Sermon podcast: Baptism of Christ6 Jan 2020 By Robert Jones
Archdeacon of Worcester, Robert Jones, 12 January 2020
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Over Christmas I’ve been musing on the phrase we often hear and probably all use from time to time; ‘I’m only human'. We usually say it when we’ve made a mistake or been found out. It carries overtones of deficiency or falling short, as though bad is what humans do: I’m only human. There is, of course, enough evidence of human badness, and human sinfulness is often where Christians seem to make a start when talking about their faith. I think the message of Christmas is trying to say something altogether different though, and today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord reinforces that Christmas message.
It is part of the Epiphany season, and a relatively new feast in the life of the western church. It comes after a much more popular festival, the coming the of Magi or the Wise Men, which we sing about in the carol, ‘We three kings of Orient are’. Unlike the visit of the wise men, which only appears in Matthew’s gospel, the baptism is attested to in each of the gospels. It is clearly a significant moment for the early Christians, but also a slightly embarrassing one: people have asked why, if Jesus was without sin, did he submit himself to baptism. What’s it all about, this Baptism of Jesus?
It seems to me he submitted to baptism because it reinforced what Christmas was all about. God chose sides, our side, in becoming human, totally one with us, so that we can no longer say ‘I am only human.’ No, I am even and especially human, wonderfully and fearfully made as the psalmist tells us, measured no less than being made in the image and likeness of God, as the opening chapters of our Bible say. Or as our eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters tell us, He became human that we might become divine, joining together earth and heaven, heaven and earth.
Today’s celebration of Jesus’ baptism marks the start of his public and formal ministry. Throughout that ministry he lives out this solidarity with human beings, manifested at his birth and in the events which followed. He heals the sick, welcomes the stranger, challenges the powerful, be they religious or political. He lives with people and for people, and they are never ‘only human’ for him. Even his detractors, right up to those who put him on the cross, are forgiven, freed and befriended.
Jesus certainly confronts sin, indeed on the Cross he takes the sin of the world upon himself. And the shadow of that cross is already upon that crib at Christmas in the symbolic gifts brought by the Magi – gold for a king, frankincense for a god, myrrh for the anointing of the dead. But sin doesn’t seem to me to be his starting-point, and nor should it be ours. This has got so out of kilter that some people think the only message the Church has is about sin, and that we are society’s official kill-joys!
This Epiphany season is a chance to tell out the Christmas story far and wide, and it starts and ends with good news - God’s solidarity with humankind. We believe this solidarity is so total that it is stronger than anything life throws at it. And, in a sense, if it is good enough for God to be human it should be good enough for us! We too are called to live in solidarity with fellow human beings, building up and encouraging, stepping out for the sake of others.
This means that we should be on the look-out for all sorts of good news this coming year. Human resilience itself is a part of the good news which we should be celebrating on behalf of everybody. At the heart of the Communion service is the Eucharistic prayer, in which we give thanks for what God has done for everyone, not just for us. The word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’, and it defines what being a Christian is all about: we are people called to give thanks.
So what stories of good news do you know? Bring them to church and celebrate them. Just as bread and wine are brought up in church for the transforming power of God to make them Christ’s Body and Blood, so all our human experiences are brought up, and not just ours, but all the ones we are called upon to celebrate. The stories of earth and heaven are joined together by the God who in Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, so that He might rise with us, lifting us up to the life of heaven!