THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST
A Sermon preached at Hyde Church on January 13th, 2019, by Canon Gary Philbrick
Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17,21-22
The celebration of Christmas by Christians of East and West is complex.
In the West, we celebrate Christmas on Dec 25th, and Epiphany on January 6th – a concentration on the Nativity of Jesus in the first of these, and a concentration on the arrival of the Wise Men on the second. In the East, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, except that when the calendars changed from the old Julian to the new Gregorian calendar, starting in 1582, the date slipped to January 6th – so that is when many Eastern Christians now celebrate Christmas. What we call Epiphany, the Manifestation of Christ, they call Theophany, the appearance of God. For many, that also has slipped because of the calendar change, and is celebrated on January 19th.
And the Feast of Theophany is not just about the arrival of the Wise Men from the East – there are three main themes – The Wise Men, the Baptism of Christ and the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee; three ways in which who Jesus was and is manifested to the world.
In the West, the celebration of the Baptism of Christ has been a bit patchy. But from the 1960s, the time of the Second Vatican Council, this Feast of the Baptism of Christ has been celebrated on the Sunday after the Epiphany. And, in fact, next Sunday, we shall her the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee – so, over three Sundays we shall have heard the traditional three readings for the Theophany.
In the tradition of the Orthodox Churches of the East, the Baptism of Christ, which is celebrated at Epiphany, is one of the major days in the Church’s year. On that day there is the impressive ritual of ‘The Blessing of the Waters’, a tradition dating back until at least the 4th Century. It’s a slightly barmy festival, when many daring young Orthodox men brave the chilly waters to dive for a cross after it has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water – sometimes having to break the ice to do so. For his gallantry, the first man who recovers the cross is said to have good luck throughout the coming year. The day long festival also includes the blessing of small boats and ships, and later on there is entertainment, music, dancing and food to all those present. It’s a rather wonderful ceremony, celebrating a very special occasion.
So, let’s have a look briefly at the Readings we have been given this morning, and see how they are connected, and how they reflect on the Baptism of Christ.
Had we heard the Old Testament Reading set for today from Isaiah 43, we would have heard the promise that ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you’. In fact we’re going to be singing these words in our next hymn, ‘Do not be afraid’. In this passage from Second Isaiah, the Lord is promising to redeem his people. Now, ‘redemption’ has become an almost entirely religious word. But, of course, redemption is about an exchange, giving up something to get something else back. I think about the only place that this meaning is still clear is on supermarket money-off vouchers and other similar things. The voucher can only be redeemed for what it says – 10p off the price of a packet of cornflakes, or something – and you’ll sometimes see a redemption value on the back in the small print – usually .01p.
Here, in Isaiah 43, the Lord is promising to redeem his people, to buy them out of slavery, to bring them back to the Promised Land. And he is willing to pay a high price – ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you, because you are precious in my sight’. So, the Lord is promising to redeem his people, and assuring them that they will be safe when they pass through the waters. These are promises of God for us, as well as for the ancient Hebrews.
Turning to Acts 8, we have a very short passage from the early expansion of the Church from being just a Jewish Church to including Gentiles as well. It’s very briefly told, but was an enormous question for the early Church – could non-Jews receive the Gospel. I suppose to get an idea we’d have to compare it with the discussion a few centuries ago about whether Africans could be Christians; or the current debate for some people about whether gay or transgender people can be fully part of the Church. Peter and John hear that the Samaritans – a deviant group as far as Jews are concerned – that they have received the Word of God and had been baptised, they went down and ‘prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit’. They ‘laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit’.
Once again, a clear connection with the Baptism of Jesus, with our calling as the company of the baptised, and with the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
And so, we arrive at the Gospel reading, the story of the Baptism of Christ as told in Luke’s Gospel – because this is the year of Luke in our three-year lectionary.
I did, a few years ago, spend some time comparing the accounts of the Baptism of Christ in the four Gospels, but am not going to do that today – but if you have time later, you might like to read all four narratives, and see the similarities and differences.
Luke’s account is brief, especially, as in the way the Lectionary is set, we miss out two verses in the middle of the passage which look forward to the arrest of John the Baptist by King Herod Antipas.
John points to Jesus, as in the other Gospels, by saying that the one more powerful than he is coming, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.
And then, after the Baptism of the people, and after the Baptism of Jesus, when Jesus ‘was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’’.
