The Baptism of Jesus • 10 Jan 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17,21-22

Rev. Chris Udy

If we’re looking for a revelation –
and epiphany -
of what it is to be distinctively Australian,
it must be January.
January’s the month
for a sunburnt country:
for heat and holidays;
for droughts and fires and flooding rains –
all at the same time.
January begins in the shadow of a summer Christmas,
when we remember what it is
to be human in Australia.
January usually means time with relatives
and we remember what it is
to be part of an Australian family.
We have more time for friends and neighbours,
and we remember our shared history, shared community.
TV’s obsessed with cricket,
which you either learn to love
or you go to the beach or the movies,
and rediscover culture of one sort or another.
The New Year fireworks and the festival celebrate
what it means to live in Sydney -
and on the 26th of January
we take another holiday
and remember that our nation
is the product of both invasion
and federation.

We are who we are
because of where we live,
and who we live with,
and where and who we came from.
Identity isn’t something we invent and construct -
it’s a gift - or sometimes a burden -
that we’re given in community.
We receive it from others -
and in January,
as we make plans for the year ahead,
and re-connect with those who share our history,
we are also reminded
of the values and symbols,
the hopes and fears
that make us who we are.

Today is the first Sunday in Epiphany –
in the season for revelations.
Epiphany begins on the 6th of January,
the 12th day of Christmas;
the day when the Church’s tradition says
the wise men came to give their gifts to Jesus -
and it continues through to Ash Wednesday,
when we begin our preparations for Easter.
Epiphany means ‘showing’ or ‘revealing’
and every year on this first Sunday
we read the account
of the revelation that’s at the heart of Christian faith:
the day we received
the fundamental statement of our identity.

As Mark tells it,
John the Baptist was baptising people
in the waters of the Jordan river -
doing something that was partly religious,
but was also very political.
John was really confronting people
with what it meant to be Jewish -
to be one of the chosen people.
Most people thought being Jewish
was like being a Smith, or being Australian -
you could either be born to a Jewish mother,
or you could ask to become Jewish,
and follow the rituals and ceremonies required
to be adopted into the nation of Israel -
and baptism was one of those rituals.
People who wanted to join Abraham’s family
followed the journey of Abraham’s people,
learning and experiencing their history
through symbols and ceremonies.
For men, that began with circumcision,
the mark of Abraham’s covenant with God,
and it ended with baptism -
crossing the Jordan river into the promised land,
escaping from slavery
and coming home from exile.

Only those who were not born Jewish
were required to be baptised
before they could be received into Abraham’s family -
before they could claim the identity and heritage
of the people of Israel.

Anyone born to a Jewish mother
was accepted as Abraham’s heir by birth -
by everyone – except John the Baptist.

But when John the Baptist appeared from the desert
to take up a post beside the Jordan
like an immigration official at the airport,
he turned that common awareness upside-down.
He said ... - it’s your heart, not your blood,
that makes you an heir of Abraham;
it’s your actions, not your relations,
that mark you as one of God’s people -
and all of you - he said to the crowds -
by your injustice, faithlessness and greed
have shown that you do not belong
among the chosen people.
Your only hope - he told them -
is to come as if you were strangers and aliens -
come like immigrants and refugees,
you need to repent, and be baptised
to be acceptable to God.

Among the thousands who heard John’s message
and came to be baptised,
was Jesus -
and according to Luke’s gospel,
when everyone had been baptised,
including Jesus,
and Jesus was praying after his baptism,
heaven opened,
and a voice came from heaven and said
“You are my Son,
my much-loved child,
and I am well pleased with you.”

Before he had done anything,
before he’d said anything,
before he’d been able to demonstrate
his faith or his wisdom or his skills,
God had claimed him as his own,
and told him of his love and his delight.
Everything Jesus did
over the next three years -
all his teaching, his stories and parables,
his declarations of forgiveness
and his determination to confront and defeat
the evil that apparently controlled the world -
all of the courage and hope and love
he released into human history
and into the community he called together
is grounded in that message of love and delight -
it told him who he was,
the much-loved Son of God -
and it gave him a glimpse of the freedom and joy
God wants for all God’s children -
it showed him what a wonder and a glory
a whole human life could be.

