Baptism of Jesus • 8 Jan 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Rev. Chris Udy

Last Friday – the 6th of January -
we began a new season in the Church’s year.
The 12 days of Christmas came to an end
and the season of Epiphany began.
Epiphany is one of those many celebrations
that Christians inherited and re-interpreted
from older religious traditions -
and it has its roots in the darkness and cold
of a northern hemisphere winter.
Christians are often contrary creatures,
and much of what we say and believe
is a kind of hopeful defiance:
surrounded by material,
we affirm the Spirit,
surrounded by self-interest,
we affirm self-sacrifice,
surrounded by failure,
we affirm forgiveness,
and surrounded by death,
we affirm resurrection.
So, in the Northern Hemisphere,
when winter’s cold and grey
leaves people depressed and confined indoors
Christians celebrate God’s light and truth
revealed first in creation,
then given voice and a face in Jesus,
and still unfolding in the mission of the Church.

In Australia we’re a bit oversupplied
with light during Epiphany -
but for most people
this is still a time to think about the year just gone,
and plan the year to come -
and those are things that have to do
with the meaning of our lives -
our mission and our purpose.

Over the last 50 years
our idea of mission has changed.
Even our use of the word has changed.
It’s been picked up by companies and organisations
and used to measure performance -
so mission has come to be seen
as something assertive, competitive,
even argumentative.
It often carries suggestions of conflict
and it seems to have been claimed
by groups who have the view
that mission is aggressive
and a little bit arrogant.
Most people on a mission
are also looking for conversion -
either conversion to their product or service,
or conversion to their ideology or theology or religion -
and people intent on conversion
can often be insensitive and dismissive -
even perhaps unethical -
because they believe what they’re doing
is necessary and good.
We’ve seen people on a mission
do desperate and dangerous things,
and we’ve heard some very negative stories
about the damage they’ve left behind
on their quest for conversion -
and over the last 50 years
most of us have grown less enthusiastic
about religions, or political parties,
or companies, or people
who take up their mission
with an exclusive, aggressive and antagonistic spirit.

Today we read three visions for God’s people -
three of the foundational
invitations to mission in Scripture -
and while no-one would suggest
that the Bible doesn’t have places
where people can find support
for an exclusive and aggressive style of mission -
in these three passages
the tone is completely different.

The first is from Isaiah -
and Isaiah’s vision for God’s purpose
was deeply cherished in Israel.
Isaiah spoke of a time
when the beacon of recognition
for God’s work in creation and redemption
would shine beyond Israel
to the rest of the world.
‘Thus says the Lord’ promises Isaiah,
‘who created the heavens
and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth
and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it: ...
I am the Lord,
I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.’

The people of Israel believed
that at some time in the future,
the whole world would hear
of God's character and purpose,
and would come to honour and worship him.

They saw a time
when the Law they’d received from Moses
would be the foundation of all laws,
and when the covenant
that God had established with Abraham
would be extended
to include all people everywhere.

That day,
when the whole world recognised God
as the creator and as the source of all life -
would be the fulfilment of Israel’s history,
and that day would come
when the Messiah was revealed,
and the enemies of Israel
were finally overcome.
On that day all rulers and governors of the earth
would come to Jerusalem,
and God's reign would begin.
It would be a reign of peace and justice:
peace, because God's law would end disputes -
and justice - because God himself
would be judge and law-giver.

It was a marvellous vision -
but, over time, and under the influence
of arrogant and desperate leaders,
the vision of God’s purpose was distorted.
Israel began to expect a battle-Messiah,
who would lead them in holy war.
They thought God's rule
would be established through military victory -
and what they really wanted
wasn't so much the peace and justice of God,
as Israel's power and supremacy.

So, like all of us,
Israel listened selectively
to what the prophets were telling them.
They heard the messages
that told about power and strength
and control and victory over their enemies,
but they ignored the parts
where God said his victory
would not be by war and violence,
but by the work of a servant,
a suffering servant,
who would come to bring God’s peace.
‘Here is my servant’, Isaiah had said,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
I have put my spirit upon him;
and he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry, or lift up his voice,
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,
but he will faithfully bring forth justice,
and he will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice on the earth.’

