The Baptism of Christ

A New Year’s Resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other. I wonder where you are with yours? Or maybe you don’t bother anymore. I do bother. I think there’s something quite profound underlying the New Year’s Resolution: the human longing to be better. Better in any one of a hundred different ways: fitter, happier, healthy, more productive, easier to live with, whatever. It’s a sign of an imagination that things could be different in our lives, and an effort to make that change. The New Year’s Resolution is annual hopefulness.

Surely as Christians we’d want to say that desire to be better is a good thing. But doing it in our own strength can only get us so far. As Mark Twain said: ‘I don’t know why people say it’s so hard to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times myself.’  Making a real lasting behavioural change is not at all easy. Doing it in our own strength is very hard but the power of the Holy Spirit can make a real difference. God can work with us to make change possible.

Take as an example Alcoholics Anonymous. That programme is pretty good at helping people in a serious fix and several of their twelve steps recognise the importance of depending on a greater power or God. This is something they do, not so much because they hold a pre-existing theology but from a recognition that it works.

Christians might also ask: ‘Why do you want to make a particular resolution? What is it that’s driving you? And is that driving force healthy, or a problem?’ For instance if someone wants to go on a diet because they cannot accept themselves as they are, then they need to hear that God loves you as you are. Often though it’s a case of knowing that God loves us as we are, but also that he loves us and those around us too much to allow us to keep being grumpy or doing that bad habit.

That desire to be different, the hope of becoming a better person, and the recognition that we need God’s transforming power to do so lie at the heart of today’s gospel reading.

We need to make a few imaginative leaps to enter into the gospel. We need to leave behind sodden England where we have too much water, and imagine what it is like in dry dusty Palestine, where water is a precious life giving resource. Baptism is about life.

The second thing we need to remember is that the people who responded to John the Baptist really believed that God was about to arrive. They genuinely expected God to intervene very soon. The God of the Old Testament who had parted the Red Sea, defeated the Egyptians and the Philistines, the God who had worked miracles and raised the dead was about to do it once more. They are thinking God will put the world to rights, he will judge and destroy evil, things will never the same again. As John the Baptist preached in Chapter 3 verse 2: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.’

This isn’t some kind of general belief about some far off indeterminate point in the future – ‘one day over the rainbow’. No, they believed that God was going to act very very soon. In the next few months. So they got ready. I wonder: What would you do if you knew God was coming?

It’s a thrilling prospect, but at the same time, I’d want to be sure of being on the right side of God when he comes. I’d want to make sure my life is sorted out so I’m not swept away with the evildoers.

That’s where they were coming from, and when you think about it, it’s not such a strange idea. John the Baptist preached the coming of God’s Kingdom and he was right because as v.17 says God did come in Jesus. Our situation is not as different as we might think. The Bible tells us that Jesus will come again in heavenly glory, which could be at any time. And of course, there’s not that much difference between God coming to us, and us going to God when our time comes. Who knows when that will be? So it makes sense to be prepared.

But how? Many of those people who came to John were religious people. They had been trying hard for all their lives to keep the Old Testament Law, doing their best to obey God and be good. And yet, when it came to the crunch they found that didn’t give the certainty they needed. Maybe they knew their failings, that there were things they’d done that needed to be forgiven. They probably also had the spiritual sense to realise that trusting in God’s mercy is a far more reliable option than trusting in one’s own efforts.

And so they prepared for God’s coming by repentance, humility and casting themselves on his forgiveness, all summed up by the simple, dramatic, self-emptying symbol of baptism.

Two things really strike me about the way John baptised. Firstly it was public, in a huge crowd. Understandably nowadays some families who want a baby baptised will get a bit shy about making the promises in front of a full church and ask for a private event. Occasionally congregations feel a bit overwhelmed by crowds of friends and family and wonder if baptisms might be better out of the main service.

But baptism should be public. It’s nailing your colours to the mast, affirming what you believe and declaring that you build your life on the rock of Christ. So baptisms should be when all can hear, and it means a lot that the congregation is there to support the family. Looking beyond baptism, it can be helpful for mature Christians to be similarly accountable to one another – to share in small groups or with a supportive spouse the things that challenge us, the parts of life we’d like change so that others can support and ask how it’s going with the resolutions we’ve made.

The second striking thing is how humble people had to be. Rich Sadducees and poor farmers waded into the Jordan side by side. Voluptuous prostitutes and weaselly tax collectors admitted their need of God together. Brawny soldiers humbly dunked under the water.

