The Baptism of Jesus

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My first contact with the River Jordan was when I worked for in the travel trade shortly after graduating. I worked for part of a large British multinational, which you probably haven’t heard of. It is called the SAGA Group, which is headquartered in my hometown. It provides vacations and other services to the over 50s. 

Incidentally, 50 years of age seemed to me as a 22 year old something impossibly ancient and wrinkly. I therefore find it frankly astonishing that in a mere three years’ time I myself will be eligible for the many tantalizing offerings of the SAGA group. I know that it’s a cliché to say that life goes by incredibly fast, but it really does, and one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve had to learn in recent years is that life is a not a dress rehearsal. 

Anyway, this is meant to be a sermon and not a commencement address, so…. back to the River Jordan.

My job with the SAGA group was to help design tours to, among other places, destinations in the Middle East, hence my contact with the River Jordan. Not that I actually got to go there, the SAGA Group being fairly cheap in this regard; so the River Jordan came to us. In fact in came to us in a small and patently inadequate padded envelope, from a well-meaning but rather impractical customer, who imagined that a glass bottle filled with water from the Jordan and sent Airmail to the UK in a flimsy envelope would remain unscathed. I remember the guy from the mail room bringing us this dripping sort of rag, which we then spent the next half-hour picking shards of glass out of. But, it was the thought that counted. 

I remember, nonetheless, still being rather moved that we had a little piece of such a holy river dripping all over our office carpet.

So whenever I think of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, as we have heard it this this morning, my first thoughts tend to be of that. 

My second thoughts about the Baptism of Jesus are equally vivid, having visited the River Jordan just over two years ago. One thing that surprised me – I simply had no idea about this – is that there are acres of the river bank that have been leased to, or bought up by, American evangelical mega-churches where they have set up these extraordinary – and fairly tacky – visitor centers that I can only describe as baptism theme-parks. Kind of a ‘Baptisms-R-Us’ where plane loads of potential converts are flown in from the US to be corralled through the various attractions until they emerge at the River for baptism. 

Standing there by the River Jordan, with all the follies of organized religion around me, I was struck by the fact that the one thing there that could not be corralled, that had a life of its own, that went where it wanted and got in places that it wasn’t necessarily wanted, was the water of the river itself. As anyone who has done any DIY that involves will know, water has a remarkable ability to remain unconstrained, despite our very best efforts to constrain it.

Even as I stood there by the Rover Jordan, watching lives being for ever changed in the plunge beneath the surface of the water and the ecstatic and breathless excitement of people taking first breaths as baptized Christians, it seemed to me that for all that we have tried to corral and constrain the Holy Spirit, it, like water defies constraint, goes where it will, and often ends up where we would rather it didn’t.

Many faith traditions over millennia have used water in their rites. We all know about Hindus and the River Ganges, for instance. There were Jewish ritual cleansings involving water at the time of Jesus.

The first Biblical reference we have for baptism is at the very start of Mark’s gospel – similar to the reading we heard from Luke’s gospel this morning - when we hear that John was going about the Judean countryside calling people to repentance and baptizing them. This was a ritual that signified spiritual cleansing, and washing away of sins. John’s baptisms probably didn’t look a whole lot different from other Jewish ritual cleansings – they would have not be something entirely alien, anyway.

Everything we know about John the Baptist tells us that he knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he was his advance party and that when the time came that Jesus showed up at one of John’s baptism occasions it would be Jesus baptizing him. Yet Jesus instead asks John to baptize him in the River Jordan, presumably following the same rite that John had been using already. Jesus, after all, was an observant Jewish rabbi, and he honored tradition. I think we sometimes forget that. Traditions often get a bad rap, even in the Episcopal Church. And we are so used to seeing Jesus as the table-turning revolutionary who upset the religious leaders of the day, that we forget that he did not condemn tradition in and of itself.

As with any tradition, things get built up slowly, and build on the insights and traditions of former generations. Jesus baptism was one of the turning points in the development of this ritual water-cleansing rite, when something new was added. As John the Baptist administers baptism to Jesus, we are told by Mark that God’s voice is heard from the heavens, declaring Jesus as God’s son, and that a dove comes down and settles over Jesus head. It marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry. John baptizes with water, but also tells people that Jesus brings a greater baptism – not only water, but the Holy Spirit as well.

What we know, then, is that baptism has two aspects – baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit, the water to symbolically cleanse, the Holy Spirit to be in some way be breathed into us. The turning point, then, in Jesus’ baptism is the bringing together the physical, ordinary things of this world with the spiritual, ineffable things of eternity. This is what Epiphany is all about. This realization  - this Eureka moment – that in the person of Jesus, God has taken human form and bridged the chasm between the material ordinariness of this world and the spiritual, extraordinariness of God’s paradise.

St Augustine described this meeting of the physical and the spiritual as ‘an outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace’, which the church calls, in shorthand, a sacrament. 

Throughout Christian history this is the basic way in which a sacrament has been understood – that it is both a physical, tangible event using ordinary material things, and at the same time a mystical, ontological event. A sacrament changes us both physically and spiritually. A sacrament is, if you will, the place where our world of space and time meet with infinity and mystery. A place where we can, if we are looking, glimpse the divine.

In that sense, each and every one of us is a sacrament, if we did but know it. We are made of the ordinary things of this world, yet each one of us is capable of radiating the light of the Holy Spirit, because we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and God dwells within us. 

One of the crazy ideas that I had when I was a campus minister that never came to fruition was to get some mirrors and write on them ‘This is what God looks like’, and then leave them around the campus. For all the sophistication of our education, and the constant messages in our world that we’re capable of anything, and that we can have it all, far too many people around us don’t know that they are made in the image of God and are loved and cherished by him: precious and unique to him. Equally, far too many people think that they wouldn’t be welcome in Church, because they aren’t good enough. And to be honest, the Church has exactly done a great job over the years in countering this view.

If there’s one thing that we can do as Christians, it’s this. To take every opportunity to let people know that they are made in the very image and likeness of God. It’s what theologians call the ‘Imago Dei’. 

We are made by a God who loves and cherishes us and longs to be with us, and yet so often our souls draw back from him. Today we celebrate God’s love for us, a love so great that he sent his only Son to share our humanity, and who invites to live in his presence as a member of the Body of Christ, through our baptism.

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