The second vision for mission
is from Matthew’s gospel -
the baptism of Jesus.
Matthew’s account of the baptism
is based on Mark’s telling of the story,
but by the time Matthew and Luke came to write
the gospel writers were starting to have some problems
with the way they described the relationship
between Jesus and John the Baptist.
There was a growing concern in the early Church
that if Jesus was baptised by John,
Jesus must have been John’s disciple -
he must have learned something from John.
So at one time John the Baptist, and not Jesus,
must have been the source of wisdom,
the focus of authority –
the leader of God’s movement.
By the time John’s gospel came to be written
the issue was even more difficult,
so John deals with it
by leaving it out completely -
he simply says nothing about the baptism of Jesus.
But Matthew wants to tell the story,
and at the same time
he wants us to recognise the issue -
so when Jesus arrives from Galilee
to be baptised in the Jordan,
Matthew has John objecting,
saying ‘I need to be baptised by you,
and do you come to me?”
Jesus replies ‘Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfil all righteousness.’
And only then does John consent,
and Jesus is baptised.

All this might seem a bit academic,
but the point is quite important.
It seems that right from the start of his mission
Jesus was not arrogant and exclusive.
He did not demand to be number one,
and he did not expect to be worshipped -
in fact a number of times he walked away
when people wanted to claim more for him
than he was ready to accept -
and it’s very clear
that for Jesus,
the vision that formed his mission
didn’t come in a moment of desperation, or arrogance,
it came in the brightest,
most joyful moment of his life.
In his baptism,
which was a gift to him from John,
he heard the voice of God say
‘This is my Son,
my beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.’
Far from being exclusive,
or denying John’s gift to him,
Jesus then asked his disciples
to make baptism part of their mission too -
so that people everywhere
would know the wonder and joy
of being loved by God.

So - when the disciples began their mission
that was their foundation -
and in the third passage we read this morning
we read something of the vision that motivated them.
From Acts we heard part of Peter’s sermon,
which begins
‘I truly understand
that God shows no partiality,
but in every nation
anyone who fears him
and does what is right
is acceptable to him.’

‘Anyone who fears him
and does what is right
is acceptable to him.’
No claims for exclusivity,
no demand to absolute loyalty,
no denial of truth or hope or wisdom
from people who aren’t branded Christian.

The mission of the early Church
was one of joyful hope.
Jesus had not only revealed to them
the wonder and joy of God’s love,
but this suffering servant of God
had overcome all divisions and exclusions
and even defeated death -
and that was powerful good news:
a beacon of hope for everyone on earth.

In coming years
the early church would struggle
to maintain its openness and its joy -
and some of that early confidence and courage
would be drained away by people
who wanted to maintain control
and keep the gospel in the hands
of people just like them.

But over the centuries
the wonder and joy has returned,
and has burst into life again,
beyond petty loyalties and exclusivity
into liberation and justice and peace.
And wherever the wonder and joy has returned,
wherever there’s been that vision
of God’s justice and peace,
that affirmation of God’s love
and that openness to people -
even when they differ from us
in race or religion or culture -
the mission of God’s people has moved forward,
the life of the Church has been energetic and strong,
and the beacon of God’s grace
has shone out beyond the community of faith
and into a world that’s longing
to find meaning and purpose and hope.

In this season of Epiphany
we look back at the year just passed
and forward to the year just begun.
We look at the light and truth we live by,
and we plan our mission of grace and hope.

Over coming weeks we’ll do that too.
In early February
our Church Council will be meeting
to think about our Congregation’s mission and purpose,
to prepare for our planning day on the 5th of March.
You’ll remember that our mission statement
picks up some of the themes
we’ve been thinking about today:
we describe ourselves as
“A Welcoming, Spirited Community for Today”
and to be inclusive, spirit-formed and contemporary
means we regularly need to revisit who we are
and what we’re called to do.
So - I’d like to encourage you
to think about what you’d like to bring
to the life of this ‘Spirited Community’:
What is your mission?
What’s your part in God’s movement of light and truth?
Remember that your calling and inspiration
will not be in some moment of fear or desperation.
Like Jesus, you will find God’s call
comes out of your deepest confidence,
your most sustaining joy.
Remember that you
are a much-loved child of God,
and in that affirmation
God invites you to join God’s work
of love, and forgiveness, and healing.