Baptism of Christ and Epiphany
A Sermon Preached by
Assistant Curate Rev Richard Hutchins
7 January 2018
I don’t know about you but sometimes I wonder a little bit just how the lectionary works!! For instance take our Gospel reading today when we mark the Baptism of Christ. Six weeks ago we had a Gospel reading from Mark that covered a good part of what we heard today – looking at John the Baptist. In our 10.15 service that day there were various visual aids to help look at the story including a lantern, some honey and a wooden locust.
Today the lectionary gives a choice – whether to celebrate Epiphany or the Baptism of Christ…but the choice is purely nominal in terms of the Gospel as the Baptism text is required whichever Festival we choose. So we have covered again the appearance of John in the wilderness, baptising for repentance, before going a little further and covering Jesus’ baptism as well.
Then in six weeks time we will return to this text on the first Sunday of Lent, reading again about Jesus’ baptism before continuing on to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. So this little piece of Mark’s Gospel provides the focus of the Good News we share for 3 of the 52 Sundays we have within this particular church year, from Advent to Advent – quite some focus for a mere 15 verses of one Gospel when all three readings are totted up!
Anyway, you may be able to tell from the Epistle reading that the Festival we are celebrating through the word of scripture today is the Baptism of Christ. The main reason for this is that our 10.15am service we have a baptism so it is fitting to use those readings. At the same time, however, I don’t think our Gospel reading stands in the way of thinking about Epiphany at the same time. It may not be about the Magi giving gifts to the child Jesus in Bethlehem – but it is about revelation all the same.
What is that revelation? That “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. It is worth comparing these words with those recorded later on in Mark that God spoke at the Transfiguration; “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” The words at the baptism recorded in Mark were addressed to Jesus himself, while those in the same Gospel at the Transfiguration were addressed to the accompanying disciples – but each says “This…Jesus…is my Son, the Beloved”; each has an impact on those present in their relationship with Jesus.
Let’s break this down a little bit. “You are my Son” – the voice from heaven declaring that Jesus is the Son of God – is God incarnate, made flesh. This is the moment of Epiphany in this reading – the moment when God reveals to those around that this man, this Jesus is the Son. On this revelation the rest of the Gospel, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and our hope today rests. This is vital – as in life-giving – and crucial – being the truth underpinning the cross – information. Without it, our belief, our faith, is naught.
And then we hear the words “the Beloved”. Jesus, son of God, the Beloved. A declaration of perfect love for a son. This might be seen as an effective qualifier on the statement of sonship – as the term Son of God is not uniquely applied to Jesus in the Bible – but Jesus is the Son, the Beloved. This completes the Epiphany captured in this scripture, the revelation of Jesus nature to those present in the baptism moment.
The final words from Heaven “with you I am well pleased” are amazing words of affirmation. I’ll be honest here and say that I don’t know the heart of purpose in these affirming words. Was this meant for those listening nearby – to indicate that Jesus was pursuing the will of God? Was it meant for Jesus in his humanity to strengthen him before the forthcoming temptation that we hear about in Lent? Did Jesus, living as fully divine as well as fully human, really need to hear that God in heaven was pleased with him at this point?
Whatever the purpose of the words in Jesus human life, is there any relevance to us beyond the clear statement from heaven about Jesus’ son-ship of God? I would like to poach a though from the scholar Tom Wright, that might make a different sense of these words that were spoken to Jesus. To get there, let’s consider the reading from Acts – where Paul finds a small group of believers who have received one baptism – that of John for repentance – but have not been baptised in the name of Jesus and so have not yet received the promised Holy Spirit. When Paul baptises in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. We reflect this truth of baptism in the present form of service – such as during the welcome where we declare “by one Spirit we are all baptised into one body”. But how does this relate to “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”?
To answer this I must dip briefly into Paul’s letter to the Romans – Chapter 8 verses 14-17 . A spirit of adoption, children of God, co-heirs with Christ – this spirit by whom we are baptised into one body. What a simple but mind-blowing truth!! The relevance, the importance of those words to Jesus Christ at his baptism, is that through the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they apply to us!!
Let’s pause for a moment right there – and bask for a moment in that reality. The reality that God says to us “You are my dear, dear child: I’m delighted with you”. Does that take your breath away? Does it fill you with awe and wonder and a sense of being loved? Put your name at the start of the sentence and reflect on the amazing sense of God saying that to you – saying to me “Richard – my dear, dear child, my beloved: I’m delighted with you”!!
When I reflect on those words I sense an internal tension in me. There is the part that is lifted up, that turns its face towards those words of love and takes joy in them – that is delighted in turn by God’s delight in me. But there is also the shadow, the self-questioning side, the side that craves feelings of unworthiness, of guilt, of shame – the side that would keep me captive. I don’t know if that chimes with you, this sense of a dual approach to God – with part (that we could call Spirit) reaching towards that amazing love – while another part (that might be called the flesh) drawing away from it. I do know that in my continuing Christian walk with Jesus, the truth of love and forgiveness, of freedom, becomes more and more real to me – that the part called Spirit is growing. I also know that it is all too easy to turn towards the flesh side, frankly the sinful side of my nature but I thank God for the grace given to me in love, mercy and forgiveness.
It may be that you have no experience at all of the positive in this – that it is impossible for you to inhabit those words as pertaining to yourself – “You are my dear, dear child: I’m delighted with you”. Uplifting words of encouragement like these may be totally alien to you. Whatever the cause of the separation you feel, God still reaches out to say draw you closer, to offer healing and freedom. If that is you then we would be delighted to pray about it alongside you. But if you can reflect on those words and claim them as truth spoken over you – then rejoice in reality that you are God’s delight.