However grand someone’s place in life, they look similarly undignified when wet and muddy in the middle of a stream. Baptism is a great leveller, and yet as we get older in the Christian life status, position and the contribution you make can seem to creep back in. It’s so important that we remind ourselves frequently of God’s grace and our need of him. That’s why, at a baptism service, the congregation may join in with the promises – so we remember they apply to us too.

So if that’s what baptism means, how does John react when Jesus comes to him? ‘I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me.’ It’s like giving a lecture on the life’s work of David Attenborough and finding the great man in the audience – come up, I’ll shut up, take over, we’ll listen to you. Imagine if Attenborough then says, no, I’d really like to hear your tips on how to make a wildlife documentary.

It seems wrong. Jesus, for whom they were waiting, wants to be baptised. Jesus, who is sinless submits to baptism. He says in v.15 ‘Let it be so now for it is proper in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’

He identifies with us, being baptised as if he were a sinner. Just like at the end of his earthly life he dies on the cross as if a criminal. Although he did no wrong, Christ submitted to the consequences of human sin as if he himself were responsible. The mystery of the cross, reflected throughout his life, is that (in the words of 2 Cor 5:21) the sinless one becomes sin for us, the innocent one stands in our place and takes the penalty so we may go free. Throughout his life there are signs of this, and being baptised is one of them: he identifies with and saves sinners.

For Jesus, being baptised was not about turning from a bad life to a good one. It was about committing himself to God’s will, a path that would lead him to the cross. God the Father recognises and affirms this dedication, sending the Holy Spirit to bless Jesus and empower him. The Holy Spirit comes on the sinless Christ, not as purifying fire but as a gentle dove of peace.

It is often God’s way. In our own lives, a greater acceptance of God’s direction, a yielding to his will, often results in a deeper filling with the Holy Spirit which enables someone to serve and live for God and others. That is a kind of resolution, but it is a resolution to live God’s way.

I started by thinking about the New Year’s resolution and that’s where I’ll end. Those annual attempts to do better can point us to a deeper truth: that a true personal transformation can happen through the power of God. That change will begin to happen when we are humble and acknowledge our need, when we ask God’s forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit to fill us so we can be what we should be. Wholeness and growth will happen as we depend on Christ, who identified with us and was baptised for us.





Were the Wise Men wise?

The most brilliant and unusual Christmas card we received this year was a ‘Where’s Wally’.  For the benefit of those who haven’t been stuck in a waiting room recently, Wally is a tiny cartoon figure who hides amongst hundreds of other similar looking cartoon figures populating a complex landscape. Finding a clean shaven chap wearing a Santa hat amongst a hundred inch high bearded Santas is surprisingly difficult.

That Christmas card came to mind as I thought about today’s gospel. It’s traditionally known as the story of the three wise men, but finding wisdom in this story is a bit like looking for Wally. The wisdom is in there somewhere, but there are a lot of other things that look a bit like it. This passage gives us plenty of snapshots of worldly, flawed, wisdom, and in doing so it asks us: what is true wisdom?

The Magi are the scientists of their day. They track the movement of the stars and the course of the planets, they can predict the phases of the moon and the date of eclipses. But they are also steeped in mystical arts, so when a strange new star appears, they believe it has a meaning: it announces the birth of a Jewish king. V.2b.

God uses this star to draw them to the Messiah. We can see the Magi as an example that science and art can work together with faith. The mediaevals called theology the ‘Queen of the Sciences’. I never really understood that as a student biologist. How could theology shed light on genetics or molecular biology? Surely it was better for religion to keep to its own area and not interfere with scientific enquiry?

I now understand that worldly wisdom finds its true glory and its best place when working with the Creator. Bad science is arrogant, murders to dissect and manipulates the natural world. Good science helps us to be humble. A true appreciation of nature should foster wonder in us, and a loving stewardship of creation. Guided by sound ethics, good science can improve the world. Science and faith can work together.

The Magi hint at this, but rather like an Oxford don trying to park a car, when it comes to practical matters the Magi are less assured. They show a real naïveté when up against the cunning of Herod.

