Sermon Sunday 12 January 2020
Baptism of Jesus
Lessons Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 St Matthew 3: 13 – 17
Prayer of Illumination
Bless our meditations. Through the written word may we encounter the Living Word. Amen.
Jesus arrived at the Jordan. In the Tanakh, in the Old Testament book of Joshua, the Hebrew slaves, having wandered through the wilderness for forty years finally arrived at the River Jordan. For two days, the people camped by the waters’ edge. Early in the morning on the third day, by the command of God, Joshua stood in the river and, for a time, the flowing waters of the Jordan stopped. Joshua led the people across the dry riverbed into the Promised Land. 156 miles long, the River Jordan runs north-south through the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius) and on into the Dead Sea. For the people of Judah, the very descendants of the Hebrew slaves, and for Jesus the Jordan River was a sign of new life, new beginnings, a life shared with God. Jesus arrived at the Jordan.
Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist, John the immerser. In the carefully crafted faith narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, no sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than He saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending upon Him like a dove; the dove alighted on Him. In this mystical vision, Jesus heard a voice from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight’. In the Jewish tradition, this voice from heaven, bat qol, is the merest whisper of a voice; an intimate breath. The Matthean author portrays the encounter of Jesus as a personal, tender, inward moment. There is no claim that what Jesus saw and heard was witnessed by anyone else. Silent prayer, a cultivation of inner stillness, is surely a pinnacle of the Christian life. Is the story of Jesus’ baptism, Jeshua’s baptism, a moment of spiritual awakening, a widening of awareness and a deepening of His consciousness?
In our reflective reading and meditation on Scripture, it is important to engage with the text imaginatively. It is important to hear what a first century Jew or Jewish Christian would hear. Jesus saw the heavens open and had a life-changing vision of a descending dove. In the Book of Ezekiel, in the opening verse of the first chapter, we read of the calling of the Old Testament prophet: the heavens open and the prophet saw visions of God. The voice from heaven said spoke of a beloved son. There is only one other place in which beloved and son are used together: it is the story in the Book of Genesis and the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham. Whatever else that dramatic and distressing story is about, it centres on new life, a new beginning, and a life shared with God.
In His vision standing in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus saw the dove descend and the Spirit of God alight on Him. We see this same resting of the Spirit on the leaders of Israel, the judges of earlier generations: Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson and King Saul. What might we say of the dove? Why a dove? In the whole of western Asia, doves were prominent symbols of love. Doves were used in the ancient Canaanite religion and the Greek goddess Aphrodite frequently appeared in statues and pottery holding a dove. In Judaism, in the story of the Flood, it was a dove carrying an olive leaf back to Noah which signified that land had been found. It was a sign of life, new life, a new beginning. This same sense of a new beginning is seen in the practice of the Early Church; the first Christians used a symbol of a dove and olive branch on their tombs. Here in St Columba the emblem on our glass doors into the Centenary Aisle and on our magazine features a dove. Columba, Colum, means ‘dove’ and in Irish Colum Cille means ‘church dove’. With imagination, let us have a sense of the dove, the Spirit of God, descending and alighting on us: on this community and on each of us.
In the National Gallery of London hangs a painting of the Baptism of Christ by Peiro della Francesca. It is a splendid depiction of the moment of Jesus’ baptism at the hand of John the Baptist. The sky is shaded light blue with cumulus clouds spread across most of it. The baptism takes place in the River Jordan under the shade of a fig tree in full bloom. To the left of the scene, three angelic figures look on in amazement. In the background, two or three others are undressing and preparing for their own baptism. Jesus stands in the middle of what is a narrow river with John beside Him. While the Baptist gently pours water over the head of Jesus, a white dove hovers delicately, depicting the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the very centre of the painting, Jesus stands tall, His hands held together in prayer and His eyes are focused inwardly. Describing this intimate moment, the hermit nun, the late Sister Wendy, says:
Jesus is totally folded in on Himself, aware only of the
Father and the Father’s love, and its significance. This is
what we long to be in prayer: one who is utterly given,
stretching out beyond the immediate to the absolute reality
Standing in the middle of the Jordan, the water around Jesus’ feet has withdrawn. Jesus stands on dry ground. The painter, della Francesca, is honouring an old legend that the water of the Jordan felt unworthy of the Presence of Jesus and withdrew. In this fifteen-century work, Jesus is utterly caught up in prayer, in His sense of the absolute reality of God. Allow yourself to be drawn into that scene: feel the presence of Jesus, the dove, the waters and the calm serenity of Jesus’ soul. This is Scripture at its best: it is a doorway into the Divine.
Jesus was a mystic, a Spirit Person, a man who for whom the experience of the Presence of God was a frequent, everyday encounter. Jesus saw through the world of matter into a different world, into the human soul and the Soul of the universe. He had a supreme sensitivity to the Sacred. della Francesca’s painting captures this truth.
The writer, Anne Lamont, suggest that Christianity is about water and getting wet; a good everyday image for Ayrshire! Lamont says:
In baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree
to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time
it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender….it’s a
willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.
The next time you are walking in the rain, let the water be a sacrament to you; a blessing, a sign of the Spirit of God, of the Holy One around you, the Eternal who gives you and every living thing life. The story of Jesus’ baptism is, in part at least, about new life, a new beginning, a new shared relationship with God. The reformer, Martin Luther, the professor of theology, priest and monk who lit the touch paper of the Protestant reformation, would emphatically say to himself, ‘I am baptised’. In danger and whenever he was under threat from church authorities, whenever he faced struggles in his life, he firmly and boldly reminded himself, ‘I am baptised’. For Luther, baptism is the unshakable assurance of God’s eternal, unconditional love for us; it is a sign of God’s eternal hold upon us.
Discipleship, or following Jesus, is not so much about being informed as being transformed. It is letting His Spirit of Peace fill our souls. Life can be really hard, incredibly difficult and terribly testing and in the heat of a crisis or stressful situation, it can be almost impossible to secure a sense of calm. Strength for the spiritual journey, for our pilgrimage, is about stealing time, even fleeting moments, to turn our attention to Jesus, to the silent presence of the Holy One. Birds, such as swallows, drink on the wing. If that is all we can manage at times, be thankful for it. At other times, maybe we can stop, stand in the rain and allow ourselves to be spiritually drenched.