You might like to have a look at the first image on the sheets you’ve got – ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by David Bonnell. If you’d like to, chat for a few moments with someone near you about what you can see in the image, and how it strikes you.
(The image can be found here)
You’ll notice that in our Gospel Reading Luke doesn’t actually say who baptised Jesus. He is part of a crowd which is baptised, and that after his baptism, Jesus is praying. This is one of Luke’s favourite subjects – Jesus’ prayer life. Jesus is often found praying in Luke’s Gospel – and in the others, too, of course, but in Luke in particular. And as he was praying after his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him ‘in bodily form’ as a dove. Luke seems to be emphasising that this is a real experience. It is not just a vision, or a dream, but it really happened. So Luke is emphasising Jesus’ prayer life, and the reality of the experience he had.
Jesus didn’t become God’s Son at his Baptism, as some early Christians who were considered heretical by the Church thought. He didn’t receive the Holy Spirit for the first time at this point – the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary when she conceived him, and the Holy Spirit had been with him during every moment of his life. But, in his Baptism and by the descent of the Spirit,
‘his divine Sonship, veiled behind the form of a servant, was revealed for the first time to the eyes of faith. It was the descent of the Holy Spirit that openly declared Jesus to be the Messiah. His baptism was the solemn moment of commissioning when he was shown to be the suffering servant of God, the high priest, who by offering his life in sacrifice would take away the sin of the world [John 1:36]. The anointed one, [the Messiah, the Christ], became the appointed one, appointed to act on behalf of sinful humanity with his heavenly Father.’ [The Glenstal Book of Icons, Gregory Collins, p.63]
And this is a strongly Trinitarian Feast. Jesus, the Son, is going down into the waters. The Holy Spirit descends in bodily form, as a Dove. And the voice of the Father is heard. When we were baptised, we were baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Christians are Trinitarian, in the sense that our relationship is with God as Holy Trinity, Three in One. This is a particularly strong theme for the Eastern Orthodox.
You’ll see this in the icon at the bottom of the page you have (Search for ‘Icon of the Baptism of Christ). What can you see in the image? Again, have a chat with a neighbour. Jesus is in the waters, sanctifying them, showing that he has become a part of the creation he has made and loves. The Holy Spirit is descending in the form of a Dove. And the light of the Father streams down, through the Holy Spirit and on to Christ’s head.
We can see the paradox that Jesus Christ is revealed as God through an act of submittal to a mere man, John the Baptist. Though John is baptizing Christ, it is the former who is shown bent over in reverence to the latter, but with his face turned toward heaven and beholding the miracle of the Theophany; despite being the baptiser, he is not central to the scene. Near to John is a tree and you might just be able to see that an axe has been laid at the root, reminding us of John’s own preaching to those who came to him, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘And now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire’ [Matt 3:10]. On the opposite bank to John the Baptist, angels wait invisibly to receive the newly baptized Christ and clothe him. And so, on the left is the forerunner of Christ, John, with his sermon of repentance represented by the tree and axe; on the right, the angels wait with reverence to accept the newly revealed Son of God. In the middle – the moment of revelation itself [https://iconreader.wordpress.com /2011/01/06/baptism-of-christ-the-theophany-icon/].
‘The mystery of Christ’s Baptism depicted in this icon is a powerful reminder that the Son and the Spirit are like the two hands of God by means of which he shapes and saves the world’ [The Glenstal Book of Icons, Gregory Collins, p.65].
We are Trinitarian Christians, called to live out our lives in the power of the Spirit, and in union with Christ, praying to the Father in their Name.
This is an exciting call for all of us at the beginning of this year – as this new Year begins, how are we, as individuals and as the Church in this place, to fulfil that calling. As we reflect on Christ’s Baptism, we might reflect on what God might be asking of us in this coming year. Are we being called to something new, as individuals, as a Church? Can we grow in love and service, in closeness to God? Is there something in particular we’re being called to do, which we might have been putting off? Thinking about and praying around the Baptism of Christ can help us in discerning our own calling from God.
So, I end with an Orthodox Hymn for the Theophany, which is printed on by the side of the Icon image – you might like to take the sheet home with you to reflect on these images further.
When you, O Lord, were baptised in the Jordan, The worship of the Trinity was shown. For the voice of the Father bore witness to you, Calling you the beloved Son, And the Spirit in the form of a dove Confirmed his word and sure and steadfast. Orthodox Hymn for the Epiphany.