Isaiah 42. 1 – 9
Matthew 3. 13 – 17
The Baptism of Christ
On Friday we celebrated the great Feast of the Epiphany – the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. And this is the season of revelations – or manifestations.
Our offertory hymn will hammer this point home beyond any possible doubt, when we sing the word ‘manifest’ no fewer than twelve times!
But that hymn, and so much of the Epiphany-tide hymnody and art, points us to the three-fold mystery that this particular weekend explores.
First, the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, at the Epiphany; then the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism in the Jordan; and later, the revelation of his glory and power at the wedding at Cana
But as the hymn goes on to say, these aren’t the end of the revelations. Christ reveals his divinity in all the Gospel readings we will hear throughout the year; whether it’s through healing, striving for good, teaching; and, ultimately, his work on the cross.
Our faith is a faith of revelation. Our God is one who desires to reveal himself to us: to make his glory manifest right in the midst of us.
But it strikes me that these manifestations aren’t always as neat as perhaps we’d like.
The wise men, after reaching the infant Jesus, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod, in his jealousy and rage, orders the murder of all the newborn children of Bethlehem. Jesus begins his life on earth as a refugee.
And today, Jesus comes for his baptism, but John tries to stop him: he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And it’s a fair enough reaction.
Jesus is without sin. He has no need to be reconciled to his father, as they are one. So why does he go to John for baptism?
I believe it is because this God who desires to reveal himself to us, manifests his love for us through the emptying of himself. Through lowering and humbling himself. In a sense, he reveals his glory by casting it off.
And by doing so, he makes glorious those things that seem irredeemable. He gives a new dignity to our sinful humanity.
John’s baptism was about turning from sinful ways. By going through the waters before us, Jesus turned that baptism of death – death to an old way of living – into the baptism of life – entering into a new way of living, a way that leads to eternal life.
And this, for me, is at the heart of what it means for Jesus to be Emmanuel – God with us. When throughout Advent we’re crying out, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel,’ this is what we’re longing for: for our God to be truly with us; for our God to go before us through the journey of life.
He went before us through the waters to bring us to new life.
And in the same way, he goes before us through death on Good Friday, so that we too may join him in the new life of Easter Day.
But the wonder of it all, is that God doesn’t do all of this to us; he does it with us. Truly, he is God with us. Notice one very important thing about all these manifestations. They happen in small, intimate, and personal ways.
The infant Jesus was born in the obscurity of a stable, with only some shepherds for witnesses. When he revealed his glory at the wedding at Cana, only a few servants knew he had done it. And today, he goes out to the wilderness, away from the centres of power, where only a few can hear the voice of God saying that this is his beloved.
Later, his death on the cross will be witnessed by just a couple of faithful friends. Only Mary Magdalene sees him in the garden on Easter Day.
We heard of all this in the prophecy from Isaiah this morning: “Here is my servant … my chosen, in whom my soul delights … He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street … he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
Our God desires to reveal himself to us, and this is the way he does it: intimately, and gently, and insistently. As Isaiah says, he “takes us by the hand, and keeps us.”
Whether it’s his manifestations to us now through scripture; in prayer; or through the sacraments: and especially in the Eucharist, where we encounter the very presence of Christ in bread and in wine; our God desires to be with us.
So may we desire to be with him, and make room for him in our hearts, this Epiphany-tide.
Let us pray.
God of the tearing heaven, whose glory is revealed by one who is submerged in all the pain and sin of earth: give us faith to follow him, who goes to the heart of darkness, bearing only the Spirit of gentle, insistent peace; through Jesus Christ, the promised one. Amen.
(Prayer after Steven Shakespeare)