It is only a week ago that we placed the wise men in the crib, yet in today’s Gospel, we find that the church calendar has catapulted us forward some thirty years, as we read the story of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. But we read this story quite deliberately in the season of Epiphany. And bearing in mind that the word ‘epiphany’ means ‘a manifestation’, or ‘a showing forth’, it is entirely natural that we do so, for the story is clearly intended to manifest important truth about who Jesus is.
But what happened in the intervening years? You might feel slightly cheated by the Gospel writers that we learn virtually nothing about Jesus between his infancy and his baptism at around the age of thirty. All four gospels are largely silent on Jesus’ childhood. Only Luke gives us any information at all, and even then it isn’t very much. Like the accounts of the visit of the wise men last week, Jesus’ baptism today, or the transfiguration to come later, Luke’s one story from Jesus’ childhood has a symbolic significance. He writes of a family trip to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, when Jesus was about twelve. You remember how Jesus got separated from his family, and they didn’t realise it until they were on the way home again. When they went back to look for him, he was found to be teaching the religious leaders in the temple. Why did Luke include this story? It was surely to tell his readers something about the significance of Jesus for the Gospel writers and for the early Christian communities they wrote for. You see, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not intended to be biographies. They are not particularly concerned with Jesus’ childhood, his home life, or his daily work. No: these books can be categorized under the genre of Gospel, literally meaning ‘good news’, a quite unique form of writing. From the Gospel writers’ perspective, all that their readers need to know is that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom, in years, and in divine and human favour.’ We can fill in the gaps with all the fanciful speculation we like about Jesus’ childhood and adulthood. Indeed, many writers over the centuries have done just that; some of the Victorians were particularly adept at it. But the NT authors are far more concerned to tell us things which emphasise who they believed Jesus to be, as well as his significance for their readers. So, although in a few weeks’ time, at Candlemas, the chronology will take us backwards again to Jesus’ infancy – another Epiphany moment – we see him in today’s Gospel as a mature adult on the verge of beginning his public ministry. And, before he does so, he comes to his cousin, John, to be baptised. In what sense, then, is this an Epiphany, a manifestation of Jesus’ significance?
Well, for one thing, the doctrine of the Trinity, although never explicitly described in the NT, is reckoned to be foreshadowed in this brief story. The Gospel tells us that the voice of God is heard saying to Jesus, ‘You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Also, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form, we are told, like a dove. So, there you have it – Father, Son and Holy Spirit all participating in this moment, which inaugurates Jesus’ three year earthly ministry. It’s almost as if the Gospel writer is saying, ‘Look! What more evidence do you need that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one of God?’ Incidentally, there is no suggestion in the Gospel that the voice of God was heard by anyone other than Jesus himself, or that the dove was seen by anyone else either. It is a very personal moment of recognition and revelation for Jesus, frequently interpreted as the moment when he himself became fully aware of his own significance and of his mission.
John, of course, had already been baptizing with water for some time. But he had told people that one would come after him who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. No wonder, then, that John is surprised when Jesus comes, not to pull rank and supercede his baptism, but rather to share in the general baptism which was taking place at the time. Initially, only converts to Judaism had required baptism. Jesus, along with all who were born Jews, did not need it: he and they already ‘belonged’. Yet here we see Jesus voluntarily submitting himself to this act with John, thus putting himself in common with the many other people being baptized at the time.
The uniquely Christian doctrine of the incarnation, which evolved out of Jewish roots, lies not only at the heart of our Christmas stories, but is an everyday reality in the Christian experience: Immanuel, God with us. It happens in this baptismal story through words and ceremony, both of which we, the church, have come to enact for ourselves over hundreds of years in our own baptismal liturgies. We are only baptized once, of course, but we remind ourselves of it at various times, notably in the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter, or by making the sign of the cross on our heads with water as we enter and leave the church building. Together, John and Jesus take part in a ritual which at one level is quite ordinary, and which yet becomes startlingly extraordinary. And in it, the powerful concept of Immanuel, God with us, is brought into sharp focus again, 30 years on from the Bethlehem stable. Jesus, born in very ordinary surroundings, is here participating in a very human religious ceremony. In so doing, he identifies himself fully with generations of the baptized – past, present and future. And what is his baptism about? Three things in particular: first, going down into the water, symbolising cleansing and leaving the past behind; second, being raised up out of the water again, symbolising a new start – resurrection, if you will – and, thirdly, becoming aware of being called to something, a recognition of the will of God.
A seemingly routine religious ceremony was transformed into a special manifestation of God breaking in and transforming the ordinary. I wonder how often we expect to see the extraordinary lurking in the ordinary? The special in the mundane? Or, to put it in specifically religious terms, how often do we expect to encounter God, or to find our calling, in unexpected and unlikely places? Or, come to that, through our rituals and religious observances? Do we really expect anything to come as a result of being in church today and receiving the Sacrament in this Eucharist? Are we content to leave the concept of ‘Immanuel’ behind us in the Christmas stories, now consigned to last year? Well, that isn’t really an option for the Christian, for the incarnation teaches us that it is in the ordinary things, places and routines of our lives that God is to be found. We may not hear voices, or see doves descend, but the baptism of Jesus reminds us that we share a vocation to discern the divine life in the ordinary stuff of every day. The Christian belief is in a God who not only understands the human condition, but who inhabits it. And, as Jesus himself discovered, God can also transform that humanity.
I remember Molly once telling me about an experience at the convent in Ham, a few years ago now. She saw that the nuns had their figures of the Magi going away from the crib, each of them facing in a different direction. That seemed to me a very evocative symbol. We have had Christmas; we have paused to wonder and to adore; we have presented our gifts. That was a moment of Epiphany. Now we must go on our way. We return to our ‘own country’, to the reality of ordinary life, of January and of winter, and of whatever the future may hold. But – crucially – now we travel by another route, because we have encountered the divine in the child of the manger. Therefore, the journey can never be quite the same again. So also, today’s story of Jesus’ baptism reminds us that moments of revelation come to inspire us on the way – and not least when the journey is hard going – as Jesus himself would eventually discover his own journey to be. These moments assure us that the God who has entered fully into our humanity is on the road with us – right there, right here, right now. Thanks be to God.