St Andrew’s Anglican Church Indooroopilly
Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday 13 January
Isaiah 43: 1-7
Acts 8: 14-17
Luke 3: 15-22
“Who are you?” ©Sue Wilton
Do you remember your baptism? Chances are, being Anglican, your memory will need to be prompted by family photographs, because your parents brought you as a baby to the church for baptism. This follows early church practices where whole families would come for baptism when the parents decided to follow the way of Christ. And maybe on that day the presider said something similar to what I say when I baptise – that your parents claimed God’s love for you and that you were welcomed into the family of God. These are important and beautiful truths, but I think the even more important teaching that is revealed in baptism homilies is that at baptism we celebrate the unique person who is now being received into God’s family, and into their lifetime vocation to become their truest selves. At the heart of baptism is a naming: not as in the name we have been given but in our naming as the beloved of God, which is the most important identity we need if we are truly to become ourselves.
Jesus’ baptism which we have in today’s text is of course a different baptism to the one we received. The baptism by John itself is mentioned almost as an aside in Luke’s Gospel; Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised…and we are to imagine Jesus lining up along with all the other candidates for this cleansing ritual. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and forgiveness, and the text seems to me to be at pains to overcome the apparent problem of John being the greater figure in this narrative. We are told that John declares himself unworthy to even “untie the thong of his sandals”- a task traditionally reserved for a disciple or slave when a male visitor entered the master’s house. John points to the greater power of the coming Messiah, predicting what sounds like a ministry of divine judgement and retribution from Jesus. We were given this section of the text back on the third Sunday in Advent, and I pointed out then that the metaphor of a winnowing fork and fire would be important images for Jesus’ ministry, even though the fire is not of the vengeful kind John was apparently anticipating. Burning away the chaff is about saving and purifying the grain- not separating the good from the bad and this is a central image for the transformative power of Jesus’ presence in the world as he lives into his identity and the ministry that flows from who he is and will be. Because of who Jesus is, and the way his identity is intimately caught up in the very being of God, his presence brings the energy of transformation and new life. Identity is at the heart of this passage- who the prophet John is, and is not, and who Jesus is revealed to be, not just by John’s words, but by the heavenly voice and the Spirit that descends “like a dove”.
For this moment of Jesus’ life is a new beginning, being recounted as it is in Matthew, Mark and Luke as the point after which he commences his adult ministry. Which begs the question, what is happening in this baptism by John that this event becomes the launch point for all that follows? Jesus may have been queuing up with all the other baptismal candidates, but the aftermath of Jesus baptism is anything but ordinary. The Gospel takes this moment to bring together the united but relational presence of God in all three persons of the Trinity as Jesus is affirmed as Son of God, beloved of the Father and marked by the Spirit’s presence. It is a moment of revealing the identity of this human being amongst so many other followers of John, and it is from this quiet celebration of identity that the mission of Jesus is launched and he sets out into the wilderness with great purpose and direction. It is as Richard Rohr states so clearly, “When you get your “Who am I?” question right, all the “What should I do?” questions tend to take care of themselves.”1
As the community of St Andrew’s we will be spending some time this year reflecting on “what should we do?” It therefore becomes important that we get the initial question right, since what we do can only flow from who we are. Anything else will not only be false- like putting on the wrong size pair of shoes- but also will be impossible to maintain. Jesus in this story is prepared for the challenges that will lie ahead by a clear and loving affirmation of his deepest identity. Since Jesus comes as the “Son of Man”, better translated “the human one”, he is not only showing us the divine way to live, but also inviting us to follow in that same way of being human. We too, need to hear the same voice Jesus heard, claiming us as the beloved, with a distinct gift for the world. Our other texts today help us to hear this same message the Divine voice would whisper by the Spirit. The prophetic words from the prophet Isaiah are words for each of us. Some years ago I undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola and my Jesuit mentor at the time gave me these verses near the beginning of the retreat to meditate on as my own, listening for the voice of God speaking these words over me;
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
These words at the time of Israel’s history come as a new and life giving word. Like a river bursting its banks with streams of water to a land that has been parched and forsaken, the loving phrases of longing and commitment are breaking what has been a desolating silence for those in exile. Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba are nations of great wealth, and the metaphor images both the lengths God would go to be reunited with the people of Israel, but also heralds a reversal of the slavery they had known in Egypt. While there seems to be a shocking particularity in this love of God for one people, when we consider the grand sweep of the story which points to the Messiah coming as a light to all the nations, we can see in these words an even greater and merciful reversal where those nations who had been oppressors would come now not to be enslaved, but to be set free. These words of a lovesick God are words for you and for me, and they can come to us like freshwater to a barren land, assuring us of our deepest identity as a beloved son or daughter of God.
Because here’s the thing. Outside of relationship, we cannot know who we are. Our self only becomes our self as we are mirrored back in our interactions with others. Sometimes, as in abusive or unhealthy relationships, particularly from childhood, what has been mirrored to us has given us false information; that we are not worthy of love and loyalty, and we can find ourselves living into that false identity and our gifts to the world will be suppressed or silenced. The only truly redemptive relationships are with people who love us as we are, and this is something for which we all long. The promise of our baptism is that we are totally loved and accepted just as we are, and this is what enables us to step into the world as ourselves, bringing the wonderfully unique gift of our self. Small communities of such authentic originals will change the world. This happens because when we receive and return the loving gaze of God, the true mirror, then we are enabled to look upon others with that same compassionate, forgiving, accepting gaze. Then we become, with Christ, redeemers of the world. +Amen
1 Rohr, Richard () Falling Upward