Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
10th Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
“He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him”. Matthew 3.12b.
The Church’s calendar beats to theological time, and this morning as we behold the Baptism of Christ we seem to be a long way from the Magi and the Bethlehem stable. Things then felt ‘Christmassy’. But now, within the space of a few days, all is changed. The Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry reveals a God-shaped destiny.
The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. The Gospel account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. The scene offers an icon for the Holy Trinity. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism God is leading both Jesus and all of us in the one call. This call tells us that we are Baptized not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in relation to others too.
One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine but in fifteenth century rural Italy amid Tuscan hills, and with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.
How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that in Jesus Christ our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now The Church invites us to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, to do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives.
But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. The Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptized into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent. The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to God ‘til death’. This is quite a challenge. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:
The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us: not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and even with revolution when the need arises.
The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks, the explosion of Jesus’ entering in on the human scene, is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that the Epiphany glory is not one of fantasy, but one which would set us on a very particular course. I know this, Matthew knew it and no less than the Holy Trinity agrees with us!