Most of us also draw our definitions of identity
from experiences and relationships.
We know who we are
because our history and our community
give us messages and revelations -
not only of who we are,
but also what we might be.

In some cultures
the accident of birth
is rigidly defining -
it not only imposes your sex, your language,
and your religion,
it also prescribes the schooling you will receive,
the clothes you will wear,
the work you will do,
the person you will marry,
and the place you will live.
In those cultures,
caste and class and race and gender
describe and determine the boundaries of life,
and gifts and potential have very little place.
Messages are strong and clear,
but they rarely say anything about love or pleasure -
they’re much more likely
to be messages of censure and of shame.

There are other cultures -
where children are almost left alone
to try to find out who they are
and what they might become.
Glorified advertisements
and cartoons full of violent destruction
are the closest things they get to family stories,
their most sustained contact with adults
comes in classes of twenty or thirty kids,
and no-one knows them well enough
give them honest messages of any kind.
Those children find themselves rootless and meaningless,
undefined except by the labels on their clothes
and easily convinced
that the only power they’ll ever have
will come with a knife or a gun.

Between those two extremes
there’s a middle ground
that’s much more than a compromise -
between those two extremes
there’s room for a community
that can give us both foundations and freedom -
a community with a culture
that enjoys and respects tradition,
recognising how important it is
to remember how history has shaped us,
but is also strong and confident enough
to let a new generation do things differently.

In his baptism
Jesus discovered a culture
with foundations and freedom.
John’s voice urged and insisted
that he claim for himself his family stories -
Abraham’s trust in God,
and Jacob’s struggle with God,
the strong and principled leadership of Moses,
and David’s flawed but popular kingship,
Elijah’s holiness and desperation,
and Isaiah’s vision of redemption,
these are the stories that became his history,
and showed him how different people could be.
But instead of being trapped and confined
by these family stories - his foundation and tradition -
Jesus also heard the voice of God
declaring God’s love and delight
and giving him his freedom.

Jesus then called around him
a community that would inherit his culture.
He gave them both respect for their history
and the confidence and freedom to build on it
in a new and different way -
and he welcomed people into his community
using the symbol John had reinterpreted
for the people of God - baptism.
When we are baptised
we’re adopted into the family of faith.
We inherit the stories
that defined and inspired Jesus -
they became his stories - his history;
and when we are baptised
we also inherit the life and the stories of Jesus -
they are our stories, our history,
and our sacramental theology –
our spiritual quantum physics, if you like,
says that somehow we were there, with him,
in that water,
as he was immersed in the Jordan with John
and as he emerged to hear God’s message
of love and delight.

When we’ve been at our best
baptism into a Christian community
has given people that wonderful gift
of combined foundations and freedom.
In baptism the stories of God’s people
have become our stories -
foundations and guidance for life with meaning,
with promises and heroes to inspire us
and companions to urge us on.

When we’ve been at our best,
baptism has also been a symbol
of freedom and renewal.
In baptism we also inherit stories
that serve as warnings
of how savage and how mean
ordinary people like ourselves can become
when we let ourselves get trapped
in those old divisions
of caste and class and race and gender,
and by messages of fear and shame.
When we’re at our best,
baptism is a chance to wash away
the failure and shame
of an often brutal history,
and be reborn with courage and with hope.

So - as we continue to be blessed by January,
and begin another year
of worship and witness,
we reclaim our foundations
and we reaffirm our freedom -
and as this year unfolds
I hope that you have moments
when - in one way or another -
you will hear the voice of God,
assuring you of grace and forgiveness,
inviting you to live with hope and compassion
and reminding you that - just like Jesus
you are a much loved child of God,
and God is delighted in you.