Last week we went to stay with my brother. He lives miles from anywhere in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside. That’s the way he likes it.
We always go there – rather than he coming to us – because my brother hates big cities. So he doesn’t like London and never darkens its doors. And, believe or not, he’s not even that keen on Richmond.
He thinks that you’re far more likely to find the good, the true and the beautiful deep in the countryside in a place few people have heard of than in any mere city – however celebrated.
Anyway, last Sunday we went to church in a place called Brockhampton. It’s a beautiful little church inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement – well worth a visit if you’re ever passing that way.
There were only about 12 of us but it really did feel like a sort of distillation of the universal church. It certainly didn’t feel as if there was a dearth of numbers.
In the sermon our preacher pointed something out that I hadn’t noticed before or at least, if I ever had noticed it, that I’d completely forgotten about.
It was Epiphany Sunday, so we had the story of the magi visiting the infant Jesus. What the preacher pointed out was this: when they arrive in Judea, the magi go straight to the big city, Jerusalem – the important place, where palaces are.
They’d made the assumption that that’s where the newly born king was going to be found.
But they were mistaken. This king was to be born in a stable in a small, insignificant village in a remote corner of the latest empire. Those wise men hadn’t bargained on that remarkable eventuality.
Well, the church’s year has moved very swiftly on from the Feast of the Epiphany and already – after only a week – we have come to the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.
I’d just like to home in on that little dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. John says to Jesus: I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? And Jesus responds: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.
None of the other gospels have this brief conversation – only Matthew – and some commentators have concluded that there were people in the early church who were embarrassed by the tradition – the firm tradition – that Jesus had been baptised by John, so Matthew inserted this brief, slightly vague conversation in order to justify it.
Why were they embarrassed? Because John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and why would the sinless Saviour be in any need of forgiveness?
It’s a good question. The initiative comes from Jesus, so why did Jesus feel the need to be baptised? To my mind the answer lies in the birth of Jesus, in his life as a whole and in his death – in short, in everything we know about Jesus, what he did and was.
I’ve already mentioned his birth. It is absolutely not an accident that Jesus was born in obscurity to humble parents in circumstances that were at least akin to what you might call squalor.
It’s not an accident that for 30 years Jesus lived a quiet life in a village – Nazareth – that was so tiny that until a few years ago some archaeologists were wondering whether the place had ever actually existed back in the first century.
It’s not an accident that during the time of his public ministry, as Jesus himself said, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
It’s not an accident that Jesus died an ignominious death by crucifixion – the cruellest and most degrading form of execution that the sadism of the Roman empire could devise.
It’s not an accident that Jesus came to us in the form of a servant, not to dominate or to domineer or to lord it over us as though we were merely his underlings.
The whole of humanity, warts an’ all, was the object of his service – not just the aristocracy and the powerful, not just the middle classes, not just the working classes but also those – especially those, some would say – at the very bottom of the social pile – criminals, slaves, the homeless, lepers, you name it.
That’s why Jesus felt the need to be baptised. He came among us as one of us. Not to be baptised would have set him apart from the rest of humanity and that was never going to happen.
It’s not one of our readings today, unfortunately, but some words that Paul wrote to the Philippians were in the forefront of my mind as I was thinking about this sermon.
He wrote that Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
I’ve always been a little wary of using hierarchical language when talking about God – words like lord and king and so on. They are too rooted in human life to be fully applicable to the divine life.
I suppose we must use such language, otherwise we would be in danger of saying next to nothing. But if we use words like Lord and King, then equally we should use words like Slave and Servant when talking about God.
After all it’s not as if God only became a servant when Jesus was born. God must always have been a servant in his relationship with humanity and indeed with the whole of creation. Servanthood must have been part of the divine nature from eternity.
Jesus was the instantiation in time and matter of that eternal and universal servanthood.
That eternal, universal servanthood is why we can find God in hamlets and in cities, in the countryside and the town, in the poor and the rich, in those who are loved and in those who are unloved, why we can find God at all times, in all things and in all places.