Good morning and welcome to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist for January 10, 2021. We’re so glad you’re here! Our service will begin at 10:30am.
This morning we commemorate the Baptism of the Lord. Download the bulletin and pray along with us here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1sVsQqaCYXb75Mb12vMU3dNvrircrSrCo/view?usp=sharing
UPDATE: Well it seems, inexplicably, that our live-stream cut out suddenly during the intercessions. Sorry folks. The joys of technology I suppose. Please be assured that the Holy Eucharist was offered for you this morning. Peace.
Our gospel reading today features the baptism of our Lord by his cousin John in the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem. It is a familiar setting but one worth saying a few words about.
First of all, the wilderness is a place of exposure, of deprivation and loneliness, one’s comforts are stripped away. There are no warm beds or stocked kitchens in the wilderness. There isn’t even any internet. Moreover, and perhaps because of this, the wilderness is a place of testing. Indeed, after his baptism Jesus will spend a further forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.
But for the Jews the wilderness had another meaning as well, it was the place where their ancestors had wandered forty years after the exodus. Led by Moses, often complaining and rebelling against God, the wilderness was the place where Israel discovered both the severity of God’s wrath towards sin but also his great patience and loving-kindness.
This was all a distant memory, of course, by the time John found his way into the wilderness. Nevertheless, the Jews of the day were in what we might call a spiritual wilderness. For centuries there had been no prophets to speak God’s word, the most recent one having been Malachi in about 420BC. They were under the dominion of a foreign power in the Roman Empire, and as New Testament scholars point out the atmosphere was highly charged and there were all sorts of conflicting movements, hopes, and expectations concerning Israel’s liberation (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 32).
In this context John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” made a powerful impact and people were coming from all over the countryside, even from Jerusalem, to be baptized by him. Repentance means, literally, “a change of mind.” Like the prophets before him John is calling Israel to return to the Lord with their whole heart. This wasn’t exactly a soothing message but it did address a spiritual hunger in people. The time of complacency and self-sufficiency was over, the time to turn back to God had arrived (Healy, 32).
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the news this past year, let alone this past week, but I wonder is our time very different? Does it not feel like we are living under the dominion of a foreign power? Are we not longing to hear God’s word with clarity and conviction? Is the present atmosphere not highly charged? Are there not conflicting movements promising our liberation, staking claim on our hopes and expectations? Is there not a deep spiritual hunger that is even now bubbling to the surface?
One theologian has referred to contemporary society as a “dictatorship of noise,” (Cardinal Sarah). I think he is quite right. Our world is full of noise and it is not difficult to lose our way, to be broken down by worry, fear, and misplaced hope. It is difficult hear God let alone kneel before him in wonder and adoration. But prayer is a wilderness, a place where we can enter into the silence of God and wait for him. Perhaps we like our forebears need to take a trip into the wilderness and return wholeheartedly to the Lord.
“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit,” John says speaking about Jesus. I want us to think for a moment about what baptism means for us? Why is it that every time there is a baptism in this or any church family and friends show up in their best clothes, a cake is procured, gifts are brought, photographs are taken and videos recorded? Why all of this? Why any of this?
It is because baptism expresses a profound hope and joy that something can happen in this life to make us truly new people. Whatever else baptism means it means at least this: God the Father has taken hold of us and joined us to his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Do you not know, says Paul, that all of us who have been baptized have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:1-11)? Now we are by grace what Jesus is by nature, sons and daughters of God. This is the single most definitive thing about you now. Everything else you might want to say about yourself, or that others might want to say about you, has to get in line.
Think of it this way, in baptism our citizenship is transferred. We are now citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Now every prayer, every act of mercy, every choice for joy, every offer of forgiveness is an act of resistance against the powers of sin and death. In a world that is under the sway of sin, what act could be more revolutionary than confessing one’s sin?
To hope and believe that God could create something new, in us and in this world, this is the hope that we have entered into in baptism: “A hope that is strong enough to break down despair, threaten governments, upend chaos, [and] bring new life,” (Ephraim Radner). A hope that can seem desperate and unreasonable given what the world is like. But it is joyful and wonderful all the same because it is rooted in God who is with us and for us.
And Jesus himself does this, he comes and is baptized by John in the Jordan. What is going on here (cf. Mt 3:14)? On the one hand this expresses Jesus’ solidarity with us. He who is without sin has entered into the place of us sinners. He has been born with our birth, wept with our tears, prayed with our prayers, and even died our death. In every way God is with us in Christ
But there is more and let me end with this for it is one of the great mysteries of the kingdom. If baptism for us is the experience of entering into Christ’s experience (his death and resurrection) then when Christ himself is baptized he enters into the experience of our entering into his experience. God himself has now entered into our very hoping and longing. God himself is in our reaching out to him. In hungering for God, in desiring him, he has given himself to us (Radner). In the baptism of Jesus God is already, in the words of that great hymn by St Patrick, behind me and before me.
This is how close God is to us in Jesus. Now the barrier between God and humankind has been removed. Now we are God’s children. Now we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Now we have nothing at all to fear. Now in our hoping God has given us what we hope for, himself.