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Sunday Worship 28 January | Jesus is Baptised

This service included the baptism of Paul, who has joined our church community over the past year. A very special occasion and one we celebrated with much joy!

Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV)
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It's the obvious reading for a baptism, but then it seems right that our focus this morning should be on this wonderful gift that Paul has chosen to receive. Because baptism is a gift, something precious and significant, a tangible sign of grace. And like the gift of communion, it is rooted for us in the life of Jesus, in old actions given new meaning.

Often when I preach, I begin with the questions that the passage seems to be asking, or leading us to ask. The big one here is ‘why was Jesus baptised?’ John described the baptism he performed as being for repentance, and it was already practised as part of the conversion rites for Judaism, but Jesus was God in flesh, so what did he have to repent of or convert to? The answer would seem to be ‘nothing’, and so we must look for another reason. Jesus told John that he had come to be baptised because it was “ fulfil all righteousness”. This was clearly something he needed to do, and I think that was because it was a sign of his complete identification with humanity. It was good and right for those who had heard John's call to a new life to be baptised, and so it was good and right for the one who was the source of that new life to be baptised with them.

For me the most extraordinary thing about the Christian faith is its insistence that in the person of Jesus, God did not just live alongside us but as one of us. The incarnation was not God simply putting on a costume but truly entering into our experience. I have said before that I sometimes think my entire ministry is trying to find the right words to express just what it means to say that God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. God does not love us only in abstract or from a distance. God loves us as one who knows what it is to be alive from the inside out. God understands what it is to feel joy and hope and pain and sorrow because God felt all of those things, and God can sit with us in the dirt and dance with us at the party because God did all of those things, with a body and a mind and a heart like ours. And so God’s love for us is more than just sympathy, but a genuine being with us in every triumph and every trouble.

We might then say that Jesus sharing our baptism is a sign of his solidarity with us, but just as the incarnation was more than just dressing up, so this is more than just going through the motions. Jesus may not have needed to repent or convert, but his baptism was still a sign of commitment and a new beginning, just as it is for any of us who choose it. Jesus’ baptism comes before his public ministry, and so it seems to mark a turning point, the moment at which he dedicates his life to a pattern of teaching and healing. That doesn’t mean that everything changed in a moment, but Jesus set an intention when he stepped into the waters of baptism, and Paul is doing the same this morning.

There are a number of folk from the congregation who are very disappointed not to be here today, and so I invited people to pass on words of prayer and encouragement. I will share those with Paul a little later in the service, but there is one thing I want to pick up on now. Liz and Steve said that the verse they wanted to share was Micah 6:8 - “ act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God”. They said it lays out really simply how we as a church try to live, recognising and accepting our total dependence on God. I would add that it also speaks of our heart for social justice, and our desire to love well. 

I think this is a really significant verse for us to hear this morning, because it reminds us that baptism is a marker on that walk with God and with one another. It's not the start, because it has been a walk with God in the company of this community that has led Paul here, but neither is it the end, because there are still paths to tread. As we say when we welcome people into membership, we commit to walk together before God in ways that are known and yet to be made known, for following Christ in the way of justice and mercy and humility opens us up to adventure. Earlier we sang the beautiful hymn ‘I Cannot Tell’, and I love the way it is a declaration of mystery as much as a confession of faith. It says there is much I am yet to understand, but I am certain of enough to give myself to this. What a perfect song for a baptism!

As Jesus rises out of the water into a new life, prefiguring the resurrection into eternal life, the Spirit descends and the Father declares “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Remember that this is before Jesus has preached a sermon or performed a miracle. This love is not bestowed because of what Jesus has done but because of who Jesus is, and that is quite simply a child of God. If baptism identifies Jesus with us, then it also identifies us with Jesus. It tells us that we too are children of God, that God also loves us before we have said or done anything. Baptism is not the only way God tells us that, and we are no less loved if we have not been through the water, but I am so glad that we are hearing that voice again through Paul’s baptism this morning.

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