Introduction to the reading:
An epiphany is a moment when we suddenly see with absolute certainty and clarity, and are completely convinced of that truth in that moment. It is usually a truth about character or motivation, and as if a lens is wiped clean, we suddenly see a defining aspect of someones character, or even our own. This penetrating insight, even if is momentary, takes hold so deeply in us that we cannot ever again pretend not to know it. And so it has a pivotal effect on us, because we are touched and changed by what has been revealed to us.
We call this part of the church calendar between Christmas and the beginning of Lent the season of Epiphany. Traditionally we revisit in these weeks all the epiphanies of the Magi, the shepherds, Anna and Simeon in the Temple, all touched and changed by what they saw in the baby Jesus. We recount them because the gospel writers offer all of these as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, before they ask us to listen to their stories about him.
But we hear only one event from Jesus life between infancy and his decisive move into public ministry, thirty years later. Only Luke mentions that as a 12-year old, Jesus lingered to talk to the teachers at the Temple after Passover. We are sometimes led to believe from that conversation that Jesus had lived from his earliest childhood with the knowledge of his role and calling, his ministry and all that would happen to him. There really is nothing to support that.
If we can lay aside that idea, we will hear in todays reading that when Jesus comes like many others to be baptised by John, he experiences his own epiphany; something deep within him is cemented in place and shapes who he becomes, and the life that he leads from that day on.
The reading: Matthew 3: 13 17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?
15 But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness. Then he consented.
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Remarkably, Jesus baptism is recorded in all four gospels, each account differing slightly, but all of them sure that some convergence of the holy and the human took place, something definitive was determined, and it would be significant far beyond the moment.
One writer describes it like this: The world stops. Water, the very essence of life from vast ocean to desert oasis splashes on Jesus. The dove, literal or symbolic, hovers. Witnesses, one or a thousand, feel their hearts flutter with hope.
On a very human level, allow me to compare it with the heart-stopping moment when my son proposed to his girlfriend, at her 21st birthday, in front of sixty people. With no dramatic build-up, he simply put the question to her as he made a short birthday speech.
There was a collective intake of breath, and an absolute stillness, and we almost seemed to have slipped into another dimension, so intensely aware were we all of the life-changing significance of the moment. Happily, we could all exhale and resume normal breathing in what was probably only a matter of seconds, but is remembered by all of us as a period of time standing still. Happily, again, she accepted the proposal and they enjoy a fulfilling life together.
Jesus baptism and the response from heaven was recognised as a moment of life-changing significance, not just for him, but for all whose lives were touched by him. He is acknowledging his identification with the will and purpose of God which has been forming within him over time, just as it does with us. Now he claims his vocation, and in response, receives divine affirmation that will strengthen and focus his energies from now on.
Something happened, not just on earth, but at a supernatural level. If you have ever experienced such a moment you will know how difficult it is to find the words to describe it. Usually all we can do is look around, see from the light in their eyes that other people know it too, and call it the Holy Spirit.
Not everyone feels this at the time of their baptism, but if we come to baptism as adults, we come in faith, making our own commitment, and sure that we will experience Gods welcome and affirmation in his own time. Those who are baptised as infants are brought in like faith by their families and communities, and confirm their intention to live in relationship with God when they are able to do so with understanding. And we can attest that God does affirm our commitment to him no matter when or how we make it.
Like many other people who declare a commitment, Jesus is subject to testing. We can call this temptation, or second thoughts, or simply a fuller realisation of what our commitment to God might mean. Like many people, Jesus wrestled with and answered the temptations or doubts, and it was not until he had come through the time of testing that his ministry began.
From then on, he was fully engaged in working to fulfil what we might call the charter of Gods hopes and promises for humanity. The commitment that led Jesus to baptism persisted as he gave himself completely to teaching people how to live, to responding to people with compassion, to healing them, forgiving them, and calling forth their own faith. He never wavered. He lived his life for us, and even now, his life is familiar to us and essentially interwoven with our own. Jesus lives in all of us.
Why spend this time reflecting on Jesus baptism, when more often we read it just as a fore-runner to Jesus real work of miracles, wonders and sacrifice; for the good reason that baptism is one of the mysteries that bind us to God, and God to us. Nobody can claim to understand baptism in its fullness, any more than we can claim to understand Holy Communion or anointing. Like the other sacraments, its a mystery, a gift. The joy of baptism or confirmation is that its a human ritual that declares how much God loves us. Anyone not baptized or confirmed is not loved any less by God. But the one who is baptized or confirmed has a momentary party, a celebration to help us remember that a loving God created us, and welcomes our participation in his life.
In the United Methodist Church in North America, one of the phrases used in preparation for baptism is: "do you accept the freedom and power God gives you . . ."
That, I think, points to what lies at the heart of baptism, and why it is a life-changing ritual. We come to an awareness of what commitment to God means by different routes. Some come willingly, eagerly, some apprehensively, and some, as C.S. Lewis described himself, kicking, struggling and resentful.
An atheist and Oxford intellectual, Lewis was not seeking God. He tried hard to convince himself that God didnt exist. The conviction about Gods existence was something of a fright to him. He wrote in Surprised by Joy: "Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about mans search for God. To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouses search for the cat."
Why do we sometimes resist God? Perhaps our reluctance reflects how underdeveloped is our sense of identity as Gods children, agents, servants or co-workers.
Perhaps it is because we recognise from Jesus life, that it is a call to a life of activity. Once we have recognised God, we know ourselves to be recognised by God, and we know ourselves to be involved in humanity and Gods activity amongst humanity. And we have to learn how to live with the wonderful and terrifying prospect of taking up the freedom and power God grants us until it becomes our natural way of functioning in the world.
We have to overcome our fear and timidity in the seemingly impossible task of setting the world to rights in all the arenas of life that Jesus addressed; speaking up for the poor and oppressed, speaking into the fears, lies and hurts that distort our lives. Jesus didnt fulfil Gods need for a mechanistic process of sacrifice and salvation. That idea came from the theology of the medieval Archbishop, Anselm of Canterbury, 1000 years after Jesus ministry. Jesus fulfilled Gods impulses of uplift, restoration, healing and enlightenment. It is those Godly impulses we open ourselves to, and allow them to become our own priority and work in the world.
Today, we remember the continuity of our baptisms with Jesus baptism and the continuity of our self-identification as followers of Christ with all who have come from different traditions, experiences and callings to open ourselves to the life and presence of God within us.
We are all Gods beloved, and no act of ours can nullify Gods grace in loving us. But it is through remembering, and the renewal that flows from remembering that we become, over time, conformed to Gods vision for us in new and evolving ways. It is through remembering, and the revelations that flow from remembering that we become conformed to the fullness of Jesus in using the power and freedom that God grants us.
We remember that the Christian life is founded in grace and divine affirmation, calling us to live with Jesus joyfully and actively, sharing the grace weve received, out of the abundance of knowing we are Gods beloved children.
Hymn : 470 Rejoice in Gods saints, today and always