Reading: Matthew 3. 13-end
Preacher: Revd Neil Summers
Yesterday morning, Diana remarked how glad she was that things are back to normal, referring to all the exceptions and disruptions that the Christmas season brings to our usual routines. I knew exactly what she meant, because, let’s face it, though feasts and festivals can be great, we live most of our life at the level of the normal and the ordinary. I must say, though, I always dislike taking down the Christmas tree, and packing away the cards and decorations: the house looks so bare until you get reacquainted with the usual look of things, once it is ordinary again. And, in one way, that is where we are liturgically, too: back to normal. Since last week, when we celebrated Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, 30 years have passed to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is no longer a baby; instead, we encounter him as he begins his ministry. Apart from a brief passage in Luke’s Gospel telling of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at the age of 12, we know nothing at all about the intervening years. Perhaps all we can assume about that time is that he lived a pretty ordinary life as the carpenter’s son in Nazareth.
Jesus’ baptism is a timely reminder that 90% of his life was not spent in the limelight. As John’s Gospel tells us, the Word became flesh and lived among us – but, for the most part, incognito. And I reckon those thirty missing years are just as important for us as the three years we know more about, because they bring home to us that Jesus, the one whose birth we have just celebrated, and hailed as God of God and light of light, does indeed, really and truly, know what it is like to walk in our shoes, in the ordinariness of daily life. This is what we mean by incarnation: God is with us in the often humdrum reality of everyday. Today, however, does move us on to that moment when Jesus leaves behind the years of incognito living to be revealed as the Messiah. This is made clear when we hear heaven’s voice say: ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.’ These are not just any old words: ‘You are my beloved son’, echoes Psalm 2, which clearly spoke, for Jews, of the coming Messiah. And, ‘with you I am well pleased’ is part of the servant song from Isaiah 42, words which give an early indication of the sort of Messiah Jesus was called to be – not a worldly ruler, but a servant, and a suffering servant at that.
Jesus’ baptism was, for him, an initiation – in his case a public initiation into his own unique ministry and his eventual suffering and death. He chose to share in the public ritual alongside everyone else, something John clearly found surprising, even uncomfortable. This is John’s real moment in the Jesus story. He has already played a bit-part in Advent, but he now ushers in the next great episode, the public ministry of Jesus. And he does it through words and ceremony, both of which we, the church, have come to treasure and enact for ourselves over hundreds of years in our own baptismal liturgies. Together, John and Jesus take part in an event which is at one and the same time ordinary, yet startlingly extraordinary. John had been conducting his ministry of baptism before this moment, but here it changes decisively and for good. Initially, only converts to Judaism had required baptism. Those born a Jew, like Jesus, of course, didn’t really need it for they already ‘belonged.’ But here we see Jesus voluntarily submitting himself to this highly symbolic act with John, and embracing his own baptism of repentance, so the powerful concept of Immanuel, God sharing our humanity, warts and all, is brought into sharp focus again, 30 years on from Bethlehem. For Jesus, this moment of baptism is the ushering in of a radical new era in which he will turn conventions and expectations on their heads: those routinely excluded will now become the included, there is to be a new understanding of God’s nature, and a fresh approach to religious tradition and to the interpretation of the law. John underlines the contrast with what has gone before: ‘I baptise you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’
Our own public baptism is, similarly, our symbolic entry into that vocation to a new, radical kind of living that Jesus exemplified. As his own baptism transformed a routine ceremony into a special manifestation in which God breaks in and transforms the ordinary, so we are encouraged to look at how that transformation can take shape in our lives, too. I wonder how often we expect to encounter the extraordinary within the ordinary, how often we stop, in our everyday lives, to consider what our status as baptised people means in terms of how we live out not just the major events, but also the ordinary details of our lives. For instance, how seriously do we take the concept of Immanuel, God with us, in our decision-making, our politics, our setting of priorities, our use of money, our consumer choices, our approach to the environment, and the everyday words, actions and encounters that form the details of our lives? Or are we content to leave Immanuel behind in those extraordinary Christmas stories, now consigned to last year and packed away with the tinsel in the attic till next December, when we can trot it all out again?
It is significant that this baptism story comes early in a new year, for it raises all sorts of possibilities as we go into the future. It may even present us, as it did Jesus, with a renewed sense of vocation from the God who has the infinite capacity to draw alongside us in our very ordinariness, and who through the events of normal, everyday life, with all its joys and blessings, as well as its struggles and challenges, goes on urging us to discover what his extraordinary kingdom is like. Christmas may well be over in the calendar, but surely the encounter with the Christ Child and the reality of the incarnation we have just marked mean that even the ordinary can never quite be the same again. And if we think it can, then perhaps, somehow, we have missed the point of this Nativity.