This puppet King is as crafty as a fox. Perceiving a threat to his throne, he finds out where the Messiah is to be born. He then deceives the wise men, pretending to be open and wishing to pay homage when in reality he is a vicious lion ready to pounce and kill. His ruthlessness in eliminating a potential threat, his sly manoeuvring to achieve his aim, portray a cynical, brutal form of wisdom. The self-centred wisdom of a dictator. Herod shows an earthly wisdom of which Macchiavelli might have approved, but which does not show the fear of the Lord.

Leaders are often told that leadership involves tough choices. That is true. Maybe a company has to make some workers redundant if the jobs of the rest are to be saved. Political leaders still make decisions of life or death. We must pray for them, for the burden of such decision making must be agonising. And if it isn’t agonising, if it isn’t painful to dismiss someone or decide healthcare priorities, then something has gone wrong. Compassion and mercy must be part of those decisions, and that applies for those of us who are employers just as much as for the government.

The rhetoric of ‘The buck stops here’ can be used to excuse brutality or justify personal advancement. The tough exception can easily become the rule, which is why those of us who make hard decisions must always remember the human cost of them. It’s when you’re hardened against the cost that the decisions are made too easily and become bad.

If Herod’s wisdom is not a good example, perhaps we will do better with the priests. And yes, they know many things. They know helpful things, they know the way to the Messiah. In v.5 they advise: ‘he will be born in Bethlehem of Judea’. They can even give chapter and verse, with a quotation from the prophet. But they don’t go!

Every Epiphany I am still incredulous! I’ve been preaching for 15 years and every time it still stops me short. These men knew where the Messiah was to be born, they had been studying the Scriptures all their lives and supposedly waiting for this moment. And yet when it comes, they do not go. They’re not interested in seeing what God is doing, or if they are sceptical they lack even the intellectual curiosity to go and see. Would any of us stay with our books, hearing what they’ve just heard? Please don’t say yes! Lord have mercy if we ever become like them!

The chief priests and scribes of the people remind us that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge is about facts, wisdom is what you do with it. It’s been shown that people’s way of thinking is actually changing because of the internet. We are getting better at surfing – picking up information, absorbing it, searching for nuggets. We are getting much worse at analysis – thinking, making our own minds up, dealing with complex arguments.

And even if we do take more time to ponder something, knowing the right answer is still not wisdom. In the Bible, wisdom is about doing the right thing, it is putting that knowledge into action. Although the priests knew the truth, they lacked wisdom because they did not act upon it. The sad case of the priests challenges us: are there things we know we should do that we do not? How far do our actions match up to our beliefs? Are we wise, or just knowledgeable?

To find true human wisdom, we have to go beyond the passage set for today. In verses 13-15 the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee because of Herod. Joseph is wise, for he hears the voice of the Lord, and when he does, he instantly acts upon it.

We might guess at the previous life of prayer which enabled Joseph to recognise God’s voice, or the habitual obedience to God’s word which enabled him to drop everything and go.

Joseph also points us towards the wisdom of God. For this is a fascinating passage, full of echoes from the Old Testament. A man named Joseph hears God’s word through dreams, and travels down to Egypt – where have we heard that before? It’s parallel to the story of Joseph with his coat of many colours – he too heard God in dreams and ended up in the land of the Pharoahs. And then like the Old Testament people of Israel at the Exodus, Jesus will come out of Egypt, so that as it says in verse 15 ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.

What does this similarity mean? In this passage there are moments of direct prophecy, like the prediction of the Messiah’s birthplace, and also moments which seem to be more like echoes of what has happened before. A sort of symbolic pattern, pointing to deeper meanings. It’s important because the same principle carries forward into the future. So the coming of the wise men fulfils the prophecy that Gentiles would come and worship, and of course we will all have heard of the symbolic significance of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

I do not believe these resonances are accidental. It is as if the story is suggesting that the wisdom of God continues. Despite the contingencies, the accidents of history, human cruelty or folly, somehow despite all this God’s plan carries on and is not derailed. God’s mysterious wisdom somehow weaves a path, works despite, maybe even through the mess, to bring about his purposes.

For me that is the most encouraging thing about this gospel, that God in his wisdom is in control. And that therefore true human wisdom lies in the fear of the Lord – the willingness to be open to him and to align oneself with what he is doing. This passage challenges me on the limitations of human wisdom – while affirming our abilities it places a definite boundary on what we can achieve. And it reassures me that, though I get things wrong and cannot discern the future, yet true wisdom lies in following Christ, being open to his guidance, and allowing God’s plan to be fulfilled through us.