Readings: Baptism of Christ

03 January 2014

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Baptism of Christ

1st Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 42.1-9; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-end

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

IF YOU are going to announce the arrival of someone important, how do you do it? Spin doctors would be appalled at the thought of choosing a river in a wilderness, and a crowd of ordinary people who cannot recognise the person in their midst.

But God rarely goes for the predictable grand announcement; he seems to prefer to pop up in unexpected places: the first people to hear of Jesus's birth were shepherds, and now Isaiah tells us that God's servant will not cry out or make himself heard in the street. We are challenged to the Benedictine virtue of listening carefully.

The readings this week take us to pivotal moments, when people grasp the implications of God's unexpected presence in their midst. Peter is in the middle of discovering that the Gentiles as well as Jews can receive God's grace. His "I truly perceive that God shows no partiality" sounds like his giving voice for the first time to a realisation that has been growing in him since his extraordinary vision on a roof-top (Acts 10.9-16). He has to think on his feet in this new theological territory.

John the Baptist was also at a pivotal moment. He was baffled by Jesus's presenting himself for baptism, thus confounding his understanding of his mission and his relationship to the coming One. Far from carrying his sandals, he was to baptise him.

In telling John to fulfil all righteousness, Jesus grounded God's new acts in God's past acts. Isaiah assures us that God is doing new things, and, like John, we are challenged to live the unfolding new future in the light of the past.

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The more usual sound at baptism is a baby's cry rather than a voice from heaven. Either way, the appropriate response is gratitude that, through baptism, we are made inheritors of God's Kingdom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his engaging interview about Prince George's christening, baptism is not just for future kings: the great thing is that God does not care who we are. He invites us all to own the kingship of Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Welby quoted some words that he wants to say to all people who are baptised, including a future king: "For you Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and showed God's love. For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, 'It is accomplished.' For you he triumphed over death and rose to new life. For you he reigns at God's right hand. All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet."

"Though you do not know it yet . . ." God's grace towards us is not dependent on our grasping all the implications, just as John and Peter did not grasp all the implications.

The collect refers to our adoption. One of my godchildren was adopted at the time she was baptised. Her godfather and I gave her a baptismal hymn. In writing the words, based on the American baptismal liturgy, I explored what she did know - that her adoptive parents loved and welcomed her to their family - as a context for what she did not know about the implications of baptism.

You're called by name, for ever loved,
adopted as a child of God.
Now one with us, the family
of those who know and love the Lord.
Lord, in your hands
we place your own,
Lord, in her life
make your love known.

Marked as Christ's own, signed by the cross
where Jesus for our sins once died.
With Jesus buried in his death,
called to confess Christ crucified.

Raised to new life, a life of grace,
set free from sin in Christ to grow.
His resurrection to proclaim,
his love in all of life to know.

Sealed by the Spirit, Lord of life
sustained and strengthened by his might.
Joined to the Church, to share with us
the inheritance of saints in light.

Why did the voice from heaven come to Jesus at this pivotal moment? Perhaps because, in the days and years to come, he would need to cling to what he did know of God's love, as the gruelling implications of his obedience to God unfolded. In that light, we pray to be faithful to our calling as God's adopted children, whoever we are, and at whatever pivotal moment we find ourselves.

Hymn: © 1989 Rosalind Brown

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