In the Name...
There was once a preacher planning to go on holiday but, he didn't want the congregation to miss his wonderful sermons. So, he got the idea to record a few so they could be played in church while he was away. Well, he was dissuaded from this brilliant plan by his board of elders when they reminded him that their church did not approve of artificial in-sermon-ation.
Well, despite that joke, we did have some lovely and moving services these past couple of weeks. And today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord by John at the Jordan.
This is quite a turning-point event in the Gospels because here it is that Jesus' quiet life in Nazareth ends. Here it is that Jesus loses his anonymity. Here it is the Father proclaims from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved." From this moment on, Jesus must be, as he had many years before said to Mary and Joseph, about his Father's business. The ministry of the Christ begins today.
But, what else was going on down there that day? Why were all those people there in the first place? What did they find to attract them from the villages and cities for miles around to a river bank in a wasteland? They found a man they called a prophet of God. A man who preached a one-word message - Repent -and who offered them a ceremonial washing to symbolize their commitment to make a new start in the way they lived. John the Baptist called people to make a break with whatever worldly lifestyle or sinful habits they were following and lead a new life following the commandments of God. And the most amazing thing is that people did just that. And not just one or two.
Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, publicly admitting they had problems and needed to make some changes. Can you imagine that? People, today, don't even want to confess in private. Imagine having an audience! And the Gospels tell us who they were. Worldly tax-collectors and religious Pharisees; soldiers, aristocrats and common folk; rich and poor; all driven by a realization that however full or busy they tried to make their lives, they were lacking in what really mattered. And so they came to find forgiveness for the past and purpose for the future. And Jesus came with them.
Now, John knew who, and what, Jesus was. Even before either of them had been born, he had leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when the pregnant Mary had visited. So, he was shocked, to say the least, to see Jesus there among a crowd of people motivated by the need to confess their sins.
Why was the sinless one, the one whose sandals, he said, he was not worthy to carry, the one who was going to bring a new kind of baptism which would be more than a ceremony, the one whom he would call the Lamb of God, why was he there? Well, John couldn't have begun to understand how Jesus would go about his saving work, but, key to it was understanding, as Jesus said in another place, that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick and it was among the sick, the sick of heart and soul, that Jesus came to establish his identity and begin.
Christmas showed us that the Saviour came into the world. Epiphany showed us that the Saviour came for the world. And the Baptism shows us that the Saviour has come to be with the world. The name Emmanuel means 'God with us' and that is the good news. God is not high up and far away, remote, aloof. He is where he is needed with those who need to find Him. But, are we where He can find us? Are we where He can find us?
Do you remember in the Epiphany story that while King Herod's Bible scholars told the wise men where to find the Messiah, not one accompanied them to Bethlehem to check it out? The lesson there is that possessing the truth is of no use to us unless we also act on it. Today, we need to be aware of another warning. It's fine that Jesus identified himself with us, but, are we willing to identify ourselves with him?
If we had lived two thousand years ago, for example, would we have been there at the Jordan? The people who were there went with a certain purpose and intention. They had looked into their lives and found a gap existed between what they were doing and what God wanted them to be doing. And if we're honest we know that same gap exists inside each one of us.
But, a lot of people today are content with how they live. A lot of people fall into the trap of comparisons and thank God they're not as bad as everybody else. Other people pretend the gap isn't there at all, or they see it, but say, well it's not as big as it looks, or that it's not really that important. That's true today and it was true back then, as well.
Yes, a lot of people went to the Jordan, but, a lot more didn't. Many of those were content with their lives and ridiculed the ones who made the trip. Others, perhaps, didn't see the need to disrupt their daily routine or were afraid to be seen with the wrong crowd. And others were just in denial, inwardly tortured, refusing to forgive themselves for things past, but, unable to take the first step to healing.
The prophet Isaiah once spoke of someone whom God would take by the hand and make a light to the nations. Of course, that refers to Jesus, but, it also refers to us.
From the moment of our own baptisms, we began our lives in a very special sense. Remember when we used to use the phrase "Christian name"? That meant something. It meant we lost our anonymity in the world and we were registered in heaven. It meant we began a life of ministry. We joined in the work of bringing light to dark places, hope to the hopeless, freedom to those bound in prisons of denial. And we can perform this ministry best if we remember that sometimes that means we have to go places and do things which are not very safe or respectable.
Oh, yes, there are some strange people on the banks of the Jordan, but, that's where God is. That's where we meet Our Lord. Are we there yet?
In the Name...