Sunday 10 January 2021
The Baptism of our Lord
The joy of being a nobody from nowheresville ©Suzanne Grimmett
“The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the joyful messages which have gone forth because of him”
Sounds like something we could have preached at Christmas time from the pulpit, doesn’t it? Except that it is from an ancient Roman inscription referring to the birthday of Caesar.
The word ‘gospel’ (the Greek word euangelion), though thoroughly associated with Christianity for us, was common parlance for the peace that Rome, and particularly the emperor, brings. The accession to power of a new ruler was seen as “glad tidings” (good news), as was the winning of great military victories. The birth of such a ruler was glad tidings because he was more than mortal and his reign would save humanity.
Of course this kind of thinking isn’t always resisted. Human beings long for heroes, kings or gurus: for those people who can become more than human to us and save us from the chaos or confusion that accompanies the mystery of our existence. Witnessing the storming of Capitol Hill in the US this week is proof enough that any human who is prepared to claim god-like authority and rewrite the truth in line with their own ideology will not lack slavish supporters who will be prepared to take violent action.
Sometimes religion is the most convenient way humankind creates a big Other to take responsibility for the state of the world. While a Caesar was able to establish his divine right with military might, religion through history has not been shy of this approach either, nor of aligning the spiritual authority of office with power and coercive control.
So it is hardly surprising Herod became restive over the promise of a new King of the Jews. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, all the ingredients are there of a new and powerful ruler. There is the miraculous virgin birth, the sign of the star, Bethlehem the city of David and line of Davidic kings, the wise ones with their precious gifts. However, this story of promised grandeur subverts itself with the simplicity of the birth and humility of the manger scene.
The Gospel of Mark tells no such stories, but just launches into a very emperor-like announcement of “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It moves quickly then to John the Baptist in the wilderness, including the clear association with the prophet Elijah with clues provided by the desert backdrop and the costuming. Here is the prophet, pointing the way to the coming Messiah. Yet it so very quickly becomes clear that the euangelion of Rome is being completely subverted by this good news proclaimed. Instead of miraculous heroic origins or a pedigreed lineage, Mark is at pains to stress the obscure origins of Jesus who just appears in the desert “from Nazareth”; essentially the first century equivalent of saying he is a nobody from nowheresville. Jesus lines up amongst a bunch of sinners gathered by the river who were keen for a baptism of repentance. Jesus does not make himself exceptional in any way.
And then the moment of revelation. As Jesus goes into the waters and rises again, the heavens are “torn open” and we, the reader are included with Jesus in the secret information from the heavens, “You are my Son, the beloved”. Tearing open of the heavens? Really? By an unknown villager from Nazareth of all places? This use of metaphor is not unrecognisable. The prophet Isaiah says, speaking the words of longing of the people to their God;
Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down
to make known your name to your enemies,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence. (Isaiah 64:1-2)
Come God. Come and be with us. Come and revenge yourself on our enemies.
So Mark’s use of imagery is to let the reader know that the face of God has been revealed in this Nazarene, and yet in unexpected and contradictory ways. The heavens have been torn asunder and God has come down to be with them, but instead of revenge, the Christ has come to remove sin. Instead of enemies vanquished, reconciliation. Instead of condemnation, forgiveness. Here in this moment as Jesus emerges from the water, a new creation is being revealed, one not founded on retributive violence. Heaven and earth are united in one incarnate moment and the truth of the world when God is here amongst us is not what had been foreseen. The revelation of a divine king is not accompanied by the obliteration of enemies or the quaking of the earth but with the promise of a new beginning and simple words of love: You are my Son, the beloved.
What does it mean for us today that along with the motley throng from Galilee, Jesus surrendered himself to the waters of baptism? Our own baptism reminds us that we join with Jesus as a no-one from nowhere who takes on the sin of the world and yet transforms and redeems. The creator of the universe and the one who sustains it in life is working from within the materiality of our lives to heal the world. We need to rediscover our true meaning not from our social or cultural identities but from the inner lived reality of the Spirit. But this does mean allowing our own ego to be dislodged from the centre by being people of prayer who open ourselves to being reborn again and again. It means that we have to die to ourselves if we are to be raised to new life in Christ as a new creation. There is no way this central message of Christian faith can be avoided. At Easter, there will be offered an opportunity for a renewal of baptismal vows as a way of witnessing to the new thing the Spirit may be bringing to birth within you.
If we come to church believing that we are to be made better than others, or will be protected from the pain of the world, we are misguided. We are to express the same humility and solidarity with all humankind that is found in Christ Jesus. We are not going to find the perfect king, guru, or even the ideal almighty deity who will let us devolve responsibility for our lives. Jesus calls us to join in becoming a nobody from nowheresville, taking our identity not from the power that the world would give, but from the power of love. We, like Jesus, are invited to recognise ourselves as the beloved children of God, bearing with him the responsibility for the work of the ongoing creation of the world. We are called to let our defences down as he did, to stand in solidarity with the sin and pain and fear of humanity, but at the same time entering into communion with the heart of God which is love, joy and peace. Our baptism means that we are people of both realities, bearing God in amongst the chaos of life on this earth.
How can this be? It is impossible if we continue to conceive of God as the man above us in the clouds, looking down on all we do. But the heavens have been torn and separation is at an end and God is not one but a trinity of love. Malcolm Guite expresses beautifully what is revealed in the poem “The Baptism of Christ”;
Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
Can you hear the calling and keeping and kindling of the self that is uniquely you? Erich Fromm has said that we should make of our earthly lives a study in work and love. I believe that is the invitation of our baptism, and it does not come with a rule book. The only way we can simultaneously inhabit both the chaos of this world and the joy and peace of life in God is if we recognise it not as a system of beliefs but as a dance, and give ourselves to it with all the passion we can muster. But this day reminds us that the one who is the beginning and the end is at home within and amongst us and the dance is a divine one. The poem concludes;
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.