Sermon for Camberwell Uniting Church
12th of January, 2019
Several years ago I was lucky enough to visit Palestine and Israel. One Sunday I attended worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, a church started in 1854 by German missionaries. It was a wonderful privilege, but I was a little surprised and disappointed by its stained glass windows. As Tyler says in the story I just read Bethlehem is a hot place, and someone born there 2000 years’ ago would have had dark skin. But the stained glass windows in the Christmas Church show Jesus, and the angels, with pale skin. This is probably because the windows were made in Germany and shipped from Europe with the organ, altar, and bells – before they were carried to Bethlehem by donkey. As Tyler notices in the story, in the western world we tend to see a white-skinned Jesus, if not a blond-haired, blue-eyed one.
(Incidentally, the interior dome of Christmas Lutheran Church now has incredibly beautiful Arabic calligraphy in gold on a blue background, saying ‘Glory to God in the highest’. This was added in the early 2000s to balance the windows with their German inscriptions.)
Jesus was born a Palestinian Jew, which should make it impossible for any Christian to be racist or anti-Semitic. The Nativity stories tell us that God chose to enter the world through an unmarried teenage mother; born into a Palestinian family in a land under occupation; placed in a manger and greeted by lowly shepherds, according to Luke; or recognised only by Gentiles and forced to flee for asylum to a foreign country, according to Matthew. All of this is important. But even more important than the details of the incarnation is the simple point of the incarnation. In Jesus, God became one of us. In Jesus, God embraced humanity.
This explains the event we are celebrating this morning: the baptism of Jesus. As soon as we start to think about that baptism, we realise that something quite strange is going on. Why on earth would Jesus be baptised? In Advent we hear the beginning of today’s story, with John coming as the Prophet Isaiah had foretold, ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Since Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God, he had no sins of which to repent. Sin is not primarily about what we do, or even about what we think or feel; it is about separation from God. Repentance is turning around, returning to God, behaving like the prodigal son and going home to the Father who runs to meet us. But Jesus never turned his back on his Father. In the language of John’s Gospel, the Father and the Son were One. Jesus did not sin, and had no need to repent. So, why, since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins, does Jesus seek baptism?
It’s a question that obviously worried Matthew, too, because it’s only in Matthew that we get a dialogue between Jesus and John on the subject. John points out that things are happening the wrong way round; that it is he, John, who should be baptised by Jesus. But Jesus answers: ‘Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’.
Righteousness means doing what God wants. When John baptises Jesus, both are doing what God wants. But with all due respect to Matthew, that doesn’t really answer the question. It just raises the next question: why does God want Jesus to be baptised? The answer is that, like the Christmas stories we have just heard and celebrated, it’s all about the Incarnation, God’s amazing intervention into history. In the Incarnation, God became human, became one of us in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity, and in his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, continues to act out that solidarity.
Jesus doesn’t need to be baptised. But by submitting to John, by plunging into the waters of the Jordan, he models for us our own baptism. We other humans do need everything that baptism means; we do need to go through the waters, to die to our old lives, to be reborn to new lives, to repent and return to God. Now when we do this, we do it in imitation of Jesus who did it before us.
In response to Jesus’ baptism, to his righteous action, the heavens open and the barriers between God and humanity are withdrawn. The Spirit descends upon Jesus and the voice from heaven says ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. Jesus’ identity is confirmed. He is described as beloved, and this at the very beginning of his ministry before he has yet done any of the teaching and healing that Matthew will show him doing as Messiah. God’s love of Jesus precedes his ministry. The same is true for all of us. Before we do anything at all, God loves us, and whatever we do is done in response to that love, not in order to earn it.
When we follow Jesus into baptism, we are baptised into his life and his death, and into his relationship with God. The Eastern Orthodox Church calls our journey to God ‘deification’ – God became human so that we might become God. That sounds very strange to our Western, Protestant ears, even sacrilegious, as though we are trying to become something we were never meant to be. But we are created to be in relationship with God, to be drawn into the love that is the Trinity, to become part of the community of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. We are created to be the beloved children of God. Just as the voice says to Jesus after his baptism, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’, so God says to every one of us in our own baptism and forever afterwards: ‘you are my child, the beloved’.
The intervention of the Spirit does not just identify Jesus as God’s beloved Son. In today’s reading from Isaiah, one of the Servant songs, we are told: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’ and it is this delight in God’s soul that is echoed in the words, ‘with whom I am well pleased’. Jesus does not need to submit to John, to be baptised, but he does, and we see the Messiah being the Servant, the one that Isaiah describes: ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.’ We see one of the paradoxes that are at the centre of Christianity: that the last will be first; the least greatest; the humble exalted. The one that John described as coming to baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire, the one John said would gather his wheat and burn the chaff, has instead come to submit to John and baptism by water.
In our baptism, in the union with God that we are invited to seek, we too are invited to follow Jesus in being servants. Baptised into Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, we too are invited to bring forth justice, to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. Invited to become one with God through our baptism, we are also invited to act as God acts.
It is not just because of our union with God that we are called to bring about justice. We are also called to do this in solidarity with every other human being. God became human in solidarity with us. Jesus was baptised by John in solidarity with us. We, then, are called to live and act in solidarity with all the other beloved children of God. Now that God has become human, in the face of every human being we can see God. As we will hear near the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, in the story of the sheep and the goats, when the Son of Man comes in glory he will say to the nations, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Today is God-Human Solidarity Sunday. Jesus was baptised, despite John’s protestations, for the same reason that the Son became incarnate, that God became human. Baptised into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are called to live as Jesus lived, to act as Jesus acted, in solidarity with God and with one another. Amen.
 Mary Hoffman, An Angel Just like Me (1997).
I have come to think of Baptism as initiation rite into the cult. It makes me think the reasoning is post-hoc justifications.