Baptism of Christ, 12 January 2013, St Mary’s, morning

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ and on the occasion of the baptism of Harry George Marshall, known as Harry

Reading: Matthew 3: 13-end

Preacher: Revd Alan Sykes

This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Those words follow immediately after Jesus’ baptism. They seem to be giving the divine seal of approval on the whole being of Jesus – on who he was and on what he was doing.

Young Harry here may not yet realise quite what an auspicious day he has chosen on which to be baptised. And just as God gave Jesus his seal of approval, he is today giving Harry the divine seal of approval. Harry too is God’s beloved child with whom he is well pleased.

We’ve just been through the season of Christmas – the birth of Jesus. And we’re now into the season of Epiphany at the beginning of which we celebrated the visit of the wise men, the magi.

And now, in a flash, we’re into Jesus’ adult life and at the very start of his ministry.

But I’d like you to cast your minds back a week or two to the stable where Jesus was born – to the people and creatures that surrounded the infant boy.

First of all, we have the shepherds. There were shepherds abiding in the fields watching over their flocks by night. Familiar words. It all sounds so idyllic.

But being a shepherd in ancient Judaea wasn’t quite like that. As a shepherd you were pretty much an outcast. Badly paid and out in all weathers, shepherds were positioned firmly on the bottom rungs of the long ladder of Jewish society.

Then we have the wise men. Well, let’s be honest, we don’t know too much about them but we can say confidently that they were foreigners, well educated – and wealthy, judging by the gifts that they brought with them.

So in these two groups, along with Mary and Joseph, we have a fair representation of humanity – Jew and non-Jew, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, despised and respectable. Jesus includes them all.

Finally, we have the animals. The gospels don’t actually say that there were animals present but, since Jesus was born in a stable, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that there were animals present. Where else would they have gone?

So there we have it: a cross section of humanity and some representatives of the animal world – all worshipping in their own way the infant boy. God has come to meet the world and the world has come to meet him. God and creation in unity.

So let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism.

One of the questions that faced the early church was why Jesus needed to be baptised at all. Here was someone they’d come to regard as divine being baptised by a mere man, John the Baptist, the Baptiser. Frankly, it seemed a bit odd.

And yet Jesus’ baptism is usually considered to be one of the most securely attested events of Jesus’ life precisely because the early church found it embarrassing. Why else would they include it in the gospels if it didn’t really happen? You certainly wouldn’t have made it up.

Not only can we presume that it happened, God seems heartily to approve of it. We can’t simply ignore it.

But we don’t need to brush it under the carpet. And the reason is this: God in Jesus is embodying his solidarity with us human beings and with all creation. And Jesus’ baptism expresses through action that solidarity.

There’s a totally wrong-headed tendency among many people these days to think that the spiritual doesn’t exist. They take a purely materialistic view of reality.

But, historically, there has been an equally wrong-headed tendency to despise matter, the material, and to think that only the spiritual is good. Many Christians have thought along those lines. But that split between the material and the spiritual isn’t what the Christian faith is about. It’s about the exact opposite.

For the Christian faith matter is good and spirit is good.

Jesus’ baptism is a sign that God loves the material aspect of reality just as much as he loves its spiritual aspect. He identifies with creation. God identifies with our full humanity. He doesn’t despise it. And neither should we.

We’ve been given the immense privilege of life. It has taken billions of years for the miracle that is the human body to evolve and appear in the universe. It’s something to be marvelled at. Our bodies are the medium through which life has been given to us.

So what is the baptism of Jesus about?

Firstly this: it’s about solidarity between God and humanity.

God is proud to have a son. He’s not ashamed of the human.

It’s about God identifying with matter, with the whole of creation

So the baptism of Jesus is about matter, the universe, being good.

It’s about God bringing us into union with him. It’s about God bringing earth into union with heaven.

In a few moments we’ll be baptising Harry with water and anointing him with oil. It’s precisely because there is a profound unity between the material and the spiritual that we can use material things like water and oil, bread and wine, to express the spiritual. And it’s into that unity through Jesus of the material and the spiritual and God that we now baptise Harry.

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