bible is adamant that we must be In Jesus, to Dwell In Him. To Abide In Him. If we are ‘in’ him, we go with him through the waters of baptism and find forgiveness In Him. We go into death and then life with Jesus.
Fifthly, Jesus is showing us how to behave. The people reading Matthew’s gospel were Jews who wanted to know “how do we live righteously? How do we fulfil righteousness?” Matthew mentions righteousness seven times – a holy number. We know it was a concern.
And then along comes Jesus to John, and says this is how we “fulfil all righteousness”. Thus doing what God wants, obeying his commands, is how we fulfil righteousness. As such, the baptism of Jesus is a righteous thing – and righteous people will emulate it.
At the end of his gospel, Matthew gives us the great commission with its list of things believers should be doing: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”. In other words, fulfilling righteousness is obeying the commission to make disciples, baptising them, and teaching them obedience to Jesus.
That’s a lot of theology! Let’s recap:
- we have the launch of Jesus’ ministry;
- the handing over and change from old to new;
- commissioning and new identities;
- the embodiment of his people;
- and a call to obey him if we are to be righteous.
Baptism: it is copying our Lord and saviour. It’s joining with him, following in his footsteps. It is obedience.
I remember the faces of parents who bring their children for baptism, and how they are so shocked when you explain to them that their lovely little baptism for their little baby child is actually that child’s funeral! But that is what baptism is! It is the death of the old, and coming out of the water again as a new person. A new start. Dedicated to live for a new purpose to serve God and be righteous.
And then, as new people, we can hear the voice: “This is my Son, this is my Daughter, in whom I am well pleased”.
And this new life of righteousness begins with baptism, a conscious, public choice to follow Christ.
If you’ve not been baptised and you want to follow Jesus, then speak to me or William and we will help you take this step of obedience and make this sign to the world that a new life is beginning.
If you have been baptised, then remember what it means:
- the launch a new life,
- the change from old to new;
- commissioning a new identity;
- oneness with the people of God (embodiment),
- and obeying him to be righteous.
Of course in today’s world, pouring water on someone, or submersing them in public, is a weird thing to do. And so too is what we will be doing today – blessing the canal.
But actually, life is full of outward reflections of inward, spiritual truths: in church, we anoint with oil; many kneel for prayer, and cross ourselves.
But outside of church we also do symbolic thing: we humans leap about to sonic waves, called dancing. We flap our metacarpi together to reward a good performance – we clap!
And we exchange and wear circular chemical elements that are transition metals with a group 11 element and atomic number of 79 in a public forum – we give wedding rings!
These are all symbolic actions, and they have meaning. We are not being superstitious when we do them, we are reminding ourselves that materialism is not everything, and that our outward actions reflect our inward constitution.
If someone is baptised, they are saying to the world “I am changing, metaphorically dying. The old me is dead, and I am now someone new. I want to live differently, to start again. This outward baptism shows an inward change.”
If someone blesses the waters of the canal, we are saying to the world “We Christians are people who live under the authority of Jesus, and he and us want the best for everyone who lives and works on the canal.
We want businesses to flourish. We want health, and safety. And that’s because God wants these things. God wants to restore and reconcile ALL THINGS, all of creation, to himself.”
But like with baptism, restoration of all things happens when the current ways of living are brought to God, made to die in the water, and then brought out the other side, relaunched in new life under His authority.
- So join us today in proclaiming God’s desire to restore all things as we bless the canal
- Reflect on where you are – should you be baptised in obedience to Christ?
- And if you were baptised, ask yourself, are you living faithfully to your new birth, under the Lordship of